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The Russian language seems more scary than it is, due to using a somewhat different alphabet.

For sure, if you wished to become fluent in Russian, you'd need a lot of study.

But some basic 'survival' tourist Russian skills are easily mastered, and can make your journey much more fun.

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Teach yourself to Read and Speak Russian

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 yourself.

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 been worked.

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 similar.

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 syllable.

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.

Pimsleur Method

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.

Here's the 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 Amazon for 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 website (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 beginners.

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 actually spoken.

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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Originally published 3 Apr 2007, last update 30 May 2021


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