Since Lauren is learning Russian and had started with the Cyrillic alphabet first, we can see how important this is to begin on so that you can boost the rest of your progress. As such, it was great to get this guest post from Dani, who writes at isimplylovelanguages.com.
She'll show you that it isn't as bad as you think! Take it away Dani.
When somebody asks me what my major at university is and I tell them that I study Spanish and Russian, they often reply “What? Russian? Isn’t that difficult? They (the Russians) write differently!”
There are some tricky things about Russian and the script is definitely not the hardest part of the language. But it’s the first difference to our own language we come across when we get in contact with this language. And since the script is (somehow) unknown to us, it gives us the impression that Russian is difficult.
But once we get familiar with the unknown script and get over this first barrier, we can dive into the language and enjoy it like every other language. In this post I want to give you some bits of advice about how you can easily tackle this barrier and get familiar with the Cyrillic script.
By the way, you don’t need to speak Russian to make use of these tips!
Is it important to learn the Russian Cyrillic script?
This question always comes up when a language is written in a script other than the Latin one. Of course, learning the script is an extra effort and everybody needs to decide if it’s necessary to make this effort to reach his or her personal goals.
In my opinion it’s important to learn Cyrillic script when you learn Russian (or any other language using this script). Even if you only focus on speaking, then the script could still be important to you. There are some phrasebooks available that provide a transcription for all words and phrases, of course, and you could learn from these. But when you are serious about Russian I guess it will be very difficult to avoid the script completely. Most dictionaries or grammar books don’t offer a transcription and I don’t know any Russian publications that use the Latin script instead of Cyrillic.
Also, if you plan to visit Russia as a traveller, it could be very helpful to know how to read the script. Even in the big cities, you often find Cyrillic street signs only. When I was in Moscow last year, I met many travellers at a hostel who complained that the underground stations are written in Cyrillic only. Many of them regretted that they hadn’t learned a bit of the script because Moscow is an international city and they feared that the “script situation” might get worse once they travel to smaller towns.
So even if you don’t plan to learn Russian itself, I highly recommend getting familiar with the Cyrillic script if you plan a trip to Russia. All you need is a rainy weekend and a positive mood!
It’s all about the letters
The Russian Cyrillic alphabet comprises 33 letters – that’s 7 more than the Latin alphabet. Many of these 33 letters look very familiar to what English speakers are used to:
A – E – K – M – O – T
These letters look like their Latin equivalents and have exactly the same meaning. Therefore you are already able to read words like мама or томат.
However, they are a few letters that look like Latin letters but have a different meaning.
В – Н – Р – С – У – Х
For example, the word нос looks very familiar to us and we are tempted to read hoc, but the letters here actually signify nos, which means nose. I would say that these are the six trickiest letters in the Russian alphabet because we associate a different sound with them. But this shouldn’t discourage you. After a few exercises you will get used to reading them correctly.
The remaining letters are alien to most of us:
Б – Г – Д – И – Й – Л – П – Ф – Ц
Ж – З – Ч – Ш – Щ – Ё – Ы – Э – Ю – Я
Ъ – ь
Just because the letters look different it doesn’t imply that the meaning behind them is different. Most of them represent sounds for which we either have a letter in the Latin alphabet itself or at least use the sound in our phonetic system. For example, ю represents the sound of you.
You might wonder now, how to memorize these new letters. In my opinion, it’s enough to practise intensively for a short period of time and then continuously focus on reading while studying. It’s like learning the Latin alphabet back at school. At the beginning it takes you about 20 seconds to read a word, later on you will be able to read it at first sight.
However, many people like to work with mnemonics. You can find several ones others have found useful on Memrise for instance, although I personally prefer to come up with my own memory hacks. I would be curious to hear about your ideas. For example, how would you remember the letter Ф, which represents the Latin F?
Now it’s about time to practise!
Do you like crosswords or other kinds of puzzles? Then you will love this method. Get some words written in Cyrillic and try and decode them letter by letter. This exercise is a lot of fun when you work with words whose meaning you will know once you decoded them.
For example: go to the Wikipedia article about the cities and towns of Russia by population and you will find a list of the biggest Russian cities in both English and Russian. Cover the English column (maybe print out the list before) and try to decode the Russian cities. Then you can easily compare it with the “solution”. You do not only practise reading but also learn something about Russia.
Or use the Russian article about the Oscar-winners. You can then try and decode the names of the famous actors. Sometimes it’s really funny how a famous name looks like written in Cyrillic. You can work with any article. If you find it difficult to find Russian articles, simply open up the respective article in English and switch to the Russian version which you can find in the left navigation column.
Reading & listening
It’s easier for us to retain things that we read AND hear. So when we hear a word or a text while we read it, it’s easier for us to remember. You can find hundreds of thousands of words pronounced by native speakers on forvo. By comparing the word and the audio file you can get a better feeling for how each letter sounds.
You don’t need to know how to type in Cyrillic at this point. You can easily copy the words you worked with from your decoding list. Or enter an English word into Google translator or any other online dictionary and copy the Russian translation. You could also work with frequency lists.
If you want to work with random words, forvo also offers a nice tool. When listening to a word, at the bottom of the article to this word below the map at the down left corner there is a small line that suggests a random word in the language you are currently listening to.
How your language exchange partner can help you
If you have a language partner who speaks Russian he or she can practise with you in many ways.
He or she could type easy words into the Skype chat and you try to read them aloud. It’s easier when you work with international names like famous singers etc. But you could also work with real Russian words that are appropriate for your learning level. After you read out the word, your partner can provide you with the English translation. This way, you not only improve your reading skills but also make progress in the language.
Your language exchange partner could also send some sentences or even short texts in Cyrillic via the chat function. The clue: the text is in English but transcribed into Cyrillic. This is more motivating than actually writing Russian sentences because you can be sure that you understand the meaning of the sentence once you read it out correctly.
But of course you could also work with real Russian sentences or texts. You can read them out and your language exchange partner can correct you if you read out any letters incorrectly. Just make sure that you don’t worry too much about understanding the text at this point.
Using the Russian keyboard
Now as we have practised reading the next step would be writing. There are some discussions on various language learning platforms about whether it’s necessary to learn the handwriting of a language as we mostly use computers or other devices for writing. It’s a legitimate question and I guess it depends on your personal goals and your attitude. I, for example, like to work with pen and paper, so I often use the handwriting.
So although I think the usefulness of learning the handwriting can be debated, I find it crucial to learn how to TYPE the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s not very difficult and it saves you a lot of time when you want to look up words or send an e-mail to a friend.
There are some software solutions out there that make typing in Cyrillic really easy. I’ve never used one of them because to me, the most natural way is simply using the regular keyboard and switching the language. Yes, it might take you a couple of hours to get familiar with the arrangement of the keys and at the beginning you will type slower. But eventually it pays off. You don’t rely on any software and you can use any computer.
You can easily change the language of your keyboard in the Control Panel (PC) – Time and Language settings. There you find ‘change keyboard’ and there you can ‘add’ a new keyboard. Once you added the Russian keyboard you can switch between the keyboards by a certain key sequence. The standard setting should be Alt+Shift.
Then find a picture of the ‘Russian keyboard’ on the internet and you can see the arrangement of the keys. Now you can start typing in Russian. At the beginning it feels a bit awkward and might feel a bit like the first IT-lessons in school (for those of who are older than 25…) when our teachers taught us how to type. But you will get faster and faster.
If you are more tech-savvy, I'd suggest go to Keybr.com, click settings, change the layout to Russian and practise away!
You can practise typing by copying words, for example from the lists you worked with for decoding or from your vocabulary lists. You can also ask your language exchange partner to do a little text chat in Russian. Then you can practise reading and writing at the same time.
How long does it take to learn the Cyrillic script?
I would say it takes you a few hours to get started with the script. The rest is continuous practise that will happen naturally when you study the language. If you have a free afternoon or a weekend, grab a big cup of tea or maybe even some Russian sweets and just do it. Once you get started with the exercises you will see the progress really soon, I promise!
Maybe even ask a friend to join you. Everybody can learn the alphabet, even if he or she doesn’t learn the language itself. And it can be really nice and funny to share the struggle of reading and writing like a six-year old school kid. Don't forget to share this article with them! 🙂
Dani is a passionate language learner from Austria who is fascinated by the variety of languages in the world. You can find out more about her and her language projects on isimplylovelanguages.com and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.