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)

An intermittent clock

A few months ago, I was walking to Naz’s flat on Vasiliy Ostrov, when I turned to her and asked with my typical eloquence, “what the ** is that ticking noise?!”.  She pointed to some loud-speakers mounted on a nearby building, and said that the noise was coming from there.  I hadn’t noticed the noise before, or the loud-speakers for that matter, and I asked what it was all about.  Apparently it’s a remnant of the Cold War – the loud-speakers would keep ticking as long as everything was okay.  I haven’t been able to fact-check, as weirdly, typing ‘st petersburg ticking noise’ into google doesn’t come up with much.  Naz said that the speakers are still mounted everywhere, as if they stopped the older generations would likely freak out thinking that attack was imminent.

[Update 26/01: it’s actually to commemorate its being 70 years since the Siege of Leningrad / the Blockade, and has nothing to do with the Cold War.  The metronome noise was broadcast between radio programmes to reassure people that it was still there and working.  See here.]

In the intervening time, I hadn’t noticed any further loud-speakers, until I was walking through the  unusually quiet city a couple of days ago.  It was the first time I’d walked through the city when it was almost empty of traffic.  For the first time I noticed that I was almost never out of earshot of a ticking loud-speaker, and now I see them everywhere.  When the city’s quiet like that, pretty much the only time you don’t hear the ticking is when you’re standing directly under the speaker.  The noise itself is distinctly reminiscent of building works being carried out – maybe someone bashing on a pole with a hammer – and I guess I used to write it off as that.

It seems to be the thing to do at the moment for Australians to post a screen-shot of the current temperature on their facebooks.  It’s been in the high 40’s there, meaning it’s more than 70 degrees colder here.  Mind-boggling!  That’s right, temperatures have once again swooped downward, and it was apparently due to be -26 today.  I don’t usually check the forecast any more, and put on all my winter gear irrespective, but I did feel it was significantly colder.  At -10 I need my winter, rather than my autumn coat; at -15 I feel the cold in the area just above my knees, and at around -18 to -20 the inside of my nostrils freezes.  Perhaps I should copyright the ‘Laura Skillen temperature gauge’??

On Wednesday night as I was walking on the dark, tree-lined paths from work to the metro, things were starting to freeze up again after the recent thaws.  The ground was lined with snow, and parts of it had frozen to minute crystals that glittered in the night like stars.  It felt for all the world like I was walking through a fresh universe – in a non-literal sense of course.  It was simply stunning!

Just in time for it to snow again, they’ve finally cleared the driveway to the apartment.  The work-crews have a lot to do though: just before New Years’ and after the warmer temperatures, there was a massive thaw followed by a snap-freeze.  The city was literally and liberally covered with sheet ice.  It was absolutely horrible.  It normally takes me about 15 minutes to walk to the metro, but on this particular occasion it took more like 40.  I first noticed how icy it was when I got stuck in a driveway, shaped a little like a bowl.  I slid down into it and couldn’t get out of it again – I had to wait until a man reached down from less precarious ground to pull me out.  After that I became more aware, and had a look around – the whole way up the street, around every 10-15 metres, there was someone who’d fallen over on the ice.  I went for a massive spill myself – think, a cartoon character slipping on a banana peel – and showed up at work in the worst possible mood (and refused to leave the apartment for the next couple of days until it was possible to walk on the footpaths again).

Of course, I often arrive at work in a terrible mood, as every time I walk in I’m frustrated anew by the lack of resources, of space, of courtesy, and of organisation.  It’s not unusual for us to have neither printer nor photocopier, smart-boards not working (and you can’t write on the boards unless they’re working), and the things we need for lessons just entirely absent.  Then of course, you’ll have people asking you a million irrelevant questions and approaching you with admin tasks while you’re trying to weave your way to the one working computer to print the things you’ve prepared at home.  Last night I stayed up til 1 or 2 putting some worksheets and poems together for today’s life-clubs, and was immensely frustrated when I got to work and realised that all of the things I’d been told to use had just vanished.  Rant, rant, rant.

On the organisational upside, I’ve recently discovered a fabulous program for the obsessively organised – evernote.  I’ve already started using it for just everything, including notes for the latest course I’ve decided to do: a Grad Dip in Geography and Environment, through LSE again.  I was thinking about what I was going to do post-Russia, and reflecting on what I’d enjoyed most about my job at the law firm: it was indubitably the environmental project work I did, and I’d like to try and get work in that area.  Unlike human rights law, it’s unsaturated, and a growth area.  So yay for that!

On Tuesday I went to pick up a new native speaker (read: victim) from the airport.  I offered to do it, telling the Director of Studies for that school that it’d probably be nice for her to be met by a native speaker who she’s already familiar with, and who isn’t her supervisor.  That was all fine, and we caught a taxi to her would-be apartment, where we met with supervisors from her school and a real-estate agent.  I then played guard-dog in the apartment while they just ‘popped upstairs’ to sign the lease.  Over an hour later, I was getting kind of over it, but didn’t have the option to leave, as the apartment wasn’t locked.  In Russia, no-one respects your time.

After the new staffy’s eventual return, I introduced her to lunch at chainaya lozhka then took her to a store to pick up some essentials.  I don’t think the local staff realise how difficult it would be to live here without speaking Russian, and for that reason I’m glad I went to the shop to help.  Things like differentiating shampoo and conditioner, not to mention what things in the supermarket actually are, are very difficult if you don’t speak the language.

Happily, I am getting much better at Russian, so maybe it’s ok that we’re now starting the Upper Intermediate (B2) course at uni after all.  I was trying to figure out yesterday whether I’m thinking in Russian or not, and I really have no idea.  I know what people are saying to me when they talk, but I don’t know how exactly: am I thinking in Russian, or just really fast at processing into English?  I just know what they mean.  I once tried to explain to Naz that I try to feel what people are saying, rather than listening to the words, and it works for me.  It brought me back to thinking about the ticking loud-speakers, and how it’s not really the sound people are listening to, it’s the safety the sound represents.  I guess that’s what language is after all: it’s not the sounds, it’s the meaning.

Waxing poetic.

Finally, a post where you get to see me recite a Russian poem.  Just what you’ve been waiting for!

Firstly, a bit of randomness.  If you’re not on my facebook you won’t have seen the brilliant situation depicted below.  Basically, the traffic lights near my house regularly stop working, and absolute chaos ensues.  Everybody seems to believe that they have right-of-way, and you can see the results below:


As I said on my facebook, I see how Russia invented tetris!

It’s leading up to Christmas here (January 7, not the 8th as I said in the last post) and I’m having my final lessons of the year.  It’s ‘silly season’ here as much as anywhere!  Here’s something a little ridiculous I saw yesterday:


There’s a weird blend of Santa Claus and Father Frost happening here, and in fact on Tuesday I performed the role of the Snow Maiden, Father Frost’s granddaughter.  But I’ll need to research and will do a Christmas post in January 🙂

In one of my teenage groups last night (isn’t it always?) we brought in food to celebrate the New Year.


I got bored of everybody being timid, so decided to grab a marshmallow.  One of my students, outraged, yelled at me: “you CAN’T!!”.  Hot tip: she didn’t say  “can’t“.  Haha I laughed until I cried, it was amazing.

This particular class has asked me every single freaking lesson to speak some Russian to them, and I absolutely refused.  There were a few reasons for that, only one of them being shyness!  I didn’t want to undermine my teacheriness, and more importantly didn’t want them to know how much I understood – I’ve become a very effective eavesdropper, so know if they don’t understand something.

Anyway, I kept telling them ‘I’ll speak some Russian for Christmas’, and sadly they held me to it.  They even sent me a poem to learn – learning and reciting poems is part of the standard Russian curriculum.

The poem in question is called Я вас любил (Ya vas lyewbil – lyewbil I pronounced incorrectly every time – “I loved you”/”I have loved you”).  It’s super-Russian.  I’ll put the translation below.

I did get told off by one of my students on vkontakte for laughing during the poem, but what you don’t see in the below video is that after I started the poem the first time, my entire class started laughing hysterically at me – it was hard to be serious after that!  Also, I had every single student pointing a video-recording device at me.  One’s just not enough, apparently.

Anyway, here it is:

The words and my fairly liberal translation:

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как, дай вам Бог, любимой быть другим.
I have loved you: and perhaps, love you yet.
It’s still fading in my soul.
But let it bother you no more;
I do not wish to sadden you.
I have loved you without a sound, without hope;
So sadly and so jealously suffered.
I loved you so shyly, so tenderly,
And with God’s grace, may you be so loved again.

The video’s also on vkontakte and my students have been messaging me to say how perfect my Russian is – score.  Apparently I was ‘Russian in a past life’.  Haha maybe they’ll take my ridiculous pronunciation exercises more seriously now?

I’ll finish on a quick note.  You’ll recall that my friend Anya helped me find a fur-less coat, and saved me from touching it at every possible occasion.  Actually, all of the teachers are now used to hearing me squeal if I accidentally touch fur, and rush over to move the offending object for me.  Anyway, so yesterday I gave Anya her Christmas present, so she grabbed me for a hug and pulled my face straight into her fur coat!  Haha it was horrible yet absolutely hilarious.

Anyway, time to do some work – it’s my last day at Primorskaya school, so I’d best do it well!

Пока 🙂

-22 and Sunny

“Why do you need so much reassurance?” I asked my students.  “You need me to always tell you I love you, instead of just accepting it.”  S: “Well of course we do: after home and after school, here is our third home.  And you are our third mother!”  Me: “Oh my god.  I have a lot of children!!”  S: “Well, I think that’s your problem.”  Me: “I think it might be a little bit your problem, too.”

I’ve taught some very peculiar things in class lately.  These include how to spell ‘borscht’ in English, how to pronounce ‘Communism’, and how to spell the Russian alphabet (Cyrillic) in English letters (translit).  So I’m an Australian in Russia, teaching Russians how to be Russian in English ?!?  I’ve also been including things like touch-typing, analysing text and writing essays as part of my students’ work, as these are things they’re not taught in school here.  Essays as taught in school are called ‘compositions’, and closer to book reviews than to any kind of analysis.

I’ve also had a fairly hilarious time teaching students the correct pronunciation of the word “can’t”.  I explained that what it sounds like they’re saying is the most offensive word in English.  Actually, now that they know, it’s even funnier when they say “I can’t”.

I recently asked my teenage students to do some writing on the ‘generational gap’ in Russia, and they said that they were like teenagers anywhere, having been raised on tv, mobile phones and freedoms.  They said that the older generation were poor, hated the government, and listened to boring music.  I’d ask my new adult students what they thought of this characterisation, but they’re A2 level, so still very much beginners.  There are definitely different attitudes in the classroom, and more ‘no-go’ areas with the adults.  In saying that, I don’t think I can generalise (since when!?!?) as all of my students are those people who are able to afford a private English school.  For most Russians, it’s simply out of their reach.

My new adult students, unfortunately, asked me yesterday what Australians learn about the Second World War, and more specifically Russia’s role.  I absolutely cringed.  While I’m very open with my teenage groups, all of these adults’ parents lived through WW2, and so it’s much more personal to them.  It’s horrible to think of what scars the blockade of St Petersburg has left: people literally ate leather and wood to survive, and temperatures plummeted to below -50.  Anyway, I told the students what i’d learned of Russia’s role in ‘America’s War’ at school.  The result was a peculiar mix of aghast and despair, and I segued as quickly as I could. has recently updated their ‘Introduction to Russia‘, and it’s completely worth reiterating here:

Russia is truly polysingular. One moment you’re feel like you’re in a scene from Blade Runner, another moment you find yourself inside a beautiful fairytale, next moment you’re lost in chaos, and then before you know it you’re walking through the orderly airport passageways on your way home. And the most interesting thing is that each moment you really truly believe that this is the only way possible, even though you know everything could change at any moment.

To say that Russia is the country of contrasts is an understatement. It is the place that realizes itself through extremes. It’s a country that has so many influences clashing with one another every day, every moment, that you feel like you’re in a constant warzone between different epochs, mentalities, ideologies, religions, styles, and ways of being.

A student once said to me that ‘it’s hard for foreigners here in Russia.  We know when we wake up that things will be hard, so before we go out we [mimes putting on armour].  You don’t think things should be so hard, and actually things don’t always make sense here.’  Warzone indeed.

Marshmallow Man (2)
A rough interpretation of how I look when going outside in the Russian winter.

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks, because I haven’t had much to write about.  I’m not sure whether the winter and lack of tourists had made situations less weird, whether I’ve been in some kind of coma, or whether I’ve just adapted to life here.  Either way, things don’t seem that strange to me anymore (does this mean the culture shock’s over?  PLEASE LET IT BE OVER!!!).  I’m not precisely blasé, but seem to have accepted that everything’s a complete shitfight all the time.  So maybe I’ve finally put on my own armour.  Of course, my armour looks more like the chap to the right than the metal-beclad fellow in this post’s featured image.

I definitely bought a coat at the right time, and today started wearing snowboard pants with it on my way to work.  Today’s low was I think -23, and this Sunday is forecast to be -26.  Happily, at the moment it’s not windy – when it’s windy it’s dreadful.  I made the awesome life choice of wearing stockings and a skirt when heading to work yesterday, and was pretty sure my legs were going to shatter in the cold before I made it to the metro.

Whether I blog or not, people from around the world frequently send me pep-talk emails and messages.  It’s freaking amazing to think that so many people are so supportive of my latest crazy idea to try Russia, and I feel absolutely privileged that they then reach out and contact me.
I also love that they send me hilarious videos, articles and pictures about Russia, so here are some things that made me lol this week.  Enjoy!

things you risk in russia



And lastly, this video is absolutely every supermarket experience in Russia: