When I was a teenager, I believed that if I learned English, I could easily travel across the globe. My very first visit to Germany, then Poland and Spain helped me to realize that the global role of English is vastly overrated. If you want to follow beaten tourist tracks, English might be enough. People who are into tourist services normally can speak English well. But if you want to step off the tourist routes and explore a country on your own, you'd better learn the language of the country you are going to visit.
So, you are very excited about your upcoming trip to Russia, but you doubt that you can learn Russian during the two weeks before you leave. “Oh, come on, Russian is believed to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, and you want me to learn it in fourteen days?”, you might think. Well, you can still learn some Russian. Of course, nobody expects you to read the original version of “Crime and Punishment” during your flight to Moscow, but you can at least get yourself prepared to ask people for directions and understand their answers if you get lost somewhere between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Here are some tips on how to organize your emergency Russian course.
Learn the Russian alphabet. It is easier than you think. Split all the Russian characters into four groups. In the first group, put the characters that you already know. Yes, you know some Russian letters! There are at least five Russian letters that are the same as the English/Latin alphabet! The second group is for characters that represent familiar sounds, but look different – it is relatively easy. The next group is for characters that look similar to some English letters but represent different sounds. Those letters are the most confusing ones. The last group is for specific Russian characters that represent specific Russian sounds. This slideshow may help you to memorize Russian characters.
Train your ear for the Russian pronunciation of names of places. Now when you know how to read Russian characters, write down the most important words, such as the name of your hotel, the street where you plan to stay, the name of the underground station near your hotel, places where you plan to go (for example, the Baltschug-Kempinski hotel – oтель Балчуг-Кемпински, the Winter Palace – Зимний Дворец, the Bolshoy theater – Большой театр) and so on. Check these words on Forvo (pronunciation dictionary) and listen repeatedly to how Russians pronounce them.
Create your own emergency phrase book. You can use this downloadable list of phrases as an example. Practice articulating your phrases, pronounce each word slowly and distinctively. Don't focus too much on your accent though. As long as other people can understand you, you are fine.
Ah, how could you know that Russians understand you? You can find a partner online for speaking practice on iTalki, Lang-8 or similar language portals. There are many Russians looking for language exchange sessions, so they would be glad to help you to improve your pronunciation for free (or next to that).
So, by following these easy steps, you'll gain some confidence and, in the worst case, you have your emergency phrasebook printed and easily accessible. You are ready to go!
When in Russia, let your ears listen to the music of the Russian language. Like any other language, Russian has its specific rhythm and melody. Listen to it with your heart, not with your brain. Who knows, maybe your first trip to Russia is just the beginning of your love affair with the Russian language!