WHEN I ARRIVED in Ukraine two years ago, I had my doubts about ever being able to communicate effectively in Russian. With its harsh, rolling Rs and its loose structure, it’s easy to write the language off as impossible.
I knew nothing more than da, nyet, and na zdaroviya before coming to Kiev, and even then I didn’t have the inflection right. But my Peace Corps language teacher assured me I’d be holding conversations in Russian within a month. This, she explained, would be the only way to earn the respect of the people here and ensure a rewarding experience.
Of course, she was right. Being able to speak Russian has opened doors for me that otherwise would likely have remained closed. It’s true that eastern Europeans can be cold people. But they’re usually that way only with people they don’t know well, and especially with foreigners who are unable – or unwilling – to communicate in the language of the land.
Here are eight essential tips for learning Russian:
1. Begin at the beginning, then put one foot in front of the other
Get your basics down solid right from the start. With Russian, this means learning the alphabet. Though any English speaker will recognize a number of characters in the Cyrillic alphabet, most of them will be assigned different sounds. Н, for example, represents the English n sound, while р denotes a rolling r. The rest will look, well, foreign. There are 33 letters in all, some of which will be difficult to distinguish between at first.
Find a good beginner program. Free Language Courses has free downloadable lessons, including the Princeton Russian Course, filled with .mp3 files and .pdf documents for listening and reading practice. I used this in the past and found it very helpful.
If you’re a Mac App person, try Innovative Language Learning’s Learn Russian – Beginner. The app’s interactive lessons are easy to follow and the grammar points are good for explaining the particularly confusing parts of the language.
However you do it, make a point to learn the alphabet as soon as you can, concentrating on phonetics and accent. This will make all the difference in communication.
While we’re talking about the basics, you really need to be able to conjugate verbs. If you can’t, your ability to converse with people will be greatly impeded. Write each form of the most common words out on pieces of paper, and post them on your apartment walls, above your desk, or on the refrigerator. Practice them all the time.
2. Find a conversation partner, live with a host family if you can
Wherever you are, find a conversation partner. There’s no substitute for practice with a native speaker. Contact local universities, search online, ask around town. In my experience, university students are more than happy to help in exchange for a bit of English practice.
Better yet, if you don’t mind roommates, live with a host family. My first three months in Ukraine were spent living in a three-room apartment with a family of four, none of whom spoke English. Your language abilities will improve dramatically when you’re forced to practice. Plus, the cultural experience you’ll gain during your stay will prove invaluable if you should decide to remain in the country longer.
The Nova Mova Russian Language School in Kiev is a good place to begin your homestay search.
3. Say yes to invites
Despite the cold glares on the street, Russians are extremely warm people inside their homes. If invited to a party or for tea, you’ll be pampered with their best food and entertained with their favorite stories. It’s a great chance to enjoy Russian hospitality at the same time as honing your comprehension skills.
So say yes to invitations from friends and acquaintances. In my experience, immersion is definitely the best method for learning Russian.
4. Keep a pocket notebook and pen on you at all times
My vocabulary would probably have remained at a sixth-grade level if it weren’t for my friends. It’s probably safe to say that I learn at least one new word each day just by conversing with them. So that I don’t forget any of these words, I keep paper and a pen on me at all times. A notebook also comes in handy when you can’t remember what that strange food was your friend made you try before. Don’t want to eat it again? Look it up in your notebook. “Aha! Holodyets – meat jello. No, I do not like this.”
5. Watch and listen to Russian films and music
For me, the most entertaining way to study Russian has been to watch Russian films and listen to Russian music. The MosFilm Channel on YouTube has been a goldmine. You can find some films which already have English subtitles hard-coded. Otherwise you’ll have to do some searching around YouTube to find versions with English subs. One of my favorite shows is Служебный роман, or Office Romance.
For music, check out Far From Moscow. The site hosts electronic, rock, pop, and dance music from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and further afield, most of which is free to stream and download. The site is in English for easy navigation, but if you want to challenge yourself you can switch to Russian.
Both these sites will help you develop your language skills, but will also provide you with conversation starters for when you meet your friends. If you want more, check out MTV Russia and MTV Ukraine, also good places for a fun audio-visual learning experience.
6. Start a hobby
Like cooking? Learn to prepare some cultural dishes, and invite friends over to sample them. Into music? Pick up the bandura or classical guitar and learn some traditional songs. Good with your hands? Handicrafts such as weaving, knitting, and painting, are all popular in the Russian-speaking world. Immersing yourself deeper into the culture will help you to become more comfortable speaking the language.
7. Get out of the city
Just like in the English-speaking world, people in different parts of the Russian-speaking world speak with different accents and in different dialects. A good way to expand your knowledge of the language and practice conversational skills is to spend a holiday away from the city. In the suburbs and rural areas, where there are fewer English-speaking people, you’ll have to rely more on your Russian abilities.
8. Interact with friends on Vkontakte
Vkontakte, which literally means “In Contact,” is Eastern Europe’s answer to Facebook, dominating Russia and Ukraine as well as the other former Soviet-ruled countries. Ukrainians and Russians are quick to add English-speaking friends, and can be very helpful in providing conversational practice. A lot of the slang and colloquialisms I’ve learned have come from my interactions with acquaintances online. In some ways more valuable than the writing practice is the peer editing you’ll receive from your pals.
A few online resources
- Princeton Russian Course
- National Capital Language Resource Center Russian webcasts
- MosFilm Channel on YouTube
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Chris Miller is a journalist, adventurer and Peace Corps volunteer from Portland, Oregon. He resides in eastern Ukraine, where his limited Russian language skills get him into some amusing situations. He blogs at www.borderland-chronicles.com.
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