The Blueprint: The First 20 Hours of Learning the Russian Language for the Fresh Prince of Polyglotville

If you approach the development of a skill systematically, you can rapidly acquire proficiency in a foreign language. Define ‘quickly’, I hear you scoffing. Take 20 of the 10,000 study hours Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times bestseller ‘Outliers’ purports that we need for skill mastery, for instance. Why 20? It’s simple really. Doing an activity for 20 hours of your life might seem like a significant investment of our time. However, once you break it down into something less onerous, such as 40 minutes a day for a month, the commitment becomes much less daunting. Twenty hours is the sweet spot that will get you to take action today.

Part of the challenge involved in learning a new language for the first time, is identifying a fun and efficient way to learn your target language. I say fun, because you’re only human – you need to enjoy the process in order to trust that the process will work for you and develop the curiosity that will fuel your learning. I say efficient, because the quality of your study matters if you don’t want to suffer from burnout and simply give up mid-way through the challenge.

If you undertake self-study with a solid study plan , featuring well-defined, achievable and measurable goals, you can more easily track your progress and even if day-day-to you feel like you haven’t achieved much, when you look back at where you were on day 1 of the challenge and consider what you have achieved by day 10, you will see how all of the small steps you take to achieve your goal come together and add up to much bigger results. In fact, there is an entire Japanese philosophy based around the practice of continuous improvement called ‘kaizen’.

Realistically, perfection cannot be achieved in a mere 20 hours. But that is not the goal – progress is. Your language learning journey will always be a work-in-progress, because the task is never completed. Even in your native language, I am sure you still learn new words and grammatical concepts from time-to-time, which enhance your understanding of its structure and make you appear more learned in society. Simply dedicate time to studying effectively and the progress will come. If you document each milestone you have achieved, you’ll know that unlike a rocking horse, you’re not standing still.

Finding the best way for you to learn is a challenge in of itself. I hope that as you embark on this 20-hour journey, you acquire new insights into the language-learning process, develop a greater appreciation for your aptitude for self-study and discover that learning a new language isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t take a genius; it takes dedication and a plan, which you have neatly laid out for you below. You’ll go beyond the constraints of traditional learning apps such as Duolingo and Memrise, and truly engage with the language and aspects of Russian culture as much as possible.

Don’t worry if it takes you longer than the estimated time provided for each activity, or if you diverge somewhat from the plan. This 20-hour blueprint is simply a guideline and though it may work perfectly well for you to follow it to a T, it’s also fine to take aspects of it in order to structure your own language-learning programme!

If, at the end of the 20 hours, you discover that learning Russian is not for you, that’s still a valid achievement. You can move on and dedicate your free time to a hobby that proves more satisfying.

The honeymoon stage: 4 hours

This stage is nice and easy; like a honeymoon of sorts. You’re simply getting acquainted with the language and the mental demand is not very high.

1. Learn the alphabet (2 hours)

Start by learning how to read the Russian alphabet , which is written in Cyrillic. Learning to read in a new alphabet is a bit like looking at an avant-garde painting for the first time and not knowing precisely how to interpret it yet. The new combination of shapes which form each letter and the sounds behind each word are so foreign that you’re forced to proceed letter by letter and for a literate person, this can be extremely frustrating and might make you feel silly.

However, scary as the Russian alphabet may appear at first, many of the characters are actually pretty similar to letters in the English alphabet. I managed to learn how to pronounce the letters correctly in about an hour during a meeting I didn’t really need to be present at (it was in a foreign language I didn’t know at the time and there was no translator present). However, even if it takes you longer, it shouldn’t be more than a matter of hours or a few days.

Russian-speakers will typically tell you that they didn’t need a song to master their alphabet. However, I bet that there isn’t a single native speaker of English alive who doesn’t know and regularly use the ABC song well into adulthood when trying to put lists of words in order! Sesame street has a very catchy song which you can listen to here.

You might also be interested in this great comic by Peter Starr Northrop and Ryan Estrada, who break the alphabet down by exploring its history, mapping it to the Latin alphabet and introducing you to Russian vowels and the unique letters which though unpronounced, influence the sound of word.

If you’re the type of person who hates writing, you can use an app such as Memrise. The Memrise team have developed a wonderful introductory course to Russian, which features plenty of audio and video clips from native speakers of Russian. The first section involves nailing the Russian alphabet.


Be careful what you wish for though. Since learning and regularly using the Cyrillic alphabet, I always pause when writing the letter N in English, because mastering what I call the ‘backwards N’ (that is, и – pronounced like you’re lifting a heavy weight and not ‘en’) has rendered me incapable of automatically producing an N in English. Oh, and don’t beat yourself up too much about the fact you can’t hear any difference between ш – sh and щ – shsh. The purported distinction between the two remains a mystery to me. And it took me months before I stopped pronouncing the Russian ‘Н’ and ‘Р’ as I would the English ‘H’ and ‘P’ (in case you didn’t know, they are actually pronounced like the English ‘N’ and ‘R’ respectively).

The work doesn’t stop there. Once you know the sounds, you need to continue exposing yourself to them and actively engage with the letters through regular reading practice, in order to shift the knowledge you have gained from your short-term memory, to your long-term memory.

Don’t be disheartened by how slowly you read at the beginning. It is completely normal for learners to have to sound out the letters of a word they’re not familiar with at the start. I mean, have you ever seen a young child learning how to read? They fumble and stumble their way through relatively simple texts, but eventually they master the sounds and discover the joy in reading (or at least we hope they do!).

Try reading English texts written in Cyrillic to increase your reading speed more rapidly – you won’t have to worry about not knowing what each word means or how it should be pronounced, because you already know!

The good news is that once you have mastered the Russian alphabet, you’ll be able to read pretty much everything in Ukrainian and Belorussian, as well as a great deal of Serbian and Bulgarian characters too.

2. Try your hand at cursive (1 hour)

For the ability to read printed text, learning standard (non-cursive) Cyrillic is fine. If you need (or desire) to read things written by natives, then you will need to learn cursive Cyrillic because the two are not the same; many characters differ quite substantially from their printed counterparts.

However, for the first 20 hours, the aim is not necessarily to master cursive, but rather to create beauty for the sake of beauty and for the sense of accomplishment that it will give you. As a native speaker of English, you’re probably so used to the iconic ‘bubble’ handwriting that seeing the twirls of cursive is a novelty and something you admire.

In order to grasp the art of writing in cursive, simply write and experiment with recreating the shapes on a piece of paper. Given the fine motor skills I presume you possess at this stage of your life, the basic shapes required to write in cursive – straight lines, loops, curves – are relatively straightforward and will be no different from those required in the more familiar Latin alphabet.

As mentioned earlier, there are a few cursive characters which are completely different from the printed form and the reason for this is that they are more challenging to draw by hand. One aspect of language learning which is very important is developing the ability to identify patterns. Print out the two alphabets (cursive and print) side-by-side and go through each letter, circling those which change the most. Those are the ones which you need to spend more time on as the cursive form will be less intuitive.

One really crazy thing is just how incomprehensible a person’s cursive script can be in real life. Just take a look at the collection of notes from native speakers of Russian over at Bored Panda here . The letters all appear to merge into one and for an anglophone at least, it would appear that only the most talented spy could decipher it. However, the greatest barrier to reading it is lack of practice and a limited vocabulary, making it difficult to anticipate what the writer had in mind using context alone. So as with anything, practice makes perfect.

3. Learn some common phrases (1 hour)

In under 10 minutes, Katya from RussianPod101 will take you through some of the most commonly used expressions in the Russian language. Katya’s approach is quite unlike most videos on Youtube which cycle through the expressions systematically. They have their place in language learning of course, but it is far more interesting to watch Katya with her bubbly and engaging character as well as the examples she provides.

The commitment stage: 11 hours

This stage is somewhat challenging as it requires more mental effort and greater resilience for you not to give up when the going gets tough. Only the most determined will survive this stage and arrive in the land of milk and honey where you can finally enjoy the language for what it is because much more of what you read and hear (without intentionally choosing material graded according to your ability) is comprehensible input .

4. Memorise a list of just 25 of the most common verbs in Russian (2 hours)

Practising is essential to improvement and if you want to set yourself goals you will actually achieve and structure your learning programme so that you can monitor your progress overtime, take the time to learn how to create a SMARTER study plan . The first objective I would recommend tackling once you’ve understand how to set measurable goals, is memorising the most frequently used Russian verbs.

To learn the top 25 verbs, watch this video featuring Katya over at RussianPod101 as many times as you need to. It’s under 10 minutes and beyond dedicated you can get your practice in by optimising time spent in the shower, commuting to work, or during periods of dedicated language study.

Unsure how to get started? Whenever she pronounces a verb, write down the verb in Cyrillic and then a phonetic transcription using the Latin alphabet and an accent mark for where the stress should fall. For example, I might write ‘bée|tchuh’ and add a reminder to pronounce the first syllable as though I were being punched in the stomach. The reason for this is that the sound simply doesn’t exist in English, so when I need to approximate an unknown sound, I draw inspiration from wherever I can get it in order to record the transcription as accurately as possible and remember how to pronounce the word.

Now, when it comes to memorising the verbs, you have plenty of options. In fact, I came up with 22 different ways to hack your memory and increase your vocabulary right here . Whether you go down the classic route of rote memorisation, spice up the memorisation process by trying something new in the list, or make use of spaced-repetition tools (you’ll find Anki, Memrise, or the newly-created Monument*, to name a few), you’re sure to be headed in the right direction.

*Monument has a beautiful interface and it’s easy to get started. However, hurry as it is an invite-only application, with only a limited number of users permitted at this time (October 2020)! I pinky promise that this isn’t a paid promotion – I simply signed up as soon as I came across it because I felt that it looked like a quality product.

Russian verb

English translation

1.

быть*

to be

2.

сказа́ть

to say

3.

мочь

to be able to

4.

говори́ть

to talk

5.

знать

to know

6.

cтать

to become

7.

есть

to exist / there is

8.

хоте́ть

to want

9.

ви́деть

to see

10.

стоя́ть

to stand

11.

ду́мать

to think

12.

спра́шивать

to ask

13.

жить

to live

14.

смотре́ть

to watch / look

15.

сиде́ть

to sit

16.

ку́шать / есть

to eat

17.

име́ть

to have

18.

брать (regular action) / взя́ть (a one-time action)

to take

19.

де́лать

to do

20.

понима́ть

to understand

21.

каза́ться

to appear / seem

22.

дава́ть

to give

23.

ходи́ть / идти́

to go, to walk

24.

спать

to sleep

*Note that быть (to be), is not used in the present tense in Russian.

25. Engage in some verb + noun / verb + adjective / verb + verb mind mapping (2 hours)

Once you have learnt the list of verbs above, the next step I would recommend is that you start to build sentences with the verbs you now know and learn commonly-used nouns and adjectives in order to put into practise what you know. By investing time in creating vocabulary mind maps for each verb, you’ll find that you have a strong basis from which to start communicating at a basic level once you get to the next stage (learning conjugation patterns), as these mind maps will help you to visualise how the various parts of speech come together in the Russian language.

To aid my pronunciation, whenever I encounter new words pronounced by a native speaker, wherever I can, I add an accent mark above the letter upon which the stress falls. This makes it much easier to pronounce new words accurately when you don’t have a native speaker to rely upon. They are not used in the Russian language, but many books targeted at learners, as well as dictionaries, make use of accent marks. They will greatly assist your comprehension as you will hear the words pronounced in the way you have become accustom to pronouncing them yourself. If you’re ever unsure about the standard stress of a particular word and don’t have access to native-speaker input, use Russiangram, an English-language website with a useful tool that will add the relevant stress marks. Another great website is Morpher. If you select Демо (Demo) and Расстановка ударений (Placement of stress) from the menu, you will find the same but for a predominantly Russian or Russian-speaking user-base. You can use the Google Translate add-on available in the Chrome Web Store to translate such websites.

26. Deconstruct Russian conjugation patterns in the present tense (2 hours)

The next stage is to practise repeating basic sentences and collocations in Russian and that requires knowledge of the Russian conjugation system, that is, how each verb changes form with each pronoun in the present tense. In Russian, the present tense is used to express actions taking place at the time of speaking, to express facts, to describe a person or a thing, to describe habitual actions or to describe actions which began in the past and are still happening.

First, download my Russian verb conjugation cheat sheet , a handy guide which will walk you through many aspects of Russian grammar. You’ll find the section dealing with the present tense in the top right-hand corner. The most important thing to understand is that the basic form of any verb is called the infinitive form. In English, such forms are constructed with the preposition to placed before the word describing a state or an action. For example:

to be, to play, to study

In Russian, the infinitive form can be recognised by four endings: – ать, –ять (both of which are from a group called verbs of the first conjugation) and – еть, or –ить (both of which are from another group called verbs of the second conjugation). From all of these endings, we simply remove –ть and attach a suffix (a group of letters we add to the end of a word) in order to form a new verb which is unique to each pronoun. This is called verb conjugation and each change in the form of a verb is called an inflection. The reason for this is that if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the verbs possess very similar constructions, but for the last couple of letters and that, though the meaning remains the same, there is a change in the way it is used in sentences, as an inflection for one pronoun, cannot be used for another, as it would be grammatically incorrect.

In English, we don’t worry about this so much, as our verbs change very little, particularly in the present tense. In fact, with the exception of the highly irregular verb ‘to be’, the only change we really see in verbs is with the pronoun called the third person singular – he / she / it, which requires the addition of -s/-es/-ies depending on the spelling rules in play.

For example, let’s take a look at the verb ‘to walk’ in English, a regular verb that plays nicely.

Number

Person

Pronoun

Verb inflection in the present tense

Singular

First person singular

I

walk

Second person singular

You (singular)

walk

Third person singular

He / she / it

walks

Plural

First person plural

We

walk

Second person plural

You (plural)

walk

Third person plural

They

walk

As you can see, once we removed the preposition ‘to’, we simply added a pronoun, which was followed by the word describing an action (walking). The verb form doesn’t actually change at all, apart from for the third person singular. So, not only do we have it pretty easy when it comes to verb conjugation in English, learners of English benefit from it too. Simply knowing the infinitive form is sufficient for the purposes of communicating in the present tense.

In Russian, on the other hand, each pronoun requires a different verb inflection. That means that if you wish to avoid misunderstandings, you need to use the correct inflection for the pronoun. For example, let’s take a look at the verb to work in Russian.

Number

Person

Pronoun

Verb inflection

Singular

First person singular

Я

работаю

Second person singular

Ты (singular, informal)

работаешь

Third person singular

Он / она / оно

работает

Plural

First person plural

Мы

работаем

Second person plural

Вы (plural and formal)

работаете

Third person plural

Oни

работают

Did you notice something? After removing the ending –ть we attached a suffix and not a single pronoun possesses the same form as another. On the one hand, this means that in Russian, you don’t even need to use a pronoun before someone understands that you’re addressing them, or referring to another person. We could never do this in English. If you turned around to someone and simply said ‘work’ they would think that you were either: (a) plain rude for barking commands at them (using a verb without a pronoun is associated with the imperative form); or (b) a caveman, because who uses verbs without providing contextual cues in the form of a pronoun in English??

The ways in which each verb changes are clearly outlined in my Russian verb conjugation cheat sheet and hopefully this helps you to make sense of the rules. To help you wrap your head around what I’ve said above, check out this great video from Russian Comprehensive.

For drill practice, a learning style I mentioned in my guide on the top 12 polyglot learning techniques, the Youtube channel Boost Your Russian is an excellent, with past, present and future tense conjugations for 10 popular verbs* here and drill practice covering the verbsестьto eat (after an overview of the conjugation pattern, the fill in the gap exercise beginshere) and идти – to go (after an overview of the conjugation pattern, the fill in the gap exercise begins here), in the present tense.

To learn the patterns, you can either do so naturally (through gradual exposure over time which will cause your brain to retain the verbs encountered often enough), or put in some hard work in the form of drilling (you only have 20 hours after all!). The rules outlined in the Russian verb conjugation cheat sheet should cover pretty much every verb in Russian. With anything that falls outside of the rules, you will simply have to learn them. However, using the 80:20 Pareto Efficiency principle, focus your energy on learning verb forms you can predictably construct.

At this time, you can leave your education on irregular verb formations tocorrection by native speakers, gradual exposure to the correct form (through reading practice, listening to music or podcasts, watching Russian videos and studying Russian grammar) and time (eventually it will stick!).

For a natural way to learn non-standard verbs, bookmark this epic compilation of Russian-language resources, which you can explore once you have completed your 20 hours.

27. Explore Russian conjugation patterns in the past tense (1 hour)

The past tense, which describes completed events or actions (things that have already occurred and are completely finished), is very straightforward in Russian. We simply remove the ending –ть and attach one of four potential suffixes. The formation of Russian verbs in the past tense is gender and number specific. This means that the rule applied is dependent on: (1) the grammatical gender of a word, or the biological/preferred gender of a person speaking in the first person (i.e. using the English pronoun ‘I’); and (2) the number of grammatical persons referred to (that is, is the pronoun singular – I, you, he, she, it, or plural – we, you, they).

If you check out my Russian verb conjugation cheat sheet , you’ll see that we simply remove the the suffix –л is added to masculine singular subjects, –ла to feminine singular subjects, –ло toneuter singular subjects and –ли to plural subjects of all genders. The Youtube channel mentioned earlier – Boost Your Russian – is an excellent resource for past tense drill practice. You’ll find conjugations for 10 popular verbs* here and drill practice covering the verbsбытьto be (after an overview of the conjugation pattern, the fill in the gap exercise beginshere) and есть* – to eat (after an overview of the conjugation pattern, the fill in the gap exercise begins here), in the past tense. You can check out samples of the drill course created by the Boost Your Russian channel and sign up to her drill course here.**

*This is an irregular verb.

**I do not have any financial dealings with Boost Your Russian and I am simply promoting the channel because it is the only high quality drill course I have found to date for Russian.

28. Explore Russian conjugation patterns in the future tense (2 hours)

There are two types of future tenses and you’ll need to get your head around an important concept in Russian called verbal aspect . Watch the videos provided in the link and then you can return to this page.

In summary, there are only three main tenses in Russian, making it much easier than English in that sense, which possesses around 4 types of each main tense (past, present and future). However, almost every Russian verb comes as a pair: one contains a prefix (letters added to the beginning of the word which change the meaning in some way) and one does not. The two types of verbs clarify whether a process is ongoing or habitual with no definite end, or the extent to which an action has been or will be completed. This is called verbal aspect.

The imperfective future is used to describe: (1) repeated or habitual actions which will take place in the future for an indefinite period of time, or (2) actions without considering their completion or the result of the said actions, in a manner equivalent to thesimple future (will + infinitive), present continuous with future meaning and future continuous (will + to be + [verb]+ing) tenses in English.

It is formed with the auxiliary (‘helping’) verb быть (to be) in the future tense and the infinitive of an imperfective verb.

Imperfective future tense of the verb быть

+ infinitive verb

Я буду

Ты будешь

Он/она/оно будет

Мы будем

Вы будете

Они будут

For example: To study – учить (imperfective)

I’m going to study / will be studying English this afternoon. – Я буду учить английский сегодня днём. (No consideration of result)

A: What will you be doing this weekend? – Что ты будешь делать в эти выходные?

B: I’ll be doing my laundry . – Я буду стирать.

The perfective future can provide an equivalent to the future perfect tense form in English (i.e. ‘will have…’) – though not exclusively. It is used to describe: (1) actions taking place in the future, but with an emphasis on the completion of a particular task, or the achievement of a particular result, by a definite point of time in future; or (2) a one-time action.

To form the perfective future, remove the verb ending –ть and add the present tense endings to the perfective stem (that is, what remains when you remove -ть) . For example:

To readпрочитать (perfective)

A: Who will read the text below? – Кто прочитает текст ниже?

B: I will read it . – я прочитаю (A one-time action)

I will have completed my homework by the time you come over. – Я закончу домашнее задание к тому времени, как ты придешь.

Other notes of importance

Note that as the word уже (already) indicates completion, it must be used with a perfective verb.

A: I will try to come over to your place this afternoon. – Я постараюсь прийти к тебе сегодня днем.

B: I’m sorry, but I will have left by then. – Простите, но к тому времени я уже уйду.

Following prepositions such as после (after),если (if), до (until), пока (while)’, and когда (when) in Russian, use the future tense, rather than the present tense (as would be the case in English). For example:

If I go to Moscow next week, I will call you. – Если я буду в Москве на этой неделе, я позвоню тебе.

When I go to the market, I will buy you some strawberries. – Когда я пойду на рынок, я куплю тебе клубнику.

The present tense can be employed to announce future events or actions, provided that there is certainty they will take place or occur. For example:

I’m going to the cinema tomorrow. – Завтра я иду в кино.

I will tell him in the evening. – Я скажу ему вечером.

29. Nouns gender (1 hour)

In Russian, everything possesses one of three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. This concept does not exist in the English language, with the exception of a few words inherited during the Norman conquest, such as blond (used to describe male hair colour) and blonde (used to describe female hair colour). As a result of the grammatical gender of nouns, it is essential to know the precise grammatical gender of a noun, because it affects the choice of pronoun, verb conjugation and adjectives used alongside the noun.

For example:

She is a beautiful woman. – Он красивый женщина. ❌

This is incorrect because он is masculine pronoun and красивый is the masculine form of the adjective meaning ‘handsome, beautiful’. The comment was made about the beauty of a woman. Therefore, the correct sentence would be Она красивая женщина. ✅

Explore the endings in the table and then watch the video below on nominative case nouns in Russian.

Once you’re done, check out this video of the top 25 nouns in Russian and see if you can accurately identify their gender on a piece of paper.

Learn more about nouns in the nominative case here at bullet point 2. The nominative case is the basic form of a noun or pronoun, which is provided in Russian dictionaries and is the form you were introduced to above. However, although Russian is generally regarded as possessing 6 cases, for the sake of time and in the name of prioritisation, we are going to forget about the other case forms for now. The Russian case system is perhaps the most confusing concept for native speakers of English as it doesn’t play a major role in the English language. However, I created a series of thoroughly-researched guides on them all, which I’ll link to at the end of the article.

Nominative case singular endings

Gender

Singular

Examples

Masculine

-ø* / -й / -ь

стол (table)

музей (museum)

лошадь (horse)

Feminine

-a / -я / -ь

ручка (pen)

кухня (kitchen)

ночь (night)

Neuter

-о / -е

дерево (tree)

солнце (sun)


*Means no vowel.

Nominative case singular endings

It is relatively easy to form the plural in English; we simply add the letter ‘s’. However, in Russian the plurals change in accordance with the grammatical gender of the noun. To make it easier to digest, I’ve broken it down into three simple rules below.

Masculine nouns

If the last letter is ending with a consonant, then add -ы.

For example:

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

cake

торт

торты

table

стол

столы

But

If the last letter ends in the partial vowel -й, replace it with -и.

For example:

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

museum

музей

музеи

tea

чай

чаи

Also, if the last letter ends in the soft sign -ь, replace it with -и.

For example:

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

dictionary, vocabulary

словарь

словари

Feminine nouns

If the last letter ends in the vowel -а, replace it with -ы.

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

newspaper

газета

газеты

visa

виза

визы

If the last letter ends in the partial vowel -я, replace it with -и.

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

surname

фамилия

фамилии

If the last letter ends in the soft sign -ь, replace it with -и.

For example:

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

exercise book

тетрадь

тетради

pain

боль

боли

Neuter nouns

If the last letter ends in the vowel -о, replace it with –а.

For example:

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

letter

письмо

письма

window

окно

окна

If the last letter is ending with the partial vowel -е, replace it with -я.

For example:

English translation

Nominative singular in Russian

Nominative plural in Russian

building

здание

здания

sea

море

моря

30. Adjectives (45 minutes)

Russian adjectives must correspond in gender and number with the noun they are describing. For example:

A red pencil

Красный карандаш

A red shirt

Красная рубашка

A red sky

Красное небо

Red jumpers

Красные прыгуны

Typically, Russian adjectives appear before the noun. You can see that the colour red has different endings depending on the noun being described. The vast majority of adjectives adopt the declension pattern for ‘hard stem’ adjectives below, meaning that they have a stressed stem (the part that is left when the ending is removed), or a stressed ending. However, there are also a number of soft-stem adjectives, for which the stress always falls on the stem. A list of soft-stem adjectives can be found here .

masculine

feminine

neuter

plural

Hard-stem adjectives

-ый

-ая

-ое

-ые

Soft-stem adjectives

-ий

-яя

-ее

-ие

Note the following:

  • И is used instead of ы after a sibilant (ш, ж, ч,щ) or velar (к, г, х) consonant.

  • Neuter adjectives take -ее after a sibilant consonant.

In Russian, everything possesses one of three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. This concept does not exist in the English language, with the exception of a few words inherited during the Norman conquest, such as blond (used to describe male hair colour) and blonde (used to describe female hair colour). As a result of the grammatical gender of nouns, it is essential to know precisely what grammatical gender a noun possesses because it affects the choice of pronoun, verb conjugation (as indicated in the first bullet point above) and adjectives used alongside the noun.

For example:

She is a beautiful woman. – Он красивый женщина. ❌

This is incorrect because он is masculine pronoun and красивый is the masculine form of the adjective meaning ‘handsome, beautiful’. The comment was made about the beauty of a woman. Therefore, the correct sentence would be Она красивая женщина. ✅

31. Sentence structure (15 minutes)

At its core, Russian is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language. This means that non-complex sentences begin with a pronoun, are followed by a verb and then the person, creature or object, receiving the action of the verb, just as in English. However, Russian is much more flexible than English in this respect depending on a specific aspect that a native speaker might wish to emphasise. In any case, stick to the SVO formula, even for questions (whereas in English we begin questions with either a question word, or a verb) and you’ll do just fine.

The video below will take you through a number of examples.

The bonding stage: 5 hours

Now that you have a fairly solid grasp of key aspects of Russian grammar and have acquired a broad range of essential nouns and adjectives, it’s time to explore Russian culture through Russian music, podcasts, cartoons, films, TV series and art. Aim to indulge in enjoyable resources for learning Russian as you attune your ears to the sounds of spoken Russian. Ideally, the resources you use should be comprehensible for maximum effectiveness and I’ll speak about this in greater depth below. Engaging with Russian culture in this way will restore the high you experienced when you first decided to embark on this language journey, which might have taken somewhat of a hit through the difficult ‘commitment’ stage. Discovering a resource you enjoy learning from will protect your motivation from waning and help you to nurture your interests during moments of struggle.

32. Listen to music (1 hour, on-going)

First download the Language Learning with Youtube (another great tool from the team that produced Language Learning with Netflix) from the Google Chrome Web Store . Language Learning with Youtube allows users to see subtitles or translations, as well as quickly pause a video by clicking on a single word which they would like to hear again or discover the meaning of.

Explore Russian artists in Last.fm’s directory here, or listen to the Russian songs featured in the many Russian playlists available on Youtube covering a wide range of genres. Look for a song that you like, find the lyrics online (I highly recommend Lyrics Translate, as you can display the Russian lyrics alongside your native language if the original lyrics have been submitted in your native language) and listen to it on repeat, eventually singing along after listening to it a few times for pure enjoyment. If you find useful new collocations related to verbs you previously created in mind maps, stick them in the mind map you created earlier for review and practice.

Listen to one or two songs you like on repeat whenever you get an opportunity to do so, once you gone through the lyrics a few times and have a clear idea of what the song is about. Sing along as much as possible in order to memorise the lyrics and you’ll build your vocabulary in a fun way. It is much easier to remember words when they are connected to a catchy melody.

As you can see from the number of playlists discovered below on Youtube and Spotify and the top hits chart, Russia has a highly popular dance/house and rap scene. However, if that is not your thing, there are other genres to explore below. If you would like to make a contribution to this list, please leave a comment below or contact me using the Contact form.

Genre

Playlists

Top hits (pop and more) nationwide

Here , here and here .

Acoustic

Here

Alternative pop

Here and here .

Alternative pop / electronica

Here , here and here (Youtube and Spotify versions respectively).

Drum and bass / rap

Here

Folk

Here and here .

House

Here

Indie / pop rock

Here , here, here and here .

Metal

Here , here , here , here , here , here and here.

R&B

Here

Rock/punk

Here , here , here , here , here , here , here , here , here , here and here.

I highly recommend the Ukrainian group Бумбокс, who sing in both Russian and Ukrainian. Some of their best Russian songs are here , here , here , here, here and here.

Russian rap

Here , here , here, here and here .

Russian trap

Here

Soviet synthpop from the 80s

Here

33. Watch a cartoon, TV series, or film in Russian using a service like Netflix (2 hours)

Watch a TV series on Netflix with Russian audio and Russian subtitles that precisely match the audio. You will know that the audio matches the subtitles because it will say ‘Russian [CC]’. Every time you do not understand a word, look for the translation on Google. A great Google Chrome extension to install is Language Learning with Netflix, available in the Google Chrome Store here . By allowing two subtitles to be displayed at once for ease of translation, the need to stop the show to research a translation is limited, for a more seamless viewing experience. In addition, the tool gives you complete control over the speed at which the characters are speaking (particularly useful for those at the beginning stages of learning Russian). A particularly cool feature to activate is ‘Pause on mouse hover’, which will pause the show or film until you move your cursor away, thereby giving you a chance to digest new vocabulary without developing repetitive strain injury(!)

In order to get the most out of watching a show, increase how comprehensible it is by choosing a short cartoon or TV series with an on-going narrative. This will enable you get well-acquainted with the characters and the plotline, allowing you to infer meaning from the context much more easily. In addition, read the plot summary onIMDB or Wikipedia prior to watching the show. Netflix also provides summaries. If you discover any interesting words, write them down in your notebook. You can find a list of Russian TV series available on Netflix here , and Russian films/movies on Netflix here and here .

34. Organise a language exchange (1 hour)

Not everyone has the budget for one-to-one tuition, but it isn’t necessary if you approach a language exchange the right way. Joining a language exchange group is a great way to meet native speakers of Russian who are keen to learn English in exchange for helping you with Russian and not only is it free, but the dynamic between you and your language buddy will be much less hierarchical as they are typically multidirectional rather than unidirectional.

Without common interests being discovered, language exchanges can feel rather transactional. However, by this stage, you will not only have a solid grasp of Russian grammar, but also a bunch of cultural references to draw upon when interacting with a native speaker who is immersed in Russian culture. You will be able to talk about Russian music, a TV series, a film etc and even if this is done in English on your part, you are still creating a solid basis for a cultural exchange.

Simply post on an exchange such asMeet Up, My Language Exchange, or even one of the many

Russian threads on Reddit and you are bound to find a language partner. Schedule a meeting for 30 minutes to one hour. That should give you 15-30 minutes in Russian and your language partner 15-30 minutes in the language in which you are offering them practice.

You shouldn’t enter a language exchange completely unprepared at such an early stage in your Russian language journey. With a very limited active vocabulary it will be difficult to string together thoughts irrespective of your ability to understand what is being said to you. Therefore, I recommend that you select a topic or two, write a short paragraph on that topic in your native language, paste it into an online translator, memorise the passage and then recite it during your call. Don’t forget to paste the passage in Russiangram, an English-language website with a useful tool that will add the relevant stress marks. The translation may not be perfect, but you can have your language partner correct any errors in translation later.

Once you have finished reciting the passage, ask your language partner to help you check it for spelling errors. Don’t worry about making mistakes because it is often the best way to learn and remember rules. Memorising a short piece of text will help you to develop your confidence in the topic you study as you won’t suffer from a deficit in the vocabulary you need to communicate. It is also a great way to put a little pressure on yourself to boost your vocabulary.

During the process of memorising a sentence, beyond the intended meaning, be sure to check the meaning of every word for a comprehensive understanding of the structure of the language and don’t be afraid to search for answers to queries you have online, or ask for clarification in online forums such as Reddit or Duolingo.

35. Reward yourself with a meal at a local Russian restaurant (1 hour)

If you live in a city with a Russian-speaking community, study items of food with Katya at RussianPod101here and here and then have lunch or dinner at a local Russian restaurant! Ask for the menu in Russian and try to identify as many items of food as possible. You can let the waiter(ess) know that you’re learning Russian and wanted an opportunity to practise using what you have learnt, or hear the language around you.

For a beginners’ introduction to making requests in a restaurant, check out the video below.

If you’re up for a challenge, even more phrases are introduced in the video below, complete with stress marks.

Even if you don’t feel confident enough to order in Russian, try to use the useful phrases you learnt early on from Katya, such as greetings and polite words such as thank you.

Conclusion

For a native-speaker of English, particularly a monolingual one at that, learning Russian is no easy feat and once you have reached the end of your 20-hour journey (if you even made it that far!) you will either be determined to continue, or convinced that you don’t so much as want to touch the language with a barge pole again.

If you’re in the latter camp, I understand and it’s unfortunate that you came to that decision. However, I understand the frustrations involved in learning a foreign language and I wish you the best in your future endeavours.

For those of you who decide to stick with learning Russian, welcome to the polyglot club. Through every stage of your journey, I will be here to support you and I am happy to share everything I know about learning a language, tips and tricks you can use to simplify learning Russian, to bring fantastic resources to your attention and to help you avoid the many pitfalls people fall into when it comes to Russian grammar.

Now you have the basic foundations of Russian under your belt, pull up the epic list of Russian resources you bookmarked earlier and peruse the wealth of Russian-language resources that exist!

Remember that there is no one perfect technique which works for everyone. Check out this link and select the one you think will work best for you and your preferred learning style and don’t be afraid to switch things up if you want to try something different.

As you progress to intermediate level proficiency, increasing the breadth of your vocabulary becomes ever-more important, so be sure to read up on powerful memorisation techniques .

A key feature of Russian grammar which we didn’t delve into for the first 20 hours, is the Russian case system . The case system is perhaps the most confusing concept for native speakers of English as it doesn’t play a major role in the English language. However, I created a series of thoroughly-researched guides on the nominative , genitive , dative , accusative , instrumental or prepositional cases in the summer of 2020 and I genuinely don’t believe that there is a more comprehensive treatment of the cases on the internet. However, I am always open to feedback! If you believe that they can be improved in any way, please let me know.

Commit to learning the functions of each case individually. In the guides I created on this website, the functions of each case are neatly divided by bullet points and I would recommend that you gradually work your way through each of the functions associated with a certain case, refraining from progressing to the next bullet point until you are comfortable that you have a solid grasp of each concept to which you were introduced and you reach the point where you know what changes need to be made to a word in both your written and spoken speech.

Once you’ve gotten to grips with the specific endings used to decline words (you’ll find amazing cheat sheets at the end of each guide, or in the Language Study Crib Sheets section here ), you can start to use online resources to test yourself and really commit the knowledge to your long-term memory. For a list of some of the best resources you can use to practise case declension in Russian, click here .

2 Replies to “The Blueprint: The First 20 Hours of Learning the Russian Language for the Fresh Prince of Polyglotville”

  1. That’s a LOT of information to help us. I’m not using this only to study Russian for 20, 30, 40 hours or so, but as a life-long exercise and example to learning any language. Thank you, and keep us updated!

    Like

    1. Rubensgpl, glad to hear you found value in this article. Although the website was created to help people master Russian grammar and achieve fluency in the language, much of the content is useful for learning any language. Thank you for your comment and hope to hear how you’re getting on soon!

      Like

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