Learning Basic Russian for Travelers

In fall 2018 I visited Russia solo. Since English is not widely spoken in Russia, I dedicated myself to learning basic Russian for travelers prior to my trip. Here are the free beginner Russian resources I found most useful.

Learning the Cyrillic Alphabet

Memrise Cyrillic alphabet course - learn Russian online

Memrise Cyrillic course screenshot

I highly recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet before your trip. Transportation and street signs in Russia are often only in Cyrillic with no Latin lettering. If you can at least sound out the Russian letters, you will feel much more comfortable navigating.

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 help jog your memory. I used it on desktop and iPad while still at home and the Android app on my travels for quick review sessions.

The Cyrillic alphabet has 33 characters, so I learned 11 new characters daily over three days, for a total study time of about three hours. Afterwards, I continued periodically doing review sessions so I wouldn’t forget what I had learned.

Learning Russian Phrases

After learning Cyrillic, tackle the basic survival phrases like greetings, please, thank you, excuse me, and the numbers from one to 10.

Apps for Learning Russian

Russian by Nemo screenshot - simple Russian phrases

Russian by Nemo for Android

I found a couple of free Russian learning apps useful: Russian by Nemo (iOS, Android) and SpeakEasy Russian Lite (iOS, Android).

Russian by Nemo has a nice selection of phrases along with flashcards to help you practice. The main drawback of the Android app is that the native speaker audio is too fast, and there is no way to slow it down. However, the iOS version offers a setting for slower audio.

SpeakEasy Russian Lite has a great slow-down speech option as well as phonetic spelling showing syllable emphasis, which is incredibly helpful. However, in the Android version no flashcards are available; the iOS version does have them.

Since I have an Android phone, I used both apps: Nemo for the flashcards and SpeakEasy for the slowed-down audio, which was critical in learning to pronounce tricky Russian words like Здравствуйте (zdrah-stvooy-tyee; hello).

If you have an iPhone or iPad, I recommend installing both apps there due to their superior functionality in iOS.

YouTube Videos for Learning Basic Russian

There are countless Russian lessons on YouTube, but I found few truly helpful for learning basic Russian for travel. Here are the best tutorials I discovered.

This video provides a nice overview of essential phrases for travelers:

The Learn Russian in 3 Minutes series from RussianPod101 was also worthwhile:

Speaking Russian YouTube Channel and Podcast

The Speaking Russian YouTube channel has no cutesy gimmicks or sexy presenters — just a great, thorough introduction to basic Russian phrases. It’s actually meant as a visual accompaniment to the excellent podcast by the same name.

My problem with podcasts as a beginner is that I’m not an auditory learner; I need to see a word or phrase written before I can remember it. So it was most effective for me to follow along on the website watching the videos and using each episode’s vocabulary list as a reference.

Speaking Russian’s first 25 episodes are available on YouTube, and I watched about three episodes a day until I finished them. There are many more audio-only episodes (with accompanying vocabulary lists on the website) if you wish to continue.

Russian Listening Practice

Conversational Russian

Easy Languages is an awesome non-profit that helps people learn languages through authentic conversations in natural, everyday situations.

For Russian listening practice, don’t miss Easy Russian’s wonderful street interview series from St. Petersburg on YouTube. As a beginner, the Russian will no doubt be over your head, but the videos will give your ear a chance to become accustomed to the sounds of the language, and the insights into the culture are absolutely fascinating.

Russian TV Shows

Trailer for the Red Queen on Amazon Prime, one of my recommended Russian TV series:

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 learn about the culture and get a visual impression of the country before your trip.

More Beginner Russian Resources

Duolingo

Duolingo's Russian course - Russian language tips

Duolingo’s Russian course

I also tried out Duolingo’s Russian course. This is a great free resource but not a complete learning system. You will need to know the Cyrillic alphabet before you start.

My main problem with Duolingo was that it doesn’t teach you Russian phrases for travelers; rather, it focuses on teaching the basic building blocks of the language. This is fine if you are planning to learn Russian in a serious way, but is not very useful for a traveler needing common survival phrases.

If you decide to try Duolingo, you’ll need a Cyrillic keyboard since it doesn’t have an on-screen one like Memrise. I used this online keyboard to type in Russian and then copy and paste the text into Duolingo.

During Your Trip

St. Petersburg metro map in Russian

St. Petersburg metro map in Russian

Just hold your camera over the map and Google Translate magically converts Cyrillic Russian text to English!

Just hold your camera over the map and Google Translate magically converts Cyrillic Russian text to English!

For your trip I recommend installing the Google Translate app (iOS, Android), so you can use your phone’s camera to convert text on signs or menus, as well as translate typed English phrases to communicate with a non-English speaker. I often found the app helpful, although the translation results could sometimes be bizarre.

Be sure to download the Russian language file ahead of time so you can also use the app offline.

Hope these tips help you learn basic Russian phrases for travel! Have recommendations for more Russian learning resources? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Banner image of the charming Anya from Easy Russian © Easy Languages

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