How I’m learning Russian

I’d hate to have me as a student.

I very rarely do homework, so much so that my teacher has given up setting it for me.

I cancel about one lesson in four, normally the one on a Saturday. I’ve recently moved it to a Thursday in the hope that I’ll be more likely to have time then. I have two 90-minute lessons a week, the other being on Monday. We’ve never managed to make up a missed lesson, and since I pay on a lesson-by-lesson basis, this must create quite a lot of financial uncertainty, which I feel bad about.

At times, I hijack the lesson and tell my teacher exactly what activities I want to do. The last example of this was after she used a bilingual Quizlet set to introduce clothes words to me at the end of our Monday lesson. In a very rare spurt of motivation, I had twenty minutes on Wednesday night, and ten minutes on Thursday morning during which I managed to play with the words and kind of learn about 70% of them. I started the lesson by drawing pictures of clothes all over the board and writing the words next to them.

Russian clothes on the board

This took about 20 minutes. I then asked my teacher to define words for me, which meant she had to teach me verbs like ‘wear’, ‘get dressed’ and ‘put on’, and prepositional phrases like ‘on your head’, ‘on your feet’. She then turned the tables and made me define words for her. This whole process took 90 minutes, and meant we had no time to do anything she had prepared. I wrote notes throughout, and listened to and spoke more Russian than I had in any other lesson throughout the year. She told me: “You’re ready for it now.”

I constantly make demands about what I want from my lessons. My main demand is to have my lessons entirely in Russian (or as entirely as possible for a beginner/elementary student), but this is difficult because of the above statement/belief, that you have to have a certain amount of language to be ‘ready’ to speak/listen to more. This is not a choice I have in the real world, where I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me, and the person who’s speaking to me often doesn’t know how to change their language to help me understand.

We’ve also got into the habit of speaking English in class. In an average 90-minute lesson my teacher probably speaks about 10 sentences of spontaneous Russian which are not read from a piece of paper and/or accompanied by an English translation. I speak less than this, and occasionally read new vocabulary/sentences from the page, although this is not consistent – I probably only say about 50% of the new language that is introduced to me during any one class. Both of us have spoken a bit more Russian in the last couple of lessons because I’ve made more of an effort, but it hasn’t lasted long. The rest of the lesson is in English, including chats and all grammar explanations. I rarely have to produce any Russian that isn’t part of a drill based on an exercise from a worksheet. I’m trying to speak a bit more Russian in class now, but I don’t have a lot of the classroom language I need unless I ask for it to be translated, because I’ve never heard it or been made to use it.

Most of the published materials my teacher uses are taken from a text-only coursebook, with lists of vocabulary and dialogues, or a slightly more ‘designed’ coursebook with some pictures and tables. Both of them are through the medium of English. I have no idea how you find published materials to learn Russian if you don’t already speak English (this is true of a lot of none-EFL materials). We have occasionally used a website with some very entertaining short videos telling the story of John, a Canadian visiting Russia, which is available in various languages. The videos are very short – less than a minute each – and accompanied by subtitles in Russian or other languages if you want to read them.

We have never listened to any ‘real’ Russian in class, like music or videos, or any audio designed for the classroom. All of my listening practice comes from life outside the classroom, very rarely with support from an English-speaker to help me, but English speakers normally do the work if they’re there, rather than me! That means that most of the time I’m trying to piece things together myself, using what skills I’ve picked up from learning other languages, and the pre-intermediate Czech that I know. This has, of course, got easier as the year has progressed.

I demand context, trying to move away from isolated vocabulary. I constantly ask for the prepositions and cases that go with the verbs/nouns, even though I know I won’t remember them at the moment. I try to get as much new language in sentences as possible. Having said that, I find the Quizlet sets useful for building up sets of vocabulary in topics like the body or clothes. I’m trying to get exposure to as much language as possible while I have access to somebody who can mediate it for me. During a lesson which isn’t based on materials, we fill a notebook with random notes. There’s a lot of Russian here, but it’s almost all written – there’s very little speaking, very little controlled practice, and almost no free(r) practice at all, unless I instigate it. The bit of text you can see in the top-left corner of the page is the second half of twenty minutes worth of writing I did at home to force myself to produce an extended stretch of Russian.

My Russian notebook

In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.

Sentence cards

Sentence cards with pictures

My teacher has a degree in teaching Russian. She is a native speaker of the language, who also speaks very good English and knows bits of other languages, so can occasionally tell me when grammar is similar to other languages I speak. She is a lovely person to put up with me. She puts a lot of time and effort into preparing lessons and materials. Here’s an example of a summary of tenses she made:

Russian tense summary

She’s also started making Quizlet sets for me after I showed her the site and she realised that it motivated me! I copy the sets she’s made and get rid of the English if I can, trying to make things Russian only. When I got ill and was given a special diet, she translated the sheet I was given by the doctor and made me a list of all of the food in Russian and English, with pictures for things I might not know. When I found out just before a lesson that my grandad had been taken into hospital, she took me for a walk in the park and we chatted, then wouldn’t let me pay for the lesson.

The last lesson we had was at my flat, and she decided to try something different. We labelled everything in my kitchen that I didn’t know the names of already. I’d been meaning to do this for ages but hadn’t got round to it. We did this entirely in English, with me asking ‘How do you say…?’ in English. I was never forced to use Russian, and I forgot to try. I could have practised using the words in sentences and spelling them – although I can read Russian confidently now, I still have no idea how to say a lot of the letters. We could also have played a describing game again, but I didn’t think about that until I was writing this.

Russian has taken over my kitchen!

Russian has taken over my fridge!

When I have time, normally in three- to four-hour blocks about every six weeks, I transfer the language in my class notebook to a vocabulary notebook, organised by topic. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, and I mostly use it as a dictionary. Copying the words/phrases helps me to recognise them, but I haven’t really used the notebook to learn.

My vocabulary notebook - pictures
With pictures and colours where possible…
My vocabulary notebook - English
…with English where it’s not. (or when I run out of motivation)
My vocabulary notebook - mix of pictures and English
With colour-coding to show grammar patterns

I also use index cards to write out grammar and some vocabulary sets, particularly those connected to time. I try to have as little English as possible on the cards, and use regular layout and colour-coding to help me reduce the need for English. If there is English, I often write it in tiny letters that are difficult to see – I want Russian to be the first thing I see when I look at the cards.

Russian index cards
Verb conjugation, time and reflexives
Index cards everywhere! Time time time...
Time index cards, showing colour-coding

I then blu-tack them all over my flat. (Blu-tack is the one thing that I always take with me when I move to a new place!)

Index cards everywhere!
Cards start on the cupboard I look at when I’m getting ready in the morning/doing my physio exercises
On the front door
They graduate to the inside of my front door when I think I know them. (Loosely arranged by grammar point, e.g. verbs at the top, and with the really easy stuff at the bottom)
Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!
Surrounding them with postcards makes me more likely to look at them (maybe…)

This is what my desk looks like in the process:

My desk when I'm studying Russian


Some conclusions

  • Both the teacher and the student(s) need to have a lot of willpower to conduct the lesson entirely in the target language.
  • The student also needs to be given the classroom language they need to be able to operate in the target language.
  • The teacher needs to be flexible, to respond to the language that the student needs, the time they have available, and the mood they are in.
  • The student needs to make an effort to study what has been learnt in class.
  • Language should be introduced in context, rather than as isolated items. It should be learnt as chunks to start with, then pulled apart for grammar later.
  • Seeing language once is not enough. Students need to manipulate it, play with it, say it, use it, in class to help them remember it.
  • The student needs exposure to real language in the classroom environment to prepare them for what they will encounter outside the classroom.

Some methodological terms which I can hear you shouting at me

Comprehensible input

Lexical approach



What did I forget?

What’s next?

March and April have been pretty busy, both personally and professionally. They came not long after I’d finished Delta, and this week off has been a great opportunity to catch up and get a handle on a lot of things. Most of the things you can see in the photos in this post were written out in a one-day marathon study session. Three days later I had another whole day of study, which meant I finally finished copying everything out and caught up. This is something I want to avoid in the future!

I have therefore decided that in May I am going to try something (new) for thirty days and study Russian for 10 minutes every day. This could include any of the following activities:

  • Using my sentence cards, where I try to remember them/write them out
  • Reading my index cards out loud
  • Testing myself using my vocabulary notebook
  • Playing on Quizlet
  • Reading one of the free magazines/newspapers I’ve collected – highlighting the words I can understand
  • Watching a YouTube video in Russian, like Cheburashka or Russian Winnie the Pooh
  • Listening to a song and reading the lyrics (I need suggestions for this)
  • Writing a short text in Russian, including to Ann (who I wrote one short email to last time she suggested this!)
  • Recording myself speaking, then listening back and correcting it

Any other ten-minute activities I could try? I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of the month!

Update: here’s part two of the post, showing what I did over the following few weeks.

31 thoughts on “How I’m learning Russian

  1. Hi Sandy,

    First of all, wow!!! The feeling I get from this post is that if you did have a bit more time to study, you’d probably speak Russian by now 🙂
    Most teachers are difficult students, or at least I’ve always thought so because I am too myself. All your knowledge about how to teach a language inevitably “interferes” and/or “aids” depending on the context.
    The great thing is, you know yourself as a learner, which is probably something your teacher really appreciates (I know I would). Ok, she might not get through her lesson plan, but you are getting your needs covered, which I believe is probably my number one objective as a teacher.
    Plus, she knows you by now, she probably even plans differently 🙂

    Ideas for your ten minute study:
    – Create memory cards sets. Words + images / English + Russian
    ( I love quizlet too, but I find that the process itself of making the cards aids the study, just like with your notebook)
    – Create a Scrabble board game. Time yourself… pick letters randomly… see what you words you can construct.
    – Watch Peppa Pig in Russian directly after watching it in English 🙂 (so adorable and short episodes)
    – Young learners songs. Just like in any other language, I would guess that if you get a hold of a set of songs they might learn at schools, these are usually full of vocab and expressions.
    – Watch tv adverts. They have a lot of non-linguistic clues.

    Well, hope you like them.
    Good luck!


    1. Hi Laila,
      Thanks for the comment and the ideas. I love young learner songs and stories when I’m studying, often more than adult ones because they’re easier to access linguistically and culturally. I like the idea of Peppa Pig – hadn’t thought about that. I’ll see if I can find it. I also normally pay more attention to TV adverts than TV programmes if I’m watching in a foreign language!


  2. Hi Sandy,

    While reading your post, for some unknown reason I felt a little sad. I don’t know if it was the first paragraphs which had this ‘sad’ touch or if I was just imagining things. Honestly, I think it’s quite a hopeless situation when a fully qualified language teacher with lots of experience in teaching wants to learn another language. I know what I’m talking about; I’ve walked in your shoes a few times when trying to learn German, and I felt like someone having dated lots of nice partners none of whom was the ‘right’ one 🙂 The teachers had various interesting methods and they undoubtedly inspired me and helped me, but none of them suited me perfectly (now and then I couldn’t help feeling I would do this or that differently, but I felt it would be rude of me to tell them). Desperate, needing to reach B2 level in a very short time, I ended up learning the language on my own – in a purely audio-lingual method, with ancient audio cassettes and an old model of walkman always at my disposal. Surprisingly, it worked for my purposes.
    Anyway, your Russian teacher seems to be a great professional – definitely willing to swallow her pride at times 🙂 – and you are doing a very good job as a learner. This post should be read by everyone struggling with a foreign language. Your advice, tips and conclusions are very helpful. Thanks for sharing your story.



    1. Hi Hana,
      I think having a flexible teacher is key, and I don’t think I could learn in a group any more – I much prefer 121 because it means that we can do what I need to, and I can use my knowledge of other languages and learning techniques to help me.
      What you said about learning by yourself is also interesting – you said that you were surprised it worked! That’s quite telling, because we often say as teachers that we should teach in a certain way, then don’t/can’t do this when we’re learning. For example, in my classes the language is as close to 100% English as possible, but when I’m studying it’s rarely more than 75% target language, and that’s often my fault! I’m a lot nicer to my students about this than I used to be when I first started teaching – I would get so frustrated with them for not speaking English. Now I encourage them to, and if I can see they are trying (and not just being lazy) I’ll forgive the occasional lapse 😉
      Thanks for the comment,


  3. Sandy,I really loved your blog post. It is so detailed and was very interesting to read. From what I saw you actually do put a lot of effort in learning Russian which is very impessive.I am comparing it with the way I am improving my English and also with very few timid attempts to revise German that I learned both at school and at the university and I am nowhere near you in the steps I take. I just don’t do all that though I saw many nice ideas that could be applied by me either in the classes that I teach or in the classes where I am taught. Thank you very much. Your blog posts are always very enlightening, motivation and informative 🙂 Keep up the good work!


    1. Hallo Elena,
      Vielen Dank! Ich hoffe, dass du dein Deutsch mehr üben kannst 😉
      Most of the Russian effort has been two days this week during my holiday! My teacher will tell you that I’ve been pretty bad for most of the year. But that should all change in May… 😉
      My strategies for learning Russian are the result of 18 years of trial and error with all kinds of methods and techniques. These are the ones that are working right now, but I’m always open to suggestions of other things to try!


  4. Привет Sandy,

    As I mentioned elsewhere, your post has really nudged me to finally write up the second post on my Japanese learning experience, 5 months after I started. In this regard, I must say huge thanks for the structure of your post which gives a clear view of what you’re describing; for the images you’ve inserted – I’m impressed! That is SO much work. I’m seriously inspired to put more effort into my own studies now. Thanks for this as well.

    As for ideas, apart from the text messaging that I’ve kind of suggested on Facebook (I reckon it must be free within apps when through wifi, no matter where we both are), I can say that I myself read this blog It’s not much about actually learning language patterns, but gives a lot of cultural context, links to videos in some posts, and Russian words highlighted and explained in context in every post. Probably worth a look.

    I had some other ideas and links in mind, so maybe if you wish I could share them as they come to me. Plus maybe there’ll be some useful ideas in my upcoming blog post) We’re in very different situations (you’re IN the culture of the language, I’m very much out of it), but still it’s great to share and try out to see what could work.



    1. Привет Анна и спасебо!
      I’m really looking forward to reading your Japanese post. It’ll be interesting to compare notes, and to remind myself about learning a language out of context – I did a tiny bit of Chinese when I was in Newcastle, but most of my language learning in the last six years has been in the country, so my motivation has been strong – I need(ed) to learn to improve my quality of life. Glad that the post has inspired you, and if you need support (or the occasional kick to study!), I’m happy to help. Looking forward to hearing your ideas and links as you think of them – all ideas are welcome!
      Thanks for the blog recommendation – it looks really useful, and I’ve added it my reader. Some of the things in the first three posts that I looked at are problems I’ve had/native speaker problems my teacher has mentioned/two abbreviations that I’d seen and hadn’t understood!


  5. Sandy, it was very interesting ti read about your experience, especially it being accompanied with so many details!
    being a Russian speaker, I can assure you your teacher has hard time preparing for the lessons, as the choice of the teaching materials can’t even touch what the materials for teaching English/ German/ Spanish, etc have to offer – the materials are scarce, imageless, mostly VERY boring and far from any real life..
    And I agree we teachers are mostly terrible students (even if we learn not languages, but say dancing or something else – expectations are high, and we almost always know what would work better for us..). But it’s always highly developmental for a teacher to come back to a lerner;s place from time to time, and to be in their shoes.
    As for 10 mins suggestions, why not add up some Russian speakers (or, better to say writers) to your social networks? Scrolling down through their comments and posts would be full of everyday Russian..


    1. Hi Svetlana,
      Thanks for the comment and the suggestions. I have a few Russian speakers on my facebook, and one of my students writes a travel blog which I try to read. It’s a great way to get short bursts of language without feeling too overwhelmed. I also have a vk account which is all in Russian, but I almost never check it! I’m going to change my facebook language to Russian right now – I’ve been meaning to do it for a while and keep forgetting.
      I never understand how language teachers, especially native speakers, can teach really well without knowing how it feels to be in the students’ shoes. I love learning languages anyway, and the fact that it helps me understand my students better is an added bonus!


  6. Fascinating post.
    I agree with the comments above: we, teachers make horrible students. I’ve actually given up on having classes after my last experience in L’Alliance Francais. The teacher broke almost all the “rules” of good teaching in every class. Just one example: when we would do listenings, she’d typically say: right, we’re going to listen to something, so listen and try to understand. There was no lead-in, no gist question, no helping the students understand and build the skills needed.
    So we’re horrible students, because we can’t help being partially teachers too. Mind you, I also think that if I’d had a really good teacher in L’Aliance, I wouldn’t have given up on attending the classes. Of course, there are different approaches to teaching and we should be willing to accept them, but some things are clearly wrong and hamper learning.
    Anyway, I did manage to learn French, but mostly thanks to my own determination. I’m actually learning Portuguese now, and I’ve written a similar post where I talk about my experiences after 2 months of learning it:
    Good luck learning Russian!


    1. Hi Marek,
      I’ve just been reading your fluent in 6 months posts, and it sounds like you’re very motivated, which helps a lot. I’ve refound my motivation in the last couple of weeks, which means I’ve been working a lot harder than I was.
      I had a very similar experience at L’Alliance Francaise when I was in Paraguay – I went to about six classes then gave up. In a three hour class, we would each speak only a handful of sentences. We bought a book which we almost never used, apart from for the teacher to read to us from it. The teacher constantly talked to the board. All in all, it was a very frustrating experience. And this was before I’d done CELTA or knew anything about communicative language teaching!
      Le problème maintenant est que je ne parle jamais les autres languages – je ne parle que le russe 😉


      1. Hi Sandy,
        It sounds like my French class in Costa Rica! There was no pair work at all! She’d just drop a question to the whole class and guess what: the quickest or the most motivated student would always answer, while the others would spend the whole class not saying a word!
        I’ve had Spanish, German, French and English teachers, and definitely the latter are on average much better. I think it’s something to do with the amount of research that has been done into teaching English. Also the books for French, German and Spanish are horrible from a methodological point of view.
        I’m sure some might say that different languages require different teaching methods, but I’ve taught English, Spanish and Polish and I’ve always followed the same basic principles, e.g. pair work, focus on communication, guided discovery, teaching skills, etc. Even such a highly inflected language as Polish can be taught without too much focus on gap fills and grammar.
        Anyway, it might be a good idea for a business: do CELTA-like courses for Spanish/French/German teachers. What do you reckon? 🙂
        Merci, oui – je crois que je suis tres motivé. Mais au meme temps je pense que chaqu’n peux et doit chercher et rencontrer sa propre motivation. Sans lui tu peut passer annes en apprendre, mais jamais reussir. La raison por laquele je’ai commence c’est voir si c’est vraiment possible apprendre un langue dans un temps relativement limité sans suivre un cours. Je espere decouvrir encore plus sur les bonns practiques pour apprendre les langues et en pouvoir transmettre a mes eleves 🙂 (sorry for my bad spelling – can’t be bothered to put in all teh dashes and dots above the letters – and they say English spelling is difficult).
        I have problems practising all the languages I know. It gets quite tough. And now my Portuguese gets horribly mixed up with Spanish and French. At times you don’t know which one you’re speaking 😉
        If I do give another language a shot after Portuguese, I think it might be Russian. By the way: what’s Crimea like at the moment? One hears lots of bad news on the media these days…


        1. There are actually course like CELTA for all of those languages, but theyMre really not very well known or highly accepted! As well as the courses by the British Council equivalents in each language, IH also does certificates. There was actually a Spanish Spanish teacher on my CELTA course, and I’ve regularly heard about the methdology problem you describe.The problem is that they’re not such good money-spinners, so there’s not such an investment in creating resources or doing methodological research.
          I agree with you about motivation too – it has to come from the student, but the teacher can give it a push in the right direction by offering tips and leading by example.
          I feel your language pain – I’m forgetting everythign because I don’t make any effort to keep them up :/ I hope you do try Russian – you’ll have a head start because of Polish. As for the situation in Crimea, it’s mostly fine, althoug the econmy is struggling a bit. I’ve been writing about it here:


          1. Absolutely – the teacher can play a very important role in (de)motivating the student. It’s interesting, though, that some learners just don’t take any of your advice on board, whereas others jump at it straight away.
            I think I’m unlikely to forget French, because it’s quite similar to Spanish, English and Portuguese, so a lot of words will stay in my memory. But I’ve really forgotten a lot of German. I used to speak it well, but now most of the vocab is gone.


          2. Some learners just never listen 😉
            My passive knowledge of my languages is still fine, but the active is lacking. French was always the weakest of the three I got to a high level, so it’s unsurprising that it’s the one that’s disappearing the fastest! Once my Russian is at a level I’m happy with (hmm…) I’ll probably go back and try to revive the others, although I might also study more Mandarin, which I started last year and really like. Who knows? 🙂


  7. Hi Sandy,

    Firstly well done on your blog, its refreshingly honest and easy to read. I’m following you from Barcelona and I’m a fellow English teacher (british council) and Russki student. I’m doing an experiment this year to see just how far I can get with learning a totally new language with on-line and mobile tools. A couple of russian learning apps for an android/iphone which I can’t recommend highly enough are MEMRISE, and BUSUU. MEMRISE is free, so is BUSUU but you just get access to a basic version of the program.
    My objective at the moment is to do a little bit every day (10-20 mins) and try to master some key phrases, what I call; ‘courtesy’ Russian for those occasions where I come across a russian speaker, which is becoming more common now in Barcelona.

    Anyway good with everything, hope the situation settles down over there. Seems like a beautiful part of the world.

    Neeraj Dhanani


    1. Hi Neeraj,
      I actually started the whole process with memrise and it gave me a great foundation to build on, through the beginner’s Russian course and one on numbers. I have to say that I tried busuu but didn’t really like it. Maybe I was approaching it wrong?
      The site which I always come back to is Quizlet, and there are links to my beginner’s Russian group on there. You’re welcome to join, so you see when my teacher or I add more sets. Good luck in your quest and спасебо for the comment!


  8. The amount of time that the teacher had spent preparing for the classes all went down the drain. While I agree that teachers should be flexible in order to meet the needs of a student, in no way should a student take over a class completely. It’s just unfair to the teacher.


    1. Harch, I don’t think it has gone down the drain, because she can still use the lesson later. If it was a one-off lesson that would be true, but because we continue to have lessons she can just save it for a future lesson.


  9. Oh my god, I’ve spent 26 and a bit years of my life being sure that бюстгальтер is spelt without a ь! This very moment that proves nativeness doesn’t always equal language knowledge XD
    It’s amazing you’re learning Slavic languages since, IMO, they’re the ones of the most difficult in the world! Personally, if I weren’t Russian, I’d never chose to learn Russian I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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