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» Study » How to Learn Russian, Ukrainian, and Any Other Foreign Language

How to Learn Russian and Ukrainian

Tips for self-learners
last update: February 2016

Learning the language is a key part to having a rewarding experience in another country. If you've made up your mind to learn Russian or Ukrainian, this article will help you with your learning strategy and obtaining the greatest results from the effort you invest.
General language learning principles
Language mastery consists of four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Here is how they interrelate:

speaking listening
writing reading
Since communication in person is all about listening and speaking, your efforts should give due emphasis to these skills. Many adult language learners have the tendency to focus on book learning — reading about grammar rules, studying written texts and dialogues, memorizing vocabulary words, etc. However, these activities do not activate the brain centers that are responsible for speaking and listening.

Your language learning regimen

A good language regimen for self-learners should consist of:
Large doses of listening to native speech at or slightly above your current level of comprehension.
Speaking practice — from simply repeating words out loud (for beginners) to holding real conversations with native speakers (for advanced learners).
Reading — from basic conversations (for beginners) to texts on topics of personal interest (for intermediate and advanced learners).
Grammar study using language textbooks. Exercises may or may not be helpful depending on your learning style.
Dictionary work. New words that you add to your vocabulary need to be mastered along with their correct spelling and morphology (declensions, conjugations, gender, stress shifts, associated prepositions, etc. — all very important for Russian and Ukrainian!).
Writing. For example, you can find people to correspond with on the Internet, start sending text messages to a friend in the foreign language (if they are also studying it!), or write notes to yourself in your planner in the language.
As much as possible, the language study you do should help satisfy real-life needs. For example, instead of reading the news in English, you can read them in Ukrainian online (or, better yet, listen to the news online). Instead of making notes to yourself in English, you can do it in Russian. Instead of writing on an English forum, you can write on a Russian language one. These things just require a bit more effort and concentration and do not burden you with extra time commitments that you will likely drop when under stress.

Focused attention more important than specific methodology

It's easy to get bogged down thinking about the best way to start studying a language, especially if you don't have much experience. What's actually most important is how much focused concentration you invest in the task. If you just get started with anything — any old language book you find in your library or in a used bookstore — you will do fine. Eventually you will find approaches that engage you the most. Just remember that well-rounded language study should include elements of all 6 points listed above.

Developing listening comprehension skills

Listening comprehension is mostly an unconscious skill that develops in direct proportion to the amount of time you have spent listening to a language. Listening to language recordings can be done actively (focusing intently on the recording) or passively (as "background music"). Both are effective and contribute to building up the necessary level of listening exposure.
Language learners often underestimate the amount of exposure and effort necessary to learn a language at a decent level. Suppose that it simply takes 500-1000 hours of hearing a foreign language to get to the point where you understand almost all of what is said. By listening actively or passively to the language two or three hours a day, you can reach this level in a year — even if you aren't in the country where the language is spoken. This is a lot of work! But it becomes more and more rewarding as you go.

Choosing audio files to listen to

It used to be that you had to buy special language courses to find recordings in a foreign language to listen to. Now, everyone can also find audio files and programs that match his or her level of profiency on the Internet. Here is what kind of things you ought to look for:
  • Beginner: basic phrases, simple conversations
  • Intermediate: conversations, discussion, and readings in slightly simplified or slowed-down language 
  • Advanced: movies, radio programs, any videos and recordings of interest available on the Internet
If you have access to Russian or Ukrainian speakers, you can also ask them to record something for you, or you can record them yourself using a dictaphone. Once in Ukraine, you will have many opportunities to discretely record conversations. 

The easiest way to learn a language well

I wrote the bulk of the article above many years ago. I don't disagree with what I've written here, but my thinking has evolved since then, become much clearer. In fact, after 20 years of experience teaching myself languages and using them (mainly Russian) in professional settings, I finally decided to publish a handbook for other self-directed learners. Learn more at