I don’t know about you, but when I start learning a foreign language it’s usually because I want to speak it. Reading, writing, and watching TV or movies in a foreign language is all well and good. But at the end of the day being able to speak is my ultimate goal.
I imagine most Russian learners are the same. Yet for all the demand and desire for Russian speaking ability, so many of us fall short of being able to hold a simple conversation in the language. In theory the language learning experience seems simple and straightforward. You learn what words mean and then you theoretically you should able to use those words when you speak with a real person.
The truth is that it’s a bit more complicated than that. Knowing vocabulary is great, but it won’t get you far without knowing grammar. Grammar is vitally important if you want to become fluent, but even knowing both grammar and vocabulary won’t necessarily allow you to talk freely with native speakers.
In this post we look at three practical tips you can use to increase your Russian conversation skills.
1. Practice with Native Russian Speakers
Having real life conversations with native speakers is hands down the best way to improve your Russian speaking skills. Learning grammar and vocabulary is of course important too (after all you can’t speak Russian if you don’t know what to say). But having your nose stuck in a textbook or app will never help you develop the ability to hold a conversation.
You see, knowing Russian is one thing. Speaking it is quite another. Your Russian speaking skills are just that...skills. Much like riding a bike or playing the saxophone you have to practice before you become proficient.
So how exactly do you go about finding native Russian speakers if you don’t live in a Russian speaking country? The answer may be simpler than you think.
Check and see if there are any speaking clubs or language exchanges in or around your city. If you live near a major metropolitan area this shouldn’t be too hard. You can use a site like Meetup to find a meeting nearby. If your city doesn’t have clubs or exchanges, or if it does but there are no Russian speakers, take your search online.
There are a plethora of free online language exchanges out there. These are sites that connect language learners across the world through video chat, text chat, or online messaging. Find a native Russian speaker who is learning English. Then you can meet regularly and help each other practice your respective target languages. Problem solved!
2. Work on Your Russian Pronunciation
Pronunciation probably isn’t the first skill that jumps into your mind when you talk about learning a foreign language. To a certain extent everyone knows that pronunciation is important, because if your accent is really bad people will have a hard time understanding you. However most Russian learners don’t try to improve their accent past the most basic level. Don’t be deceived though, being able to correctly pronounce Russian words is a powerful asset in your journey to fluency.
A decent Russian accent is a huge boon to your listening and comprehension skills. It also makes new words and phrases easier to remember after you hear or read them. When you’re able to physically pronounce Russian sounds correctly, your brain has a much easier time breaking down the Russian it hears.
To work on your Russian accent, start by focusing on the individual sounds of the Russian alphabet. It also wouldn’t hurt to read a little about the general mouth and tongue placement used to create the Russian accent, also called Russian phonology. Pay close attention to the difference between hard and soft consonants as well as vowels, as these are both fundamental concepts in the Russian language.
Once you can pronounce individual letters reasonably well, it’s time to move onto words and longer phrases. Speechling is a perfect tool for this. Listen to the recorded phrases of native speakers and do your best to emulate the sounds and intonation they use. Record yourself trying to mimic what you hear and then use the feedback you receive from your coach and make the necessary adjustments.
If you repeat this process consistently you will see drastic improvements in your pronunciation abilities.
3. Learn Longer Phrases, not only Single Words
Often times it’s a lot easier to remember and make longer phrases in a foreign language versus short phrases. You certainly should learn individual words, especially when you’re learning grammar. However to increase your conversational abilities you will also want to learn Russian phrases as language “chunks” which you can easily use during a conversation.
At first you don’t have to be too worried whether or not you understand the exact grammar behind a certain phrase. You can be content with simply knowing the overall meaning. When you learn enough phrases you can start using them together in order to be conversational.
I’ll give you an example of this. Take a Russian phrase that means I don’t care: Мне все равно. Literally this sentence doesn’t quite translate to English’s “I don’t care”, but it does carry the same meaning. Now let’s take a second common phrase “I don’t like..” (Мне не нравится...). Again this phrase doesn’t translate literally to “I don’t like”. In Russian this phrase translates to something more along the lines of “It is not pleasing to me”.
Still, if we know both of these phrases and a Russian speaker asks us something about a topic we’re not too passionate about (let’s say politics). Then we can respond with these two phrases together: Мне все равно. Мне не нравится политика. We can use them together even if we’re unsure about how they translate literally.
This is an example of how learning whole phrases can improve your conversational ability, even if you don’t yet understand what exactly is going on grammatically. As you continue to study Russian you will learn the necessary grammar and fill in the gaps.
Russian fluency is an admirable goal, but it’s also not an easy one. There’s a long road between being a beginner and becoming fluent. However that doesn’t mean that you can’t start speaking Russian along the way. Yes you might not be fluent yet, but if you follow these tips you should able to start effectively expressing yourself in Russian sooner that you thought!