Russian is the 10th language that I’ve learned and it took me much more time and effort to reach a level at which I could have basic conversations than in Spanish, Portuguese or French for example.
For a native English speaker (or a native Dutch speaker in my case), learning Russian isn’t easy. Still, we and our students managed to reach conversational level in a matter of months and I believe that you can do it too!
I’ve documented my entire Russian journey from the beginning. In this article I will show you step by step how I learned, which learning techniques I used, the challenges I had to face and I will share with you my best tips to become conversational in Russian quickly!
This article includes some very informative videos in which we demonstrate various learning techniques so keep reading…
Let’s get started
This year I set myself the goal of becoming conversational in my first Slavic language: Russian.
After 3 months, this was the result:
As you can see, I’m having a hard time there. Russian simply isn’t that easy for someone who has never learned a language with cases, perfective and imperfective verbs, verbs of motion and many other tricky grammar features.
After another month of semi-intensively learning Russian (1 hour per day on average), it became a little easier for me to make myself understandable. This was the result after the 4th month:
Maybe you can see that it went a bit better after the 4th month. I was not super fluent, but I was speaking and able to hold conversations.
Once you reach a level at which you can hold conversations, it’s easier to improve your level by getting a lot of exposure to the language and a lot of speaking practice.
Unfortunately many of us never get to that level and give up before reaching that level.
Let me tell you which 5 simple steps I followed to become conversational in Russian and in 9 other languages, in only a matter of months.
Step 1: Motivation
Let me share with you a story…
A few years ago I was making a long journey through Eastern Europe. We ended up spending some time in Odessa, a city the south of Ukraine where most people speak Russian. I was together with my polyglot-friend Conor Clyne who speaks Russian.
Conor had been to Odessa many times before, so getting around town was easy for me, Conor arranged everything.
When I wanted to go to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, I had to take the train from the Central train station in Odessa. It was in the early morning so I had to arrange a taxi for myself to drop me off there. As taxis in Odessa don’t use meters you have to negotiate the price, in Russian. At the time I couldn’t speak a word or Russian so I used my Google Maps and I walked all the way to the train station, problem solved!
At the train station the second challenge was waiting for me; buying a ticket to Kiev. That couldn’t be so difficult right? You just walk to the kiosk, you say ‘’Kiev’’, you look on the screen how much you have to pay, and you pay. At least, that’s what I thought…
In reality it didn’t go that smoothly. First, I had wait in a line for twenty minutes. When it was finally my turn I said three word to the cashier: ‘’Today – Kiev – Please’’. I’ve learned from traveling that simplifying works for effective basic communication, but in this case it didn’t.
She looked at me with an irritated expression on her face and started asking me questions, in Russian of course. Again I said; ‘’Kiev’’, but then we started asking me even more questions and I had no idea what she was asking. The other people in the line were becoming irritated as well and I decided to give up. Later I tried to but the train ticket at another kiosk but that didn’t work either.
I had to call my friend to come to the train station and buy a ticket for me in Russian. One thing was for sure, next time when I traveled to a place where they speak Russian I wanted to be able to at least to buy a train ticket!
Your personal motivation to learn Russian could be different. Maybe your partner is a Russian speaker, maybe you need it for your work, for your travels or maybe you’re just interested in the language and culture. It doesn’t matter really why you want to learn Russian as long as you at least have a very strong ‘’why’’!
Learning a language costs time and takes effort. If you’re reading this article and you’re interested in learning Russian (and I guess you are), ask yourself the question; ‘’Do you really want to learn Russian? Do you know what it takes and are you ready to make an investment in yourself?’’
After having learned 10 languages myself and having worked with some of the world’s most accomplished polyglots, I can honestly tell you that you can’t learn a language effortlessly.
You need a strong ‘’why’’ and you need be able to enjoy the learning process in order to become successful.
Make a list with at least 10 reasons how learning Russian will make your life better. Make sure that you know why it’s worth all the effort. My personal motivation for learning Russian:
Making it easier for me to travel in Russian speaking countries.
Get a better understanding of the Russian “mindset’’.
Learn a Slavic language and to become a “real’’ polyglot
Writing this article for you and helping people to learn (slavic) languages.
Watch this video in which I explain how important motivation is and how you can find motivation!
Step 2: Create your Gameplan
Learning languages becomes more fun when you set goals for yourself and create a plan how you can achieve those goals.
Don’t be too ambitious; ‘’speak fluent Russian by the end of this year’’ sounds cool but it’s not very specific.
Better, work with so-called ‘’mini-goals’’; goals that are relatively easy to accomplish within a few months or weeks.
My mini-goals for the first 3 months were:
– Learn the 250 most important words in Russian
– Hold a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker
– Travel to a country where Russian is spoken and speak only Russian with waiters, taxi drivers etc.
4. After 3 months I traveled around the Caucasus using basic Russian.
Step 3: Learn the most important vocabulary
You need to find good language learning materials that teach you the most important words and phrases first.
Learning from books that teach you difficult words and tricky grammar can be overwhelming, frustrating and time consuming, so don’t do that!
Instead: Learn useful words and phrases that you can use straight away and create momentum!
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule) basically states that you get 80% of the results from 20% of the work. This principle can be applied in language learning as well.
Languages contain hundreds of thousands of words but only a fraction of them are used on a daily basis by native speakers and only a fraction of those, are words that you need for your first conversations.
Your first conversations in a new language will always be the same; ‘’What’s your name?’’, ‘’Where are you from?’’, ‘’What do you do here?’’, ‘’Do you live here?’’, ‘’For how long have you studied…..?’’.
To create your first sentences you need words like; I, you, to like, can, to do, today, to want, to be, expensive, big etc.
You will be surprised by how many things you will be able to say by knowing only 200 words and knowing how to use them. Of course your speech will be limited, but it’s a great way to start!
First I read the eBook to ‘’decode’’ the language in order to get an idea about how the language works. (input)
I listened to the audio files that to practice the pronunciation and it also helped me memorizing the words. (input)
I revised the vocabulary and phrases I learned using Spaced Repetition with Anki.
How I became conversational in Russian with VocaBooster (watch and learn):
Step 4: Speak and use what you know
Now that you have a basic idea about how the language works and you have learned your first words, it’s time to start speaking!
Don’t wait too long with speaking. Practicing the words and phrases you have just learned straight away is the perfect way not to forget them and it’s fun! We recommend that you start with your first speaking sessions right after you have made yourself familiar with the language (step 2), and you have learned your first 20-50 words and phrases in your new language. This is the scariest part of language learning and many people don’t do this!
This is also why most people give up at this stage. But not you, right? If you want to become a good language learner this is probably the most important step of all.
Why you shouldn’t wait too long to speak:
– Using the new words you have just learned in your speech will help you to memorize them better.
– By speaking you also find out what important words you are missing and what basic grammar features you need to know.
– Speaking a new language is exciting, adds the human aspect, makes it something ‘’real’’ and is good for your momentum.
Now you might think by yourself ‘’how can I speak a language if I only know 100 words (or less)?’’
Two things are important here:
1. You need to be creative.
2. You need a good teacher or conversation partner who can make you speak with limited vocabulary.
In the beginning the main goal of your speaking sessions is to simply interact in your target language with the basic words you know. At this stage it’s not important what you say, it’s more about trying to say something and keep the conversation alive. Making mistakes is 100% allowed!
In this video we give a demonstration how you can ‘’speak’’ a language with very limited vocabulary. As you can see in the video, the role of the teacher is very important here, so make sure you find a good teacher online or join our bootcamps!
Step 5: Practice, practice, practice
It’s almost like going to the gym. There are tons of tricks you can apply in order to gain more muscle in less time but in the end, you need to do it regularly and you need to put in some hard work.
Many language learning products claim that learning can be almost effortless. Unfortunately it’s not. The real reason why some people succeed in language learning and others don’t is that some people don’t have enough motivation and willingness to practice the language over a longer period of time.
Sometimes, it might seem to be too difficult, but in fact it’s only a matter of more practice.
If a baby can learn a language then so can you. It takes a child about 6 years to ‘’speak’’ their first language. We assure you that with the right attitude you can do it in much less time.
As you can see in the videos, I’m not fluent in Russian yet, but at this stage the way forward is to keep finding fun ways to keep practicing it.