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How to Feel Autonomous When Learning Tolstoy’s Language

By Jon, published on 10/05/2019 We Love Prof - AU > Languages > Russian > How to Be an Independent Learner of the Russian Language

Russian speakers in our capital city are so numerous that it has been inofficially renamed Londongrad. If you live in Moscow-on-the-Thames – another nickname for our most diverse city, you may even include  a number of Russian speakers in your circle of friends.

Or perhaps you don’t, yet, but would like too… and soon!

Should either of those assertions fit you, the thought has probably crossed your mind to learn how to speak Russian. In fact, you may, at this very moment be wondering how you could go about doing so – without necessarily resorting to taking Russian language lessons in a formal setting.

We’re fortunate to be living in the digital age because independent language learners have access to so much study material!

Let’s explore the tools and resources that those learning Russian find particularly useful, especially if they’re learning without the benefit of a teacher or tutor…

Why Learn Russian?

Russian-trip Do you have a planned trip abroad? Have you thought of Russia?

You might have several reasons to learn Russian. Some of the more common motives cited by those who wish to learn Russian as a second language are:

  • It is the 8th most spoken language in the world: with 260 million speakers, it is the official language of Russia but also of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is one of the Slavic languages ​​also used in Georgia, Armenia, the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, but also in Israel
  • To find work: Since 1999, Russia has reappeared as a major player of the European and world economy. But that’s not all: the Russian middle class is developing and starting to travel and even relocate – to wit, the large population of native Russian speakers in our country. Speaking Russian can be an asset in the tourism sector if you are looking to work in Russia or at home,
  • To discover a rich culture: Russian literature and its many authors (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky …), the Bolshoi Ballet, to explore the rich treasures of a bygone era at The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg or the lovely architecture of big cities such as Moscow.
  • To visit a Russia that is off the beaten path: if you are satisfied with touring the big cities in Russia, English should be enough to make you understood – but not always. However, if you wish to ride the trans-Siberian Railway or discover Russia’s less well-known parts, there will be little chance to communicate with the locals without speaking even basic Russian
  • As a personal challenge: learning a new language is a real challenge, especially one as radically different from our native tongue as Russian is. If you aim to surpass yourself and succeed in accomplishing a feat few others would undertake, learning how to speak Russian would certainly fit the bill!

Do any of these reasonings strike a chord with you, or do you have another, more personal reason for learning Russian?

Maybe you’ve traced your ancestry and discovered you have a Russian heritage? Or perhaps you’ve made some really good friends – maybe even a love match, and you wish to honour said associates by learning their mother tongue.

Whatever your reasons, we admire you! You’ve set yourself on a journey of discovery that will most certainly enrich your entire life.

We admire you even if you don’t have a specific reason for wanting to learn Russian. 

Learning to Speak Russian On Your Own: Repetition and Regularity

Of course, when you start learning a foreign language, you have to start with the simple things. In spite of your eagerness to learn, you should avoid plunging headlong into the most complex rules of Russian grammar lest you discourage yourself in the face of its complexity.

Learning the Russian Cyrillic alphabet is the first step in the right direction.

In spite of its obvious differences with the alphabet used in English and other romance languages, the Russian alphabet is actually easy to learn.

For example, you could group letters of the Russian alphabet into four categories: the ones that look and sound the same as in English, the ones that look the same as in English but sound different, the ones that don’t look like any English letter but have familiar sounds and, finally, those that neither look nor sound familiar.

Once you’ve mastered the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, you could, in theory, plan your first trip to Moscow. Knowing how to interpret Russia’s unique writing system will permit you to at least understand all the street and shop signs.

And then, all you would need to do is plug those words into your translator or look them up in your Russian phrase book and, voilà! You are navigating the streets of one of the world’s most fabled cities independently!

It may seem daunting to learn this new alphabet, with all of its strange symbols and sounds, but doing so serves a dual purpose.

In English, the pronunciation of a word may not be clear from its written form – how can ‘would’ sound like ‘wood’ but be written in such a complicated fashion? By contrast, in Russian, nearly all of the words can be sounded out as they are written: no silent letters or dropped vowels to remember!

Another aspect of the Russian language that makes learning it easy is it ‘one letter, one sound’ rule, meaning that every letter in the Russian alphabet keeps its tonal quality regardless of the letter combinations it presents in. Compare that to English, where two letters often make one sound -‘sh’ and ‘th’, for example, or vowel combinations such as ‘ea’ or ‘ie’.

In spite of the relative ease, at least from  these aspects, of learning how to speak Russian without taking Russian lessons, you would nevertheless require great motivation and a lot of work. It will be necessary that your learning become a part of your routine; an everyday event… hopefully, without it becoming a chore.

Learning a little bit every day is much more effective in the long run than only studying two hours a week on Tuesday, for example.

How a Tomato can Shape Your Quest

University student Francesco Cirillo was having a hard time focussing on his work. A brash young man at university, he knew there was so much more excitement to be had than reviewing textbooks.

He came up with a unique method to manage his study time: he set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes. When that chime sounded, he would get up, walk around, maybe talk with his roommate – but only for five minutes, after which he would reset the timer for another 25 minute interval and hit the books again.

Thus the Pomidoro principle of time management was born, so named for the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that that innovator used in college.

The word “Pomodoro” means “tomato” in Italian. As you know, kitchen timers – tomato-shaped or otherwise can be set for 25 minutes; coincidentally the average length of focus and concentration most people have at their disposal.

Today, the Pomidoro technique is used at all levels of business, popularised by countless apps who will track those blocks of time for you.

Why not apply the Pomodoro technique to your Russian language study time?

You could work diligently for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break… but only 5 minutes! You might consider setting the timer to indicate the end of your study break, too. Once seated at your desk again, set that alarm for another 25 minutes and stay focused on your work anew.

The ideal work schedule is to study for two or three 25-minute sequences a day, but if your schedule allows you only one, do not be discouraged, the Pomodoro method will still work for you. Your learning will just take longer.

If you are a fan of all things digital, there are several Pomodoro apps you could download; if you’re of a more streamlined bent, you could simply set your phone’s timer: Timer #1 represents a Pomodoro – a unit of study time; Timer #2, would be your break time.

regular-work To avoid forgetting and in order to deepen the notions you have already learned, you must work regularly.

Warning: Dangerous Curves Ahead!

Another important element to consider in your quest for mastering the Russian language is the forgetting curve. As you acquire Russian vocabulary, for example, you have to think about revising and using it as soon as possible in order for that word to enter your long-term memory.

One trick for you is memory flash-cards with the Russian words on the front and the English translation on the back.

When revising recently-learned vocabulary, you might separate those cards into three piles: one for words you have no familiarity with, one for words you can recall but not necessarily use, and for words you know and use correctly. With this system, it will be possible for you to enrich your vocabulary very quickly.

Adding pictures to your cards can make them a lot more memorable.

In cognitive psychology, there’s a concept called the Picture Superiority Effect which describes how people tend to remember imagery a lot better than they remember words.

When we think about it from an evolutionary perspective, this makes complete sense.

The ability to visually distinguish which foods were safe to eat and which animals would want to eat them was far more important to early humans’ survival than seemingly abstract squiggles on a clay tablet. Thus our brains became hard-wired to process and retain imagery over writing.

Homo sapiens have been trotting around the globe for over 200,000 years but written language has only been around for about 5,000 years. Seen from that perspective , it is easy to understand why our brains evolved to be more sensitive to imagery than writing.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be DaVinci in order to make attractive flashcards to optimise your learning; Quizlet allows you to perform that function digitally, even providing an extensive library of stock photos to adorn your virtual cards with.

The Quizlet application then goes further: challenging you to type those words either in English or Russian, testing your on your retention ability and sorting your cards into those three piles mentioned above.

Quizlet is just one application that makes learning Russian easy and fun; next, we’ll introduce you to a few more utilities to maximise your exposure and use of your burgeoning Russian skills.

Learning to Speak Russian with the Help of Digital Tools

Learning Russian online quickly is easy and can be done practically anywhere! All you really need is your smartphone or tablet and any of the language learning apps you want to download.

Babbel, perhaps the best known language learning application, would be a good choice to start with; it consistently receives positive reviews and has been downloaded over a half a million times!

As with everything,  this app has its good and bad points; the main one being that it comes with a fairly steep price tag. If you were hoping for more cost-effective apps for language learning, this would not be it.

However, there are plenty that do provide learning tools and resources at a more reasonable rates and some at no cost – like Quizlet, mentioned above.

Far be it for us to make up your mind for you, though! Here are a few language learning apps of varying costs that can help you progress with Russian vocabulary.

app-russia What is the best app for learning Russian?

1. Memrise

Available on iOS and Android, Memrise offers 200 languages including Russian. Its technology adapts to your learning abilities and algorithms tailor future lessons based on the results you achieve as you progress through the course.

As we mentioned earlier, revising vocabulary over a period of time is the key to good memorization. The application takes care of that aspect of language learning for you by throwing up words you’ve previously studied into the current lesson.

It’s possible to create your own courses with virtual cards as well as challenge other people online in order to get motivated.

Memrise is free for download and your first lesson will be at no cost. As you progress through that trial lesson, your will be encouraged to subscribe for more lessons or pay for a set number of lessons upfront.  

2. MosaLingua

Learning vocabulary from everyday life is essential when planning a trip to Russia or going to work there. Thanks to their efficient and addictive method, MosaLingua helps you memorize Russian words and expressions in record time.

The application is available on iOS and Android but can also be used on the computer with its web version. On their site, you will find:

  • More than 2000 flashcards,
  • 14 major categories,
  • More than 100 subcategories,
  • Learning tips,
  • Grammar rules,
  • The audio pronunciation of words,
  • 10 levels of difficulty.

What we particularly liked about this app is MosaTraining: a fundamental course that provides tips, tricks and tools for learning any language.

Perhaps the reason you’ve decided to learn Russian on your own is because you dread traditional language classes: grammar, conjugation and endless drills… this language training not only supports your decision to learn in a non-traditional way but actually helps you do it!

This training is priced outside of the standard language course fees you would pay after your introductory lesson.

3. Anki

Also available on both your mobile or computer (Mac or PC), the application offers flashcards with text, sound. and images. It’s simple, just download the utility and select your desired language pack – Russian, of course! As you study, you will get to take short tests (1 minute or less) to help track your progress.

Over time, you will notice a change in your statistics. The application will tell you which cards (containing words or phrases) you know best; that way you can avoid wasting time reviewing words you already know.

Note: Anki is a free language learning utility!

4. Duolingo

If you were looking for a completely free app to learn Russian with, Duolingo would be it. This app plays like an addictive video game until you realise you’re getting some serious learning in!

Spaced repetition learning has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to learn anything, languages in particular. The folks at Duolingo ran away with the concept, creating an engaging, easy to use interface that is most effective.

They boast that anyone could learn a language in as little as five minutes per day. You, the serious language learner, will probably find yourself spending more than one Pomidoro flicking back and forth across your screen.

Why not watch Russian language video channels? You may use video channels to learn Russian Source: Pixabay Credit: 200 Degrees

Video Courses to Help You Learn Russian

YouTube is far more than just a place to watch videos; it is a veritable treasure trove for language learners! There are so many channels you could subscribe to that will help you practise Russian pronunciation; here we highlight a few of the more popular ones.

RussianPod 101

There are Pods for many languages and the Russian pod follows the same format: first an introduction to the language, followed by a few simple words and an explanation of the Russian alphabet. Throughout the series, you will be mentored by two hosts; one of whom is a native speaker of Russian.

The massive collection of videos on their homepage can be somewhat confusing; we would recommend you click on the ‘playlist’ tab to find that video collection arranged by topic: commonly used Russian words, Russian for holidays, and Russian reading practice and others.

What is absolutely fantastic about this channel is that it also hosts a live, 24/7 broadcast.

Rather than selecting a particular video set for active study, you may listen to this broadcast as you go about your household chores: doing dishes, washing clothes or dusting.

Listening to Russian as you go about your day can speed up your learning of the language by giving you passive exposure to it. Just like immersion learning, the more you hear the language, the more you will pick up… until soon, you recognise entire phrases – just from listening!

Real Russian Club

Another fantastic channel for anyone studying Russian on their own! Daria starts her video course from absolute zero: if you can’t so much as say ‘yes’ in Russian, this is the channel meant for you!

Daria’s videos are longer than typical language learning videos; in fact, at around 45 minutes each, they last almost as long as a standard language class!

Still, she covers a lot of material in each session and, if you are in fact sold on the Pomidoro technique, you can always pause the lecture to have a nice stretch and a bit of a walkaround.

Amazingly, Daria’s videos garner praise from native Russian speakers for the way she lays out language essentials and explains mechanics. What better recommendation could a video channel have?

Weekly Russian

Especially if you are just starting out your language learning adventure, this would be a great channel to subscribe to. Natalia particularly targets this group of learners with two playlists dedicated to Russian for Beginners.

If your trip to Russia is imminent, you may prefer her ‘Survival Russian’ playlist!

Here too you will be treated to spaced repetition and spoken Russian – slow enough for even the most self-conscious beginner to be able to distinguish each syllable.

Each video lasts under 10 minutes; the perfect nugget of time to take in new information from 2 videos and make notes before your Pomidoro is up!

3 Websites to Learn Russian On Your Own!

There are different ways to learn Russian without taking a language course. Russian lessons that will teach you Russian expressions are available online, and often for free.

Easy Russian

To learn how to cope with everyday situations or to improve your Russian language level, the Easy Russian website offers real online courses with:

  • A level test,
  • A beginner’s course,
  • Exercises and tests,
  • Courses with audio,
  • Review material for the Russian SAT Subject Test,
  • Russian grammar,

With this site you have the possibility to have 30 minutes of free lessons with a native teacher.
You will also find a virtual Russian keyboard (Cyrillic keyboard) in order to progress with Russian writing too.

Hello Linguo

Hello Lingo is the direct legacy of LiveMocha, which closed last year. Hello Linguo is based on the same concept: language exchange.

Finding conversation partners is one of the most effective ways to practice a language for free to improve your language skills. Indeed, the biggest problem for those learning a language at school or who are self-taught is how to practice it and speak it orally. It is indeed not easy to practice a foreign language orally, especially when you are unable to travel.

The design is very modern and the site also offers mobile access. The site’s advantages are:

  • Your correspondent is a fluent Russian,
  • It’s one way of discovering Russian culture,
  • One can also share his or her interests in order to find a correspondent with the same interests,
  • You will learn the true Russian language with its jargon and slang,
  • Language exchange is the best way to learn a language in immersion.

It is necessary to register on the site to access the platform, but once you have registered, it is free.

Master Russian

You will find many lessons to learn Russian on your own, here. From declensions to personal pronouns to oral comprehension and some slightly less serious articles, MasterRussian.com has great ways to learn Russian in a fun way:

  • How to speak fluently without having to talk to Russians every day,
  • What do Russians want and need,
  • 20 expressions to know if you are beginning in Russian,
  • Are you having trouble with grammar? Here is the difference between the perfect and the imperfect…

You will understand, with a little help, that it is quite possible to learn Russian without taking Russian courses, strictly speaking. I’m not saying it will be easy, but it’s possible!

Last Advice If You Want to Learn Russian On Your Own…

cell-app There are many ways to learn Russian on your cell phone.

Watch movies in Russian. There are a many Russian film masterpieces to watch. At first, use English subtitles then switch to Russian subtitles to finish watching the movie in the original version.

Read in Russian. Whether it is reading newspaper articles, children’s books, or the most difficult Russian literature (in a bilingual version to begin with), language learning should involve some reading.

Another tip: invest in a good Russian-English dictionary or use an online dictionary in order to avoid cluttering your home. As soon as you see a word you do not know, do not hesitate to look for it and write it in a notebook that will help you remember it.

Consider a Tutor

No one is faulting your determination to learn Russian on your own. With all of the tools, utilities, channels and websites available, there is a good probability that you will succeed in your quest.

The point of learning a language is to communicate… isn’t it?

While anyone could learn Russian in a vacuum, your language skills won’t truly be tested until you engage in conversation with someone who speaks that language.

Besides travelling to Russia and surrounding yourself with native Russian speakers – and if you don’t live in Londongrad, your next best option would be to find someone, online or in person, to converse with you.

To that end, learning platforms such as Italki, Live Lingua and Amazing Talker have tutors on the rolls, ready for you to reach out and connect with them.

Although each site has its own premise and guidelines, they all function in essentially the same way: you select a teacher, schedule your lesson and, at the appointed time, log in to the platform and away you go! The fees vary from one platform to another; with some, the tutors set their own rates while others set the rates and pay their tutors as though they were employees.

One tutor exchange that is decidedly different in its approach is Superprof.

With a Superprof tutor, you know what you’re getting upfront because each tutor builds their own page, listing their credentials and experience, and declaring which method of contact – via webcam or in person they prefer. Note: most Superprof tutors will be happy to come to yours or meet you online, as you prefer.

Something else Superprof tutors gladly do: offer their first hour of lessons at no charge, so you can see if that Russian speaker is truly right for you.

there are more than 800 Superprof Russian tutors scattered throughout the UK. Surely one must be close to you? If not, how about meeting them online for a nice conversation, once a week?

In short:

  • Learning Russian can seem complicated at first, but with a little organization and a lot of motivation, it is possible to get there without the help of anyone.
  • Regularity and repetition are your best allies for learning Russian on your own: half an hour a day is more effective than an hour every week.
  • Use all the media you can to progress quickly: applications like Memrise, websites like Easy Russian, or movies in the original version, all means are good if you are looking to improve and acquire new vocabulary.
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