I began tackling Russian seriously in 2020 as an independent learner. Here are my top tips on how to learn Russian by yourself.
I hope you love my recommendations for how to teach yourself Russian! Just so you know, I may earn a small fee from purchases made using links on this page at no extra cost to you. I only recommend Russian resources I love and use myself.
How to Learn Russian by Yourself
Russian is difficult for English speakers to learn compared to, say, Spanish or French. If you dive right into complex Russian grammar, you run the risk of becoming discouraged and burning out.
I recommend easing into Russian: learning the alphabet and then doing easy introductory courses like Michel Thomas, Drops, and Duolingo. That way, when you tackle grammar, you’ll have some familiarity with basic concepts to help you assimilate it. It won’t seem so overwhelming.
Learning the Cyrillic Alphabet
Your first step should be to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
The free Memrise course is great for learning Cyrillic. It’s broken into nicely bite-sized sessions and features a colorful interface with fun memes to jog your memory.
Memrise is available on desktop, iOS, and Android.
The Cyrillic alphabet has 33 characters. I learned 5-6 new characters daily over about 6 days, for a total study time of about three hours.
Afterwards, I did periodic review sessions so I wouldn’t forget what I had learned.
Learners who prefer a book with exercises should check out the excellent Russian Script Hacking: The optimal pathway to learning the Russian alphabet.
This charming, inexpensive workbook provides an enjoyable way to learn both print and cursive Russian handwriting.
Stroke order diagrams for each letter are especially handy. In these stressful times, I found tracing the letters soothing and fun.
Cursive and print letters can be quite different. I recommend at least learning to read cursive, since Russians commonly use it when writing. You will also encounter it in italicized text and film credits, as well as on business signs in Russia.
Typing in Cyrillic
When you’re first starting out, it’s fine to use an on-screen keyboard like this one to type in Russian and then copy and paste the text.
Serious learners, though, will eventually need to learn to touch-type Cyrillic. Two options exist.
Phonetic keyboard layouts map Cyrillic letters to the sounds of Latin letters. Many learners prefer this shortcut solution. The phonetic layout is a built-in option for Macs and can be downloaded for PCs.
However, I chose to learn the standard Russian keyboard layout. To do so, I bought these inexpensive Cyrillic keyboard stickers for my PC:
Mac users have the easier option of removable Cyrillic keyboard covers.
I then starting learning the letters with this free typing practice site. I typed three practice lists a day for several months, adding a new letter every few days though the settings.
As I typed the practice lists, I would say each letter’s name out loud. That helped me drill pronunciation and also mentally separate letters that exist in the Latin alphabet from their Cyrillic counterparts. Here’s a handy reference for Cyrillic letter names.
The excellent Michel Thomas audio course offers an interactive, non-intimidating introduction to Russian. I completed two audio tracks a day, or about 10 minutes of practice. I did all three courses: Foundation, Intermediate, and Vocabulary, over a period of three months.
The introduction to basic vocabulary and grammar helped me grasp these concepts more quickly when they appeared again in my grammar book.
As an alternative intro audio course, consider Pimsleur. Many learners swear by it to improve listening and speaking. However, personally, I find the pace too slow. The daily lessons are also too long for my taste at 30 minutes.
Since both Michel Thomas and Pimsleur are quite pricey, try downloading sample lessons as well as checking courses out from your local library if available to see which you prefer.
Drops is a fun gamified vocabulary-learning app. I’ve found it useful for learning new words and practicing pronunciation.
It has an alphabet learning module, but I prefer the one from Memrise above. Romanized transliterations are available if needed.
I’ve experienced bugs with Drops on iOS, but I still enjoy it enough to continue daily practice. Each session is a nicely brief five minutes. I do one to three sessions a day.
I suggest starting with the free version to see if you like it. It has limitations but may be perfectly sufficient for your needs. Drops does offer steep subscription discounts on Black Friday.
Duolingo‘s a great free resource. You’ll need to know the Cyrillic alphabet before you begin.
I played in Duolingo for a few weeks when I first started with Russian. It provides a fun, easy introduction to the language. I didn’t continue after that point, though, since I don’t find the grammar explanations sufficient.
Once you have played around a bit with easier materials, it’s time to dive into Russian grammar. As a beginner, it’s good to have a resource that functions as an anchor, providing a structured framework for your learning.
This step-by-step course for beginners offers a solid foundation for your Russian studies.
It features dialogues, vocabulary lists, grammar explanations, and exercises. Accompanying audio files are available for free download from the publisher’s website.
It requires dedication to systematically work though this intensive text. However, I found it indispensable for building understanding.
Thanks to my friend Suzanne Linguiste for recommending this book!
I started with this classic text. It’s an excellent resource, but is extremely dense and also lacks audio, so I switched to Colloquial Russian (above) as my primary resource instead. The NPRC still makes a helpful grammar reference.
YouTube Channels for Learning Russian
YouTube’s become an indispensable free Russian learning resource. Short YouTube videos are better for a learner’s concentration span than Russian-language movies or TV shows.
Fun YouTube videos are a great antidote to tedious grammar study. Here are some of the best YouTube channels for learning Russian.
Levels: Absolute beginner to advanced (A1-C1)
Subtitles: Russian and English. Some videos partially or completely in English.
This popular channel offers a wealth of content for all levels. Engaging host Daria is a certified language teacher with a PhD in Russian history.
Beginners should start with the Zero to Fluency course. The Slow Russian playlist is great for advanced beginners and intermediates. And advanced students will enjoy Daria’s travel vlogs as well as the Fast Russian series.
Daria reads a Russian children’s book live on her channel every Sunday at 10 pm EST. This is a charming, relaxing way to learn about Russian language and culture.
Beginners also shouldn’t miss her TPRS Russian podcast. This innovative language-learning method is focused on making you speak. You listen to short, whimsical stories and answer simple questions in Russian.
Her Slow Russian podcast is ideal for intermediates and ambitious beginners.
Levels: Absolute beginner to advanced (A1-C1)
Subtitles: Russian and English (most videos). Some videos partially in English.
Tag along with cheerful and engaging Max in his daily life and travels around China and Russia as he teaches us authentic Russian.
Max also creates the Comprehensible Russian podcast, excellent for intermediates and motivated advanced beginners.
Levels: Absolute beginner to advanced (A1-C1)
Subtitles: Russian and English (displayed simultaneously)
Easy Languages is a unique non-profit that helps people learn languages through authentic street interviews. These short, enjoyable videos show local language and culture in natural, everyday situations.
Beginners should start with the Super Easy Russian for beginners playlist.
Intermediate to advanced students will enjoy Easy Russian’s fascinating street interview series from St. Petersburg.
Levels: Low intermediate to advanced (B1-C1). Motivated beginners can also try the videos with English subtitles.
Subtitles: Russian (most); English (some videos); occasionally other languages. Video list with subtitle details.
Polyglot Артём presents interesting tips on learning Russian and Russian culture.
Russian Vocabulary Flashcards
Anki is my go-to free spaced repetition software (SRS) for vocabulary study. The interface is dated but works well.
I use it to learn vocabulary lists from my textbook. Also, any time I encounter an interesting new word or phrase, I enter it in Anki.
I create my own Russian vocabulary flashcards because random lists compiled by others don’t work for me. I need to be able to associate a word with the context I heard it, whether in a conversation with someone or a movie scene. That emotional connection helps me remember.
Because Russian pronunciation and stress are tricky, I add an audio clip downloaded from Forvo to each flashcard. Forvo is a fantastic free pronunciation dictionary. Audio files are crowdsourced from native speakers.
If you’re like me, you’ll soon discover favorite Forvo contributors, seeking out their names in the recording lists. I even sent thank you messages in Russian to my favorite contributors. I really appreciate their selfless dedication and effort!
Reading in Russian
Graded Russian Readers
Russian graded readers feature simplified language adapted to different levels. This easy Russian reading is a fun way to boost your vocabulary and reading skills.
Reading on a Kindle is a convenient way to get Russian reading practice due to the integrated free dictionaries you can download.
By Olly Richards (2020)
Levels: A2-B1 (Advanced beginner to low intermediate)
Available as e-book: Available inexpensively
A series of simple dialogues recount a fun mystery story set in the Moscow art world. Chapters are very short and relatively easy to read.
The introduction provides a helpful explanation of intensive vs. extensive learning and tips for how to best use this Russian graded reader.
Each chapter of contains a summary and vocab list with English definitions.
Russian TV Shows
Trailer for the Red Queen on Amazon Prime
Don’t miss this up-to-date list I maintain of good Russian TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Watching popular Russian TV shows is an excellent way to practice listening skills while learning about the culture.
Conversation practice is a vital part of learning Russian. It’s also without doubt the most fun and engaging part of my studies.
Speaking Russian regularly with native speakers keeps me motivated to do tedious grammar drills, since I can see direct improvements in my spoken Russian.
iTalki is a convenient, affordable way to connect online with professional teachers or community tutors:
- Professional teachers have a teaching certification and classroom experience. Hourly cost varies by experience and geographic location.
- Community tutors are an affordable alternative. They are native speakers (or near-native speakers) who provide speaking practice and informal tutoring.
While there are exceptional community tutors, my experience is that professional teachers are well worth the extra cost.
Finding a Teacher
I search for instructors with five-star ratings and watch their introductory videos to get a feel for their style. I then schedule lessons with a few different people to find someone I really click with. It’s important to me to have a good rapport with my teacher, since I learn best in an atmosphere of genuine connection and friendship.
Once I find a teacher I really like, I buy a lesson package and met with them weekly over Skype.
Note: If you sign up for iTalki using one of the links on this page, both of us will receive a credit of US $10 after your first lesson. I only recommend resources I love and use myself.
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Hope you find these tips for learning Russian helpful. Check back for updates as I test more resources to learn Russian.
Have recommendations for more Russian learning resources? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Feature image: Katya from the excellent YouTube channel Easy Russian © Easy Languages