How to Survive Your First Russian Language Class

So, you’ve decided to fulfill your college’s language requirement by signing up for a Russian class! You are truly one in a million considering Russian is one of the least studied major languages among American students despite the fact that upwards of 300 million people speak it worldwide.

That being said, you are probably well aware of the Russian language’s reputation as being quite difficult. You are either always up for a challenge, or you’ve spent most of high school obsessed with the Romanovs and the Soviet Union for some reason. Regardless, welcome!

I was once in the exact position: frightened, excited, and eager to learn such a unique and poetic language. I was even lucky enough to attend a study abroad program in Moscow the summer before my freshman year of college (more details here!). Here are a few Russian language learning tips from someone that loves languages but is really bad at studying them consistently:

Our first day of Russian classes in Moscow. I remember we were reviewing the Cyrillic alphabet and numbers 0-10. (I am the only one standing and eating an apple because we were taking a short break in the middle of the almost 4 hour class!)

#1 Start early

If you plan on taking Russian classes soon, start learning this very second! (Actually, start after you finish reading this blog, please.)

In Russian, a little really goes a long way. Taking time out to learn and become comfortable using the Cyrillic alphabet will save you a lot of time during class when recording notes and writing the language in general.

Most importantly, you will have already accomplished a major step toward learning Russian! You will practically be able to read everything because Russian is a highly phonetic language compared to English. (Well, almost everything once you realize there are silent letters in Russian as well, ex. Здравствуйте)

#2 Take breaks

If you’re like me and get very excited at the start of studying a language that you spend the first few weeks learning it for several hours a day, then a few weeks later, you can't be bothered to open up Duolingo.

Take a minute to slow down and think about ways to avoid language learning burn out. Learning a language is a long term process, and is in many ways a lifelong pursuit. For me personally, I took a year-long break from formal Russian study during my sophomore year of college after taking Russian classes virtually over the summer. The program was very intense and included four hours of class each day followed by hours of homework. While I learned a lot, I knew that I needed to take a break, especially due to the online format of the course. I have found other ways to practice Russian here and there before jumping back into Russian in college.

Even when studying Russian in college, take at least one day out of your week to relax. Many beginner’s Russian courses, including my own, meet every day of the week, which can become exhausting after a while. Although language learning takes consistency, it is OK to give your mind a chance to recuperate and process the information you've been learning.

#3 Switch it up

Always try to maintain variety in your learning methods. Try out several different apps, books, and online resources until you find a few that are engaging and helpful. My personal favorites are Mango Languages and Rosetta Stone, both of which are often free to access through your university or public library.

Be creative! For example, make a TikTok account solely for Russian. All you have to do is like, comment, and share majority Russian TikToks on the “For You Page” and soon you'll get an entire page full of cultural and language immersion. You may want to follow and search Russian creators or hashtags to increase your language content. Oftentimes, these videos have either Russian and/or English captions that are very helpful for comprehension and pronunciation.

A couple weeks into the program, we started learning our first case, accusative case, and practicing conjugating new verbs with another USPR ambassador's Michele Obama pencil case by my side.

#4 Label everything

Whether you do it physically or mentally, labeling items around your living space is a great way to learn new and useful vocabulary. Start by labeling common items in your bedroom then move to other areas once you've finished. After you're done, you’ll gain a visual association between an object and its corresponding Russian word. Soon you’ll even be able to ask the nurses at the hospital in Russia if you need anything (based on a true story)!

These are just a few ideas to aid in learning Russian that I picked up after learning Russian during my NSLI-Y summer program and in college. I am definitely going to be revisiting these next semester once classes begin again.

Удачи в учебе! (Good luck studying!)

До встречи, (Until next time,)