Teach yourself to Read and Speak
Some basic skills are simple to learn
and very helpful
Russian uses the
Cyrillic alphabet. At first glance, it seems
hopelessly foreign, but only a quick bit of study will have
you being able to sound out and read Russian words.
Read below to find out
what this sign says.
This information was offered
primarily to people on our
Russian River Cruise, but is of
course of value to any person traveling to Russia, in any
manner, at any time.
Unlike other countries with
stronger historical ties to the west, English isn't quite as
universally spoken as a second language by Russians.
The younger the person, and the bigger the city, the more likely
it is they may speak English, but older people and people in
smaller towns will probably not speak any English at all.
Like all people in all
countries, whether they speak English or not, the local people
will be very appreciative if you try and speak a few Russian
words, even if they are only 'please' and 'thank you'.
Why Bother Learning to Read Russian
If you're on a tour, you'll have English speaking guides and
interpreters with you most of the time, and you'll probably be
well taken care of, with no need to speak or read any Russian
But if you want to go out on your own, you'll quickly find
Russian reading skills invaluable. As soon as you try and
understand where you are on a map, you'll probably need to be
able to match the street names on the signs with the street
names on the map. Possibly one or the other might be in
English, or both might be in Russian. If you can sound out
the words when they are written in Russian, that will help you
tremendously when trying to match up the words.
And if you go on the metro in Moscow or St Petersburg, you'll
find almost no signs in English. They are all in cyrillic. Some people recommend you
navigate simply by counting the stops, but this doesn't always
help - will it tell you which direction train to get on, and
what happens if you think you might have lost count?
Fortunately, learning to sound out and read Russian words is
very simple. Unlike English, the Russian language has a
fairly consistent approach to pronunciation, and most words are
spelled and sounded as you'd expect, in line with these rules.
As an example of how irrational English pronunciation can be,
how would you pronounce this word : ghoti ?
There are of course many answers to that question, including the
suggestion 'fish'. In our own native language, we are
comfortable with such extraordinary contradictions between
spelling and pronunciation, so relax - you're going to love
learning to sound out Russian words, which are remarkably simple
to pronounce by comparison with English.
Because not all computers consistently display Russian cyrillic
characters correctly, I've created a pdf file that has the
information you need on
learning to sound out Russian letters and words.
I suggest you create some 'flash cards' - small pieces of paper
or card. On one side, write the Russian letter in both its
upper and lower case forms, and on the other side, write the
English sound. Jumble up the cards and then look at the
information on one side and then learn the information on the
other. This makes the process easy and simple.
Some people find it helpful to learn groups of letters at a time
- perhaps you might want to start off with the easiest ones
first - the letters A K M O T - these letters are written and
pronounced the same in both languages. See - you already
know five of the 33 letters. Well done!
A Positive Mental Attitude
One more thing - as you learn any foreign language, you need to
develop a sympathy and feeling for the language and how it has
For example, look at the difference between
the printed and written form of the letter 'T' - the written
version of the lower case letter looks more like a letter 'm'
doesn't it. But, don't obsess about how stupid this is;
instead, be positive, and think about how this is really quite
Think of an old fashioned
T - note the 'serif'
bits on the end of the cross bar. If you just make those a
bit bigger, going a bit further down, what do you have?
Yes, you have an 'm'.
So it is really all very sensible, isn't it!
One Tricky Thing about Pronouncing Russian Words
Russian words have a stressed syllable, and basically there is
no way you can know, in advance, which will be the stressed
This is slightly important because you should not only stress -
emphasize - that syllable, but you should also unstress the
other syllables and say the vowel sounds less clearly in them.
But if you just speak words slowly with all syllables equally
stressed, Russians will know what you mean, and most Russian
dictionaries tell you which syllable to stress.
Learn to Speak Some Simple Words
Okay, so now you can sound out the Russian alphabet. Next,
let's combine the letters into words.
Here is a pdf page of
some of the key Russian words you might want to know.
Noting the comments about stresses, above, I've spelled the
English version of the words with the stressed syllable in
capital letters, and I've 'phonetically' spelled the word as
you'd say it, rather than exactly transliterated it as you'd
think it might be said without the stress modification.
As you can see, there are six important words to know, and then
a couple of handfuls more of other words. These words
should get you through most of what you need to know.
Some Formal Training
You might think the only way to really learn lots of Russian (or
any other language) involves going to classes, doing homework,
memorizing long lists of words and complicated grammar rules.
Happily, that's no longer the case.
If you'd like to learn more, there are a couple of very good - and very
easy - ways to learn.
This is using the series of cassette tapes or CDs called the Pimsleur Method. I've used this myself and can't speak too
highly of it - it really does work, and allows you to learn a
language 'automatically' and naturally without any of the hard
work that artificially learning a language otherwise requires. If nothing else,
try their inexpensive eight lesson course for $20.
Pimsleur website - it tells you a lot more about their
method and how it works. But when it comes to buying their
tapes/CDs, you'll get a better price on
Basic Russian: Learn to Speak and Understand Russian with Pimsleur Language Programs (Simon & Schuster's Pimsleur)- a ten lesson Pimsleur course for $16.50.
More lessons, less money....
If you like the introduction, you can go on to do one, two or
all three of their 30 lesson courses. As for me, I've
never gone more than about a third of the way into the third set
of lessons, and you'd definitely pick up a lot of Russian in the
first ten or thirty lessons.
If you want to do one or more of the longer 30 lesson courses,
then buy them second hand from Amazon rather than new from
Pimsleur (and sell them after you're finished with them too!).
Russian I, Third Edition (Comprehensive, 30 Lessons)
: Currently this is available for as little as $119 used.
Russian II 2nd Ed. (Compr.) [CD]
: This is as little as $150.
Russian III - 2nd Ed.: Learn to Speak and Understand Russian with Pimsleur Language Programs (Comprehensive)
: This is $176 for the CDs or less for the audio tapes at
present, second hand.
Before You Know It
Another useful resource with extensive free material is the
www.byki.com (an acronym for 'Before You Know It').
This is part of the Transparent Language range of language
learning products, and is well worth experimenting with.
It seems the free material that is downloaded by default starts
at a more advanced level than would be suitable for most
But once you've downloaded the free sampler, you can add to this
with many other lists of phrases, too - all free. Go to
their ListCentral catalog of free lists, and download more
lists, some of which are very helpful - for example, I found the
'Meeting People' list very useful.
A very nice thing about this program is it allows you to hear
words both spoken at normal speed and also spoken slowly and
carefully. When first learning, you might alternate
between slow and normal speech, helping you to hear the words
clearly as well as hearing them in real life as they are
What the Sign Said
By now, if you've worked through sounding out the letters, you can probably
pronounce the three words on the sign at the top of this page.
The three words are :
Moskva (this is how Russians say Moscow)
Easy, isn't it!
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3 Apr 2007, last update
21 Jul 2020