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