On my old website about Moscow, I wrote an in-depth post about how I went from 0 to C2-level Russian in 3 years. Maybe that’s why I sometimes get questions about how I learned Russian, if I have any tips to learn Russian, and occasionally people even ask me to teach them Russian. I’m not too modest but I forward those fellas to a native speaker, who’s more qualified to do that. However, I can give you a few tips on what I’d do if I had to do it all again.
Step 1: Buy a coursebook
I’d first forget about Duolingo and all the other edutainment apps. They’ll teach you something but they won’t be the most effective way by a long shot. Instead, I’d get a good old-fashioned book that I can work through more than one time.
I personally had to use Colloquial Russian and would recommend that. I remember some of the texts being a bit…out there (something about healthcare for beginners??), but it has a lot of texts that show you language in context. I would actually use the same series if I were to start another new language.
Step 2: Learn the alphabet
This should be self-explanatory since it’s the first thing you have to do when learning Russian. First, you need to, well, be able to read the letters. This is surprisingly easy since many letters are the same as in the Latin alphabet. I’d get a side-by-side comparison of the two and start writing down a bunch of letters to connect visual and haptic learning. Listen to how they’re spelled and repeat. Then start practicing by writing out simple words or names and family names. It really shouldn’t take more than an hour or two.
Step 3: Use the book
Now, the actual work part begins. If you’re using Colloquial Russian, the book gives you two dialogues that introduce elementary expressions and questions. Listen and read along, then do the exercises. Then go back and listen again and do the exercises again. When you think you got it, you can do the exercise one more time (no joke).
English speakers find the case system and the pronunciation notoriously hard, so I strongly recommend not moving on to the next chapter before you know the first one inside out. You should know the dialogues and the underlying languages that is taught (Who are you, where are you from etc.) pretty much by heart and be able to have a conversation with yourself in the mirror. There’s no point in doing something else before you haven’t mastered the basics.
Step 4: Listen to the exercises and the listen some more
There is no amount of listening that’s too much. In real life you won’t have subtitles below the person that is talking to you, so how well you listen determines how much you’ll be able to understand and, in turn, communicate.
No matter what book you’re using, you need to understand every single word with and without text. You probably remember some poems or prayers from your schooldays, which is a testament to how well excessive listening and repetition of a text works. By doing that, you’ll be able to retain the grammar that is taught initially and learn through imitation and repetition of what you’re hearing. This is the exact same way a child learns a language.
Step 5: Read out aloud and shadow
While you’re at it, you should also read out aloud the texts that you use and shadow the pronunciation as closely as you can. This would be the only stage where feedback from another person would be helpful, although you can self-correct by recording yourself and comparing your version to the original. Depending how sharp your sense of hearing is, you’ll be able to tell the difference or not. I personally wouldn’t get anyone to correct my mistakes because that would take valuable time away from other tasks that you have to accomplish. However, reading out aloud should feature in every learning session until you start speaking.
Step 6: Find 1 alternative podcast and listen to it religiously
If I haven’t made clear how important listening is, I am repeating myself now to hammer home the point. Besides the audios you get in the book, you should complement that with a podcast that you can use when you have downtime. That podcast shouldn’t be too demanding, something easy like Russianpod101 will do. The purpose is to keep the language present in your mind at all times and get used to other voices than the ones you’re already used to hearing.
Step 7: When you get to A2, get a teacher and start speaking
The input method I am advocating implies that you’re not actually speaking Russian to another person for a long time. Just like a baby doesn’t speak the first time someone talks to it, you’re supposed to internalize a lot of language before it’s time for speaking. If you follow the above steps and put in the time (could be 3 months, could be a year), you’ll eventually reach around A2 level just by reading, listening and talking to yourself.
At this point, you will find that talking to yourself isn’t doing it anymore. That’s when you get a teacher on a platform like iTalki. You’ll be able to cut down on the reading out aloud practice to almost zero and replace it with real conversations.
Step 8: Start using authentic material
This is also the time when you’ll drop the basic podcast that you have been using and switch to something like Russianprogress in order to use authentic materials. Depending on your talent and skill level, this might or might not feel like a big step up for you. The upside is that you’ll be able to learn with these materials instead of just using them as a supplement. In theory, you can even cut out the book and just learn with authentic materials. However, I’d recommend against that because inevitably your grammar gaps will get bigger and bigger and that will impede your ability to make yourself understood.
At this point, I’d probably split my time 50:25:25 between speaking, listening to authentic material and book work.
Step 9: Start messaging girls
This might sound like a joke but it’s anything but that. I vaguely remember how much Russian I actually learned through messaging back and forth with girls (it was a lot). This will teach you real-life Russian and, unlike with a language exchange, you actually have “skin in the game”. You’ll quickly find out that many expressions repeat themselves, which will allow you to have more elaborate conversations over time. Voice messages are a fantastic complement as well and I’d recommend using them too.
Step 10: Use Russian in real life
After you bought and worked through the book, listened to a ton of podcast episodes and videos, spoke with your iTalki teachers, and spammed a ton of Russian-speaking girls thanks to your Tinder passport, your Russian will be decent enough to use it in real life. If you’re diligent, consistent and not entirely incompetent, I’d say 1-2 years of consistent work is enough to have a level that allows you to sustain a free conversation with a native speaker.
At that point, you should get your ass on a plane to a Russian-speaking country and use the language as much as possible. You’ll probably find that your level is much lower than what you thought it would be and that you don’t understand as much as you expected. That’s normal since classroom conversations and messaging cannot replace real-world interaction. You’ll get used to it quickly though. Congratulations, you are now conversational in Russian.