View Full Version : How to learn Russian: a summary for expats.

28-10-2003, 16:08
I had a look at some of the postings on learning Russian and decided to venture my opinion on this subject.

I speak fluent Russian and have full mastery of the case system. I have worked as a translator and now work in a mainly Russian-language environment. Here, in a nutshell, are my recommendations for learning the language.

- Buy Murphy's English Grammar and spend a month learning how English works first. People from the UK and US generally have a poor understanding of their own language. How are you going to learn another language if you don't really understand how your own language works? A harsh (but fair) comment.
- Buy 'How to Pronounce Russian Properly' - a priceless cassette/cd which will give you the pronunciation building blocks. Under no circumstances should you put yourself through the unnatural vocal contortions espoused by any English-language book on Russian. These take English sounds as a starting point and try to get you to modify them into Russian. You will never do it. What you will do, though, is end up with a really odd way of speaking. I have never seen one book in English which adequately explains hard and soft consonants (please tell me if you know of one). Thus, English speakers talk the way we do.
- Have a look at Russian grammar, but don't do your head in over it. Just get the lie of the land.
- Get a phrase dictionary (frazilogicheskii slovar') and regularly learn phrases THAT YOU NEED and their English equivalents.
- Buy a book on a subject you are interested in and read aloud, preferably with a trainer, a few pages each day.
- Try translating texts into Russian. It's hard, but worth it. Get them marked by a trainer and keep doing new revisions till you and your trainer are happy that the text is perfect. Memorize the finished article - it will be easy by this point...
- Watch films and TV. It won't help you speak. It will help you understand.
- Hang out with Russians and insist on speaking Russian with them - not as an interlude between rounds of English, but as your only means of communication.
- Don't worry about mistakes. Don't expect people to let you talk. I liken a conversation in English to tennis (two players, one ball passed over the net) and a conversation in Russian to rugby (20-odd players all running after the ball and pushing each other out of the way). Get used to it - and push back.
- Buy Wade's Russian Grammar and learn what you need on a need-to-know basis. If you do 15 minutes of it a day you'll cover it.
- Choose Russian friends.
- Marry a Russian and speak Russian at home. This, believe me, is the real way forward, but I accept it isn't for everyone, and fluency can be achieved without it - but you'll have to work harder. Alternatively, move into a Russian flat-share.
- Don't 'translate' in your head. You can acquire a working language with this method, but it is exhausting and you will never get above a certain level (and always sound strange).
- Don't get too hung-up on what dictionaries say. It all depends on what YOU want to say... context, convention.
- Listen to what Russians say and steal phrases. Collect them.
- Join a club/class (karate, origami... not important) and learn something new in Russian.
- Collect 'joining phrases' (v to vremya, kak | po mere togo, kak etc) and learn how to use them
- Collect 'blagging phrases' (these will help you seem to say something while you are, in fact, thinking of something to say), for example: nu, vot | vot tak vot | da, da, vot imenno - there are loads
- Remember: just because you are speaking Russian doesn't now mean that you have to speak in totally perfect prose. Russians don't. You can give up on sentences half way and leave out cases (especially with numbers). Watch what Russians do to simplify their lives. You can do this too.
- Learn 5 perfect phrases every day and review them and stamp them into your brain. If there are 5 words to a phrase, that equals 9000 words in one year. That's 9000 words with perfect usage, grammar and context. That's where your phrase dictionary and favourite book are going to come especially in handy.
- Don't look up every word you don't know. Look it up if you need it. Then find a phrase which includes it and LEARN THE PHRASE. Learning individual words should be a last resort.

This is the best advice I can give in eight years of learning the language. I hope it helps.

28-10-2003, 16:32
Think it would take eight years to read all that crap you wrote.

28-10-2003, 16:35
Fa-Q off

28-10-2003, 18:26
Originally posted by Lokh
I had a look at some of the postings on learning Russian and decided to venture my opinion on this subject.

Verryyyy interesting stuff, Lokh ! ;-)))) Thanks. ;-))))

Way English is taught in the UK (I`m an ex English teacher as well) is - you may be surprised - totally unreliant on grammar terminology. I started having a look at TEFL - which goes into great detail about sentence construction and grammatical terms- and though "What ????? " I learnt most of that back in primary school - and it was never taught after that. I can just not speak a language if I have to run through a pattern of rules in my head before a sentence comes out - I find myself thinking too much about construction of the sentence, rather than actually speaking the language, which should be... a natural reflex process. Actively thinking about the construction is not something a native speaker does - he just speaks. ;-))))))

I agree with nearly everything you say - I think the best way to learn a language is - total immersion (as we saw with MoscowMail) - in at the deep end. And let it become NATURAL. ;-))

Oh God, you have put your finger on the pulse there.... pronunciation, my really weak point. :-)))))) Thanks for that.... that`s the first REALISTIC explanation I`ve seen in YEARS. ;-))

28-10-2003, 20:18

An excellent synopsis and guide for the foreigner who wants to learn Russian. There have some really good suggestions from various members of this site, but yours seems to be the most concise and decisive of the lot (including my own suggestions :-))

Broadmoor Bob
28-10-2003, 21:58
Do not forget to learn street language. That is the best cover for lack of proficiency in any language :).

29-10-2003, 11:01
Thanks for your comments and feedback, guys! On the point of street language, I agree, but with the caveat that you need to know where to use it. You don't want to turn up at an interview and say: "Privet, chuvak! Kak delishki? Baba u menya doma prosto zaebala." Well, not unless you're very sure of your ground ;-)

Thankfully, there is a whole new generation of dictionaries coming out, less grey, less arduous and more relevant than their Soviet predecessors. On the current topic, Broadmoor Bob, I don't know if you've hit on the 'Slovar' russkogo zhargona'. A great one to flick through. Your Russian friends will like it, too.

I say there is still a distinct lack of a total course for foreign learners of Russian. Loads of stuff for 'nachinayushikh' but precious little for intermediate and advanced (as a general rule the material gets drier and less interesting the further you go). Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a full course, a la Headway or Longmans to take you right to advanced level, complete with cassettes and pair-work exercises and writing and shiny pictures... If anyone has come across one, please let us all know...

05-01-2004, 23:57
Lokh's remarks are invaluable to me!

I've sent him a private mail (since I don't know how likely he is to refer back here) asking where the cassette / CD "How to Pronounce Russian Properly" might be available.

Has anyone seen this CD recently? Any tips, hints, or directions appreciated! :bookworm:


06-01-2004, 10:52
Lokh, you de man,

Great advice, I have emailed you


06-01-2004, 12:18
I heard that the best way to learn Russian is to get a Russian girlfriend that speaks no English!

06-01-2004, 12:18
Lokh, ty Lokh, blya. Zasranets ebany.

10-01-2004, 15:10
Does anyone of you have experience with superlearning couses? if yes can you comment?


10-01-2004, 15:27
some great insight into learning the language and some good home truths about people too.
Well worth the 3/2 minutes of my time to read it.

10-01-2004, 15:40
excellent piece Lokh. Just what this site is all about.

11-01-2004, 19:13
Collect 'blagging phrases' (these will help you seem to say something while you are, in fact, thinking of something to say), for example: nu, vot | vot tak vot | da, da, vot imenno - there are loads

I know quite a few Russians who can not stand the word "nu". "nu" - That's the way one encourages a horse to move. It's such a meaningless sounds. (For blokes a simple test would be to try and "encourage" a Russian girlfriend to do something nice for you - just add a "nu" to your request a few times - see if you get it...)

Please don't learn "nu" in Russian.