Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tips for Learning Russian and Ukrainian

As I explained in my previous post, expats from English speaking or western European countries face a particular set of challenges when learning Russian or Ukrainian in Ukraine.

First of all, some observations about learning a foreign language from someone who has studied quite a few.

Language mastery seems to follow a curve like the one below. At first you put in a lot of time and effort just to learn the basics, then you reach a point where you now recognize many words and phrases and begin to have an intuitive feel for how things might be said in the language ("Getting the hang of it").

Now your progress starts to pick up, and not too much time passes before you can begin having simple conversations with natives ("Simple conversations"). At this point your progress accelerates further, because you can actively learn in the process of communication, not just during class or private study.

You now start a period of rapid language acquisition where you pick up commonly used words and phrases that you hear all around you. Eventually, you are able to hold pretty advanced conversations with people ("Advanced conversations").

Once you have learned the most essential, common vocabulary and phrases of a language, your progress begins to taper off. There is still a lot more to learn, but your progress will not be as visible as before, because the vast majority of conversation consists of the words and structures you have aready learned.

If you continue putting in time and effort, you may achieve writing proficiency and learn to read more and more fluently in the language; however, your speaking skills will improve less noticeably.


How long this process takes depends somewhat on your innate language abilities, but even more so on the amount of time and effort you are willing and able to put in. If you spend many hours a day studying the language, it may take as little as 2 months to reach "Getting the hang of it," 3 months to reach "Simple conversations," and 6 months to reach "Advanced conversations." More typical may be 6 months, 9 months, and 18 months, respectively.

However, people who don't make a concerted effort to learn the language can easily get stuck somewhere before the "Getting the hang of it" point. This doesn't mean you're unable to learn a foreign language, but simply that you have fallen into a rut where Russian and Ukrainian are basically irrelevant to your day-to-day life.

The hard part of learning a language is getting to the "Simple conversations" point. Beyond this level, your language knowledge evolves almost by itself. You can learn in the process of speaking and are amply rewarded for your progress. You can increasingly talk to people and get things done.

Reaching "Simple conversations" inevitably requires making some sacrifices. It might mean investing 100-200 hours of book and class study before getting results. It might mean foregoing possible friendships with English speakers in order to maintain your resolve to learn Russian or Ukrainian. It might mean feeling like a child again after two decades of success on the corporate ladder.

Language Goals and strategies

If you're planning a move to Ukraine, consider putting in effort in advance, before you find yourself surrounded by people and circumstances that encourage you to continue speaking English (or your other native language). Obviously, the further you can get in the language, the better off you'll be, but if you can at least get to "Getting the hang of it," you'll be much better off. You might be able to begin having simple conversations with people in Russian or Ukrainian before your life has settled into a rut. A general guideline is 100 hours of study to get to the "Getting the hang of it" level where your progress starts to accelerate.

Part of getting the hang of a language is getting used to the phonetics. Listening to language recordings over and over is a great way of doing this. Another part is becoming familiar with the main grammatical characteristics of the language. Neither of these two areas should be neglected.

If you've been in Ukraine for a while and still haven't reached "Simple conversations," consider signing up for language lessons with a language school or a tutor. This is probably the best way of getting over the hump and reaching a critical mass of language mastery. It doesn't matter if you're a recent college grad or a top-level USAID administrator -- you've still got to go through the same process.

Depending on your day-to-day schedule, you might discontinue lessons once you've reached "Simple conversations," or continue them all the way to "Advanced conversations." The more your work and social circle insulate you from Russian/Ukrainian, the longer you'll probably want to take lessons.

Dealing with frustration

Ukrainian and Russian have difficult grammar and pronunciation that is very foreign to native English speakers and people from western Europe. You will experience the most frustration early on, as you are trying to reach the "Getting the hang of it" point.

Frustration is basically a kind of mental tension that arises from trying to do something that is too hard for you at the moment. Experienced language learners avoid frustration and tension by not trying to understand or learn things that they are not yet ready for. If you encounter something that begins to cause frustration, simply make a mental note of the thing and move on to something else. Chances are it will eventually make sense or come more naturally when you return to the topic in the future. There is always something that you are ready to learn at this moment in time. These are the things to focus on.

As a teenager, I spent a year in Slovakia living with a host family. Over the year, I filled a few notebooks with "useful words" that I had copied from the dictionary. After the end of my year, I reviewed the notebooks a final time and realized that I had only incorporated about a quarter of the words into my active vocabulary. This is a typical symptom of not focusing on the material you are ready to learn at the moment.

Instead of deciding what you think you need to learn, try focusing instead on the things you hear around you that you get the gist of but do not understand 100%. These are the words and phrases that, if you look up in the dictionary, you will never forget. By choosing the correct moment to focus your conscious energy on learning a word or phrase, you can reduce the amount of effort it takes to incorporate it into your active vocabulary by 10 or 20 times.

The trick is to increase your exposure to the language, letting your subconscious absorb the sounds and structures, and focus your conscious efforts only on the things that are already familiar to you but that you would not yet be able to use yourself.

UPDATE 2016:

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual. My views and methods have are clearer and more evolved than what I wrote here.


  1. Good points, great article. The best i found so far. Thanks for sharing.

  2. (posting for reader)

    Hello, my name is Logan, I'm an American truckdriver who's planning on coming to Kyiv for a few months this year.

    I ran across your blog and am enjoying reading it. You've got a lot of first rate info and insights here.

    I think your tips on learning Russian and Ukrainian are highly accurate, and I've saved the article for myself. Particularly that language acquisition takes off when Simple Conversations can start... and then tapers off once Advanced Conversations are reached. This is exactly what happened to me learning Italian: once I had learned a "workable" phrase for almost all scenarios, I no longer had to stop and ask for a new phrase during a conversation. And thus my learning slowed down considerably. I had never identified why, until I read your article. Really a brilliant observation.

    On the same topic, I also subscribe to the theory of "stay in the fast lane" for deciding what to study next. Your definition of Frustration ("trying to do something that is too hard for you at the moment") is spot-on, and very important: people often give up on languages because they are trying to master the most difficult problems first. As you said, "There is always something that you are ready to learn at this moment in time."

    Back to the blog.

  3. Quite interesting ideas. Sure it is not that simple to study Russian or Ukrainian but when you daily communicate with native speakers and do some exercises in order to improve your knowledge, there is nothing impossible.

  4. Very good post. I would like to add that motivation is key. Why do you want to know the language? Why is it a must for you? Until I got my "why"s, I wasn't making any progress.

    You can try: and Both have a free vocab builder with audio by natives.

    There are many resources out there, but as I said, motivation is key.

  5. I'm learning Ukrainian with tutors on It’s a good source and I started to practice speaking. But even now I'm looking for new opportunities  to try something new in language learning. If you know some great ways you tried yourself, let me know, please.I'll be glad.