How to learn Russian.

…because there’s nothing like a grandiose claim to start off a Monday.

Click here to skip to the list of resources.  ↓

I’m actually still shattered from my flu the other week, so forgive the lack of ‘real’ content.  I decided to write a blog post about learning Russian, because people are often confused as how I got to the level I am in 18 months of studying, largely by myself.  I’ve said it before, but for reference, my Russian is B1/B2 in the European framework, and it’s sufficient that I’d be allowed to study a degree completely in Russian (but not any post-grad courses).

Firstly, if someone were to ask me how to learn Russian, I’d say “why on earth do you want to learn Russian?”  The internet seems to agree on the fairly subjective statement that Russian and Chinese are the hardest languages for an English speaker to learn.  There’s only a couple of hundred million people who speak Russian, and the bulk of them are actually in Russia.  Russian’s a UN language of course, and if you’re involved in politics or diplomacy then it might be required for your job.  Other than that, there’s a lot of textbooks in the physical sciences in particular which are written in Russian (but I’ve heard there are these new-fangled things called ‘translations’ available).

There is of course the upside of being able to understand the bad guys in movies (with the associated downside of realising they’re speaking Russian with a horrible accent and have been chosen for the role because they look ‘hard’ as opposed to because they speak the language).  If you’re coming to Russia, then sure—you’ll need some Russian if you’re staying for more than a couple of days.  But simply being able to order things off a menu and say hello will pretty much have you covered.

The other main reasons people learn the language are:

  1. to read texts in the original language (hard-core, even by my standards—War and Peace was nigh-on-unbearable even in my native language);
  2. because they love learning about Russian culture
  3. because they’re marrying/married to a Russian woman (a lot of the materials on the internet are geared toward this)

So, if I think learning Russian is so pointless, why am I doing it?!  Well, firstly, my degree’s in politics and international relations, so having another UN language is theoretically beneficial.  Of course, my prior studies of French would have had that covered, so why else?  In the interests of full disclosure, I briefly dated a Russian-Australian guy and as a result, noticed that Russia existed.  When I was little I’d do readings and projects on major world cultures, religions, and on history, just for kicks—but Russia never came up, because it seemed so entirely irrelevant.  Haha even though it’s on the Security Council, has loads of natural resources, and is the world’s biggest country, I’m still inclined to think that way at times—and I find it hilarious when they posture and protest US laws like anybody cares.

Anyway, once I know that I don’t know something, I start studying it.  Though I was no longer seeing the guy by that time, I started to delve deeper and deeper into Russian history, culture, and yes—the language.  It was fascinating to me, and completely different to my prior language studies.  I’ve always loved a challenge, and so I just kept going… and going… and going.

For the first year I taught myself, studying around an hour or so a day for the first six months, then half an hour after that.  I’ve been attending—infrequently—uni while here in St Petersburg, and that’s been really helpful in consolidating my knowledge.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are the resources I’ve found best (and worst) in learning Russian:

Best audio coursePimsleur Russian.  I’d recommend Pimsleur for any language actually, it’s brilliant.  I find that while each session takes a lot of focus, I remember a lot of incredibly useful phrases and ideas, and it’s known for giving you a good accent.  (People comment that my accent is good, though watching the videos of myself speaking Russian, I still sound Australian to me!)

Best online courseLearnRussian (  I love this because it’s free, it’s funny, and it has cartoons.  It’s also great for learning tricky grammar.  (Update 15/05/13: because the site’s not supported anymore, and there’s no answer pages, I’ve started uploading the completed lessons with answers.  You can find them here.)

Best grammar courseSchaum’s of course.  It’s a little too comprehensive at times, so I use it in conjunction with the Penguin ‘New Russian Course’ if I’m not sure of something.  I also use the ‘Big Silver Book of Verbs‘.

Best grammar reference book—I’m not sure this is available outside Russia, but it’s called “Russian Grammar in Tables“, ISBN 978-5-9765-0966-5.  Update: you can buy this online at  The site is all in Russian, but I bought this book as a downloadable pdf for 150 rubles with no spam, no viruses etc.

  • Click “купить и скачать за 150рб”, then use PayPal or whatever.
  • The window that pops up is asking you (1) if you want to register your email address (I did, with no negative consequences), and (2) if you want ten free books.
  • Next, either proceed (left) or say you don’t want the ten free books (right).
  • Once you’ve purchased the book, go to the orange мой книги at the top of the page, choose the book, then скачать.

Best vocab booster—I love Linkword.  This system really works for me.  🙂  It’s available for other languages as well.

Funnest book—‘Russiangrammar in cartoons’.  The name says it all, really!

Things I’d recommend against:

  • Rosetta Stone.  It’s expensive, unwieldy, inefficient and just plain boring.  Their marketing campaigns are their strongest point.
  • RussianPod101.  I should mention that I actually won a year’s free access, but I simply don’t use it.  I find it ineffective, and while it’s a bit petty, it drives me crazy listening to the opening jingle at the start of every 10 minutes podcast, then the marketing pitch at the end of each one.  If you’re keen to give it a go though, you can get your first week free (or for maybe $1 I think?) and download basically everything—worst sales system ever?

I do also use levelled readers with exercises (which I’ve purchased in Russia) when I have time, and different books for uni (but they don’t have answer keys, so I haven’t included them).  I have around 20 physical ‘learn Russian’ books, and around 200 plus courses on my laptop, but the ones listed above are definitely the ones I think are the best.

I also found a free (and legal) plugin to add Russian dictionaries and spell-check to Microsoft Office, which is obviously rather useful.  You can find it at

I hope this helps!

(10/11/13—you might also want to check out this guy’s post)

Добрая Девушка
Intolerance (updated)

7 responses to “How to learn Russian.”

  1. The other thing that helps to learn a foreign language – is watching (subbed) cartoons and sitcoms in that language. It helped me alot. That and computer games (before they started to translate them all).

    • Yes, quite a few of my students play Skyrim etc in English – they have the most random lexicons as a result! It’s great though, I definitely encourage it. I need to find some good tv shows in Russian it seems. I find though that I prefer to watch things in English, with Russian subs – if there’s subtitles on the screen, I can’t NOT read them, so if I go the other way round then I don’t even listen to the Russian! I watch little kids’ shows like Cheburashka etc though. I love Cheburashka!!

  2. I’m just writing a series of posts for my blog about how I learnt Russian, and it’s interesting so see how other people went about it. I’ve been here 8 years now and although my Russian is good, I’ve realised that learning a language is a lifelong commitment.

    I really didn’t like that big silver book of verbs or the 501 verbs book. I found many of the examples to be of no use whatsoever.

    • Yes, I remember seeing your post about Частушки a while back and laughing myself silly. I definitely didn’t sit down and read the big silver book of verbs, I just find it a really good reference guide–esp for irregular verbs and days when my brain’s too gluggy to conjugate. It’s scary how often that happens…

  3. Great post! I myself am learning Russian just for fun, but choosing to learn Russian being “random” (as a friend put it) is not lost on me. I’ve never been more motivated to learn a language before–I’ve tried to learn Spanish and French, but lost interest quickly. I feel like with learning Russian, it’s like I’m a kid again. Do you remember when you were a kid and words were just a series of incomprehensible symbols? And then it being so magical when they made sense. It’s like that with Cyrillic. The Russian alphabet being different from my native one helps my brain know that it’s a different language and that different rules apply. (Unlike with French and Spanish, which just frustrated me.) Perhaps a different part of my brain is being used when there is a new alphabet involved, like there’s a different starting point or something like that.

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