Sunday, August 20, 2017

How to Memorize the Russian Alphabet

The Russian alphabet scares a lot of people off from learning Russian. This is sad, because the language itself is no more difficult than any other language in the world. Russian children have a little advantage over speakers of languages that use the Latin script, because Latin characters surround Russians everywhere - from vitamins, to chessboard, to global brands, to Hollywood movies. An average, educated Russian is familiar with the Latin letters even if they don’t speak any foreign language. Unfair, huh?

Does Cyrillic (this is the name of the Russian script) make learning Russian more difficult? Of course, it does. If you struggle with the Russian alphabet - no worries, it is absolutely normal. Is Cyrillic so hard that you should give up learning Russian? Certainly not! I’ve been teaching Russian online for seven years, and I haven’t had a student who could not learn the Russian alphabet eventually. This is doable, and everybody who once learned their own alphabet can learn Cyrillic as well. Here are a few techniques, tips, and tricks that proved to work for my students.

Break It Down


Most books for teachers of Russian as a foreign language suggest breaking the alphabet down to a few groups: the letters that look AND sound similar to their English counterparts (A, E, K, M, O, T), the letters that look like English letters, but represent different sounds (В, Д, С, Н, Р, У, Х), the letters that look different, but represent familiar sounds (Б, Г, З, И, Й, Л, П, Ф), and lastly, the group of letters that look and sound completely strange to English speakers (Ё, Ж, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ы, Э, Ю, Я), along with the two letters that represent no sound at all (Ъ, Ь). This technique is good for starters. It won’t help you to memorize the letters, but at least it will let you familiarize yourself with the Russian alphabet. Also, learning letters in groups is better than trying to memorize them all at once. When I just started teaching Russian, I designed a slideshow with the Russian alphabet split into those groups. I really believe that it works.


Guessing Games


There are words in any language that need no translation, and that makes them perfect for learning a new alphabet. Those words could be:
  • Global brand names (Pepsi is Pepsi everywhere, right? But in Russian, it is Пепси);
  • Names of celebrities and internationally recognized people (writers, scientists, artists etc.);
  • Geographic proper names, especially city names (Berlin - Берлин);
  • International vocabulary (printer - принтер, passport - паспорт).

Brands are the easiest of the games for memorizing Russian letters. I show my students logos of global brands with their names in Russian. Students feel no pressure, because they can easily recognize brands, but usually everybody gets amused by how differently the brand names look in Russian. This game is perfect for the first steps of internalizing the Russian alphabet.


I like playing the “Guess Who” game with my students. I type the name of a celebrity, and they guess who it is. I start with something pretty simple (Брэд Питт - Brad Pitt) and gradually increase the complexity. Another game is “Geography lesson,” where I type the names of cities, states, and countries, and my students guess what place it is. There are some limitations for the geographic names, because there are countries that sound quite different in Russian compared to English (Грузия - Georgia, Польша - Poland, for example), but generally, I find this game as helpful as the other two.

To play this game, you’ll need a tutor or a partner, preferably a native Russian speaker. You can make those games a part of your language exchange sessions. You can also use Wikipedia and work with brand names and proper names all by yourself. Just find an article about your favorite celebrity or your city in Wikipedia and switch to the Russian version.

Letter By Letter Replacement


I accidentally found this method in one of the a Russian blogs, and liked it for its simplicity. Here it is: replace one English letter with the corresponding Russian letter, one at a time. For example, з = [z], i.e. vocalized [z] for s and z like in eaзy or зoo iз Russian з. It iз eaзier than it seems. Your eyeз will get accustomed soon. You still can read all theзe wordз. And your mind memoriзes what sound this letter repreзents.

Add another лetter - л=L. Stiлл readabлe, iзn’t it? Start with the most frequent лetterз and proceed with the лess frequent. You got the idea. Briллiant, iзn’t it?

Handwriting Helps


By handwriting, I don’t mean that unreadable cursive. Yes, it is true that Russian children start writing cursive in the first grade, and by the age of 14, an average Russian develops their personalized variation of the Russian cursive handwriting. But, you don’t need to learn cursive right away, and you definitely do not need to learn it until you internalize the Russian alphabet. What I am suggesting is grab a pen and a piece of paper and write those letters by hand.

I’m learning Chinese, which is very different from all the languages that I have learned before. Memorizing characters is, probably, as difficult for me as memorizing Russian characters is for you. Along with the application that helps students to learn Chinese characters by drawing them on a touchscreen, I write them in an old-school manner - by hand, with a pen and paper. This simple exercise facilitates memorizing new characters tremendously. And this is not just my subjective opinion, it is all backed with science. A Soviet neuropsychologist and developmental psychologist, Alexander Luria, wrote in one of his works that when people write by hand, they activate a specific area in their brain, the one that is responsible for our 3D perception of the world. When we write, we create a volumetric image of a letter in our brain, and thus, we “acquire” it. Write Russian letters by hand, and you’ll memorize them in no time.

Letters Do Not Equal Sounds


You should keep in mind that in many languages, what you see is often not what you hear. Russian spelling does not follow the actual pronunciation of words. For example, some Russian vowels sound differently when they are in the stressed versus the unstressed syllable. Russian vocalized consonants change their nature when they are the final one in a word. There are a few rules of reading in Russian, and you’ll get accustomed to them eventually, but for now, just remember that spelling and pronunciation may differ considerably.

If you are serious about Russian, I would suggest that you buy a Russian keyboard or keyboard stickers. That shouldn’t cost you a fortune - there are plenty of Russian keyboards on Aliexpress, since Russia is one of the key markets for the Chinese platform. I shop at Aliexpress a lot, and I’m very happy with it. Shipping may take a while, but prices are unbeatable. Make sure you pick the right seller, though - read the reviews before placing your order, and you’ll be fine.

Useful links:


  • Alphabet course on Memrise


  • Russian alphabet with sounds


  • Russian alphabet with cartoons


  • Russian alphabet bookmarks - type and handwriting


  • Fluent in 3 months: Learn Russian Cyrillic Alphabet




  • Wednesday, August 2, 2017

    Start Writing in Your Target Language Right Now



    Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, Public Domain

    Every language learner knows that feeling: desperate helplessness when trying to produce a sentence in a target language. You may have advanced to the degree where you enjoy sophisticated books and movies in the language you are learning, but when it comes to speaking, you feel like a beginner - lost, panicked, and embarrassed. No worries - this is normal. You are fine; this is just the way we, humans, acquire foreign languages. We learned to speak first when we were babies and picked up with reading and writing later, but that only works with a mother-tongue. When we learn foreign languages, speaking comes last.

    If you’ve ever tried taking language proficiency tests, you might have noticed that they are divided into four parts representing four basic language skills - listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Reading and writing are passive language skills, while writing and speaking are active language skills. I took and passed different language proficiency tests a few times, and each time the score for speaking was the lowest, and the score for reading was the highest. That is a very typical situation for language learners who read much more than they speak. You need to start speaking and writing if you want to improve your speaking skills!

    Yes, writing may improve your general language proficiency and, specifically, speaking because writing is an active language skill, just like speaking. When you write, you stop consuming a language and start producing speech. In other words, you start acquiring the language; you make it your own. Here are the reasons why you should start writing in your target language right now.
    • Writing helps to develop the same vocabulary in your target language as you have in your mother-tongue.
      My students often say that in their mother-tongue, they are witty, sophisticated talkers, while in Russian, they are limited to very basic vocabulary. I usually ask them to write something on the topics they discuss in their mother-tongue. This simple task helps them realize what words they need most, and what words they actually use in their out-of-the classroom life.
    • When you use a new word in an essay, you memorize it better and faster.
      When you look up a word in a dictionary while working on your essay, you are more likely to memorize the new word. You encounter it when you need it most, and your brain marks it as important. We tend to memorize important things first, and the words that we learned while expressing our thoughts stick for a longer time.
    • Writing helps you learn grammar.
      I think we can agree that learning grammar rules and not practicing them right away is a waste of time. Learning AND practicing is much more efficient. When you try to express your thoughts and figure out how to organize your ideas into grammatically correct sentences, you practice and learn grammar at the same time. And just as with new words, you memorize the grammar rules that you’ve learned on demand better. You acquire them.
    • You get yourself prepared for writing tests.
      Writing boosts your language learning, as I’ve tried to prove above, but it also helps you to get prepared for writing tests. I trained myself to write short essays before taking the IELTS. I posted my texts on Lang-8 (unfortunately, they no longer accept new users), and native English speakers corrected me. When I took the IELTS, the writing part of the test was relatively easy for me - I didn’t get stuck with writer’s block. During the break, many fellow test takers complained that they spent two-thirds of the test time just trying to figure out what to write, so they didn’t have enough time to revise their work. If you develop the good habit of putting your thoughts down on paper (or, more realistically, on a screen), you’ll be well-prepared to write a test essay on a random topic.
    • Writing improves your confidence.
      Your texts check your progress. When, after a few weeks of consistent writing practice, you re-read your first essays, you’ll see how much you have achieved during those weeks and how much more you can say - in written and, surprisingly, oral forms - in your target language. Nothing boosts confidence more than well-documented progress.
    • Writing is the only active skill where you don’t need a partner.
      Well, of course, you’ll need someone who can proofread your writing (we’ll talk about that a bit later). The best thing about writing is that you don’t need to schedule your online meetings with someone else, and you can avoid that awkwardness of the language exchange sessions when two complete strangers are forced to hold a conversation while, in fact, they don’t have much to discuss with each other. You simply post your text on one of those language learning portals and somebody corrects it - when they have the time.
    • Writing leaves you with corrections and notes that you may use for further learning.
      When somebody - a teacher or a language partner - corrects you when you talk, it hurts your ego a bit (or a lot, depending on how nice and tactful your corrector is and how delusional you are about your language skills). Worse, you don’t have anything to look at after the conversation is over. When somebody corrects your writing, it doesn’t hurt because it was not an in-person conversation, and you can work on your mistakes afterward.
    I know from both my learning and teaching experiences that writing promotes and speeds up language acquisition. My students who write short essays regularly progress faster than those who don’t. Sometimes I am amazed at how rapidly a student can evolve into a confident speaker (here, I shared a success story - for your inspiration).

    How To Get started?

    There are a few obstacles that many language learners face when starting to write. Just like all other human activities, writing should make sense. For language students that means that somebody should correct their writing. Preferably, for free. That could be your language exchange partner, because who said that LE sessions are exclusively for talking? That could be a native speaker on iTalki - this website allows you to publish your writing for native speakers to correct and comment. If you work with a language tutor, you might see about making writing a part of your lesson routine. I usually make it a homework assignment for those of my students who have enough time for it.

    Another big obstacle is: “I don’t know what to write about.” An aspiring language learner that I talked to said, “I usually write about my daily activities and books I have been reading! I just write one or two paragraphs.” It’s as simple as that. Nobody expects you to write a new War and Peace. Quite the contrary, short, but frequent stories would work much better than one exhaustingly long essay per month. Write about something that amuses you, something that you would like to talk about in your mother-tongue. Sometimes, it is easier to write about certain sensitive things in a non-native language - you may use the writing exercises to vent out everything you wouldn’t dare articulate in your mother-tongue.

    A small technical trick that usually helps me to overcome my procrastination is to write an outline of the future essay first. That helps me to mentally focus on writing and keep social networks and messengers closed for some time. An outline is also needed to organize ideas into a coherent text. Sometimes stream of thought works better, but I leave it for rare moments of inspiration. For a routine work, an outline is a must have.

    Here is the plan: open a new document in your favorite word processor, and switch to your target language. Draft an outline. Write down all of the thoughts and ideas that are relevant to the topic that you are going to talk about. Do not filter out the ideas yet - this is your brainstorming. Then re-work the outline and start writing. When the text is ready, publish it on iTalki or send it to your LE partner or tutor. When you receive corrections, make sure you understand exactly what was wrong. If you don’t understand anything, do not hesitate to ask your correctors for explanations. Repeat.

    Best of luck with your language studies!