Whether you want to see Swan Lake at the historic Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, take the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway across Siberia to Vladivostok, or go to one of the largest soccer matches in the world — you’ll need to understand a bit of Russian. Whatever your motivation for traveling in Russia, it’s vital to know some of the language because only around 5% of Russians speak English. So where should a savvy traveler begin? With the Cyrillic alphabet, of course!
Sure, the Cyrillic alphabet may look scary, but it’s not as foreign as it looks. The Cyrillic script shares the same ancestor with our familiar Latin letters: the Greek alphabet. You’ll probably notice that many letters look the same or similar — so the only hurdle will be readjusting how your brain associates shapes with certain sounds. If you’re looking to hit the ground running, we’ve created a roadmap to help you learn this alphabet in only two days.
Sound impossible? We’ll break it down by day, assuming you’ll start on the weekend.
Saturday: Tackle The Familiar First
Start by blocking out your day into four 30-minute sessions. If your plan is to take in all this info over a short period of time, we recommend spacing out your learning so your brain has time to process it. For the first day, we will start with the familiar letters, both those that are pronounced the same way and the ones that are completely different.
1. Learn 5 completely familiar letters
|A||а like Anna.|
|K||к like Katia.|
|M||м like Maria.|
|O||о like Olga.|
|T||т like Tatiana.|
Baby steps are the best way to start your journey. This first session should be a piece of cake, as these 5 letters are exactly the same as the Latin letters in both appearance and pronunciation. Get them down — then go do something completely different for a couple hours.
2. Learn 4 letters that look familiar (but sound different)
Is your brain properly reset? If so, start your next lesson by reviewing the 5 letters you just learned. In fact, you should start each new session like this. Frequent review is at the heart of our Babbel method because it helps you efficiently remember what you’ve learned. (So don’t skip this step for time, you’ll regret it later!)
Now for the new stuff:
|У||у is pronounced like the “oo” in “tool” — it sounds nothing like the English Y!|
|С||с is always pronounced like it is in “ceiling” and never like it is in “color.” In Russian, there is only one letter for the [k] sound, which you learned in the first session. More straightforward than in English, don’t you think?|
|Е||е is pronounced “ye” as in “yes,” and the Russian city Yekaterinburg.|
|Ё||ё is pronounced “yo” as in “yore.”|
Except for the E with an umlaut, these letters are all actively used in English. Furthermore, all of these sounds are also used in English, so they’re a great stepping stone. Add these to your toolkit, then take a long break. (Lunch, perhaps?)
3. Learn 4 more of these trick letters
Here’s your reminder to start by revisiting the nine letters you’ve already learned today. All good? Then let’s move on!
Unlike the last round, these letters get a little trickier because now we’ve introduced sounds not found in English. Yes, B and H are pretty straightforward for us English speakers, but X and P will be a small challenge. X is called a voiceless velar fricative in linguistics terminology — it’s the back-of-the-throat sound found in many Germanic and Semitic languages. Meanwhile, P is a rolled R, found in many languages.
|В||Despite appearances, в is pronounced like a V (as in Vladimir).|
|Н||н equates to an N as in niet, the Russian word for “no” (you might have heard it before in a Hollywood movie about Russia). By now you’ll be able to read it in Cyrillic: нет!|
|Х||х resembles the sound you make in the back of your throat in the word “loch” (in traditional Scottish English). It’s also the same sound found in Buch in German.|
|Р||P is a rolled R sound.|
4. Learn 5 letters borrowed from Greek
(Start by reviewing the 13 previous letters!)
Do you like math? Or are you into literature, with a preference for ancient philosophy? Did you participate in sorority or fraternity organizations when in college? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you likely already know the 5 following letters, as they’re all borrowed from the Greek alphabet. If you don’t have a clue, don’t panic! They’re still simple enough.
|Г||г is the same as the Greek gamma and sounds like the G in Grigori.|
|Д||д resembles delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. Unsurprisingly, it represents the same D sound as in Dmitri.|
|Л||л comes from lambda, the Greek L as in Lena.|
|П||п surely makes you think of pi, whatever your level of math. It sounds like the P in Putin.|
|Ф||ф, like phi in Greek, represents the sound F as in Fyodor.|
Looking back on this first day, you’ve learned 18 letters out of 33. Well done, you’re already over halfway done! Now take a nice long break and relax in order to prepare your brain for tomorrow.
Sunday: Onto The Challenging Letters
For your second (and final) day of learning, block out three 1-hour sessions, spread across the whole day. These letters will probably look a little more foreign to you, so they’ll require more intense studying.
5. Learn 3 completely new letters
First, revisit all 18 letters from the previous day. You’ll be starting slow with these first three letters, so take the time to make sure you remember everything you studied yesterday.
Dedicate the rest of the hour to learning three new letters that have fairly similar sounds:
|И||и sounds like the I in Igor. Most native English speakers will more likely associate this letter with an E sound, like in “see,” or an “ie” sound, like in “piece.”|
|Й||й sounds more or less like the sound Y in toy. When combined with an E, you get “eй” (as in “hey”), with an O, you have “oй” (as in Bolshoi) and with an A, you get “aй” (as in “aye”).|
|Ы||ы is quite a difficult sound for English speakers to reproduce. It’s pronounced a bit like an I that comes from the throat. Russians understand the difficulty this letter causes and won’t hold it against you if you pronounce it like a normal I at first.|
6. Learn 7 more Russian letters
After you’ve taken a long rest, you can start your sixth lesson by reviewing the 21 letters you already know. This lesson of seven (7!) letters may look long, but the first part is a piece of cake. The next two letters should be easy — they’re just disguised versions of their Latin equivalents:
|Б||б sounds like the B in Boris.|
|З||з sounds like the Z in zoo.|
The next five are important, and a little trickier. To a certain extent, they make up the hardcore foundation of Russian lettering. Concentrate so you can learn them well!
|Ж||ж is the S sound in “pleasure.”|
|Ц||ц is like the “ts” sound in “sits.”|
|Ч||ч is the “ch” sound in Chekhov.|
|Ш||ш the “sh” sound in Babushka.|
|Щ||щ is a soft “shch” sound that does not exist in English. To pronounce it properly, you must brace your tongue downwards, a bit like the pronunciation of the German word ich.|
7. Learn the last 3 vowels and 2 ‘different letters’
At the end of the day, review the 28 letters that you know already before you go on to the last three vowels. Remember, you’re almost there! These letters definitely look funny when you’re used to Latin letters, but they’re not as bad as they look.
|Э||э sounds like the E in “met.”|
|Ю||ю is like a “you” sound, as in Yuri.|
|Я||я is a “ya” sound, as in “yard” or the Siberian city of Yakutsk, which is also the coldest city in the world (-40°C on average in January).|
Now you’ve learned 31 letters. The remaining two letters are probably a bit different than any other letters you’ve run into because you don’t pronounce them:
|Ь||ь is what we call the soft sign. It’s not pronounced on its own, but it softens the pronunciation of the letter preceding it.|
|Ъ||ъ is called the hard sign and makes the sound of the letter before it a bit harsher in pronunciation.|
Although you will see the soft sign frequently, you will rarely come across the hard sign. (Maybe Russian is more of a soft language than you originally thought!)
So there you have it, we’ve reached the end of our journey. Now all you need to do is to keep reviewing and train yourself to read more and more quickly. We bet that in the end, you’ll find that the whole effort was less difficult than you ever anticipated!