Learning Russian Pt. 3: Vocabulary


We all know that one of the biggest challenges when learning a foreign language is building up your vocabulary. So many words, so little time… Vocabulary has got to be the most important aspect of language, because without the words, there’s no need for grammatical structures and no need to pronounce anything! And when you start learning a new language as an adult, as I am, you realise just how difficult it is, and how much effort it takes, to build up even a basic vocabulary.

Learning Russian vocabulary isn’t too difficult, as it borrowed a lot of words from French, Latin and German during the Enlightenment era, and then from English in the late 20th century. In my class, we started off by learning vocabulary associated with the tourist-y topics that we were studying, so things like ‘suitcase’, ‘airport’, ‘visa’ and ‘passport’, and so on. As we’ve come on to more varied topics such as jobs and family, the vocabulary is getting much more complex. To help me memorize all these new words, I’ve basically found that practice is the only way to get them to stick. I’m a very visual learner, so flashcards work best for me: I bought a pack at the start of the course and add all new vocabulary, highlighting the stress in colour and adding the hand-written and printed versions (as handwritten Russian is very different from what you see printed in books or on signs). On the other side, I simply put the English translation so that I can test myself, in order to master the meaning of all this vocabulary. These flashcards would probably work well for kinaesthetic learners too, but if you’re a more auditory learner, I would recommend buying a microphone and using a free note taking application such as Evernote to record yourself saying these new words out loud. If you’ve got a smart phone or tablet, there’s no need for a microphone, as you can just download Evernote and use your device’s capability to record your voice.

But of course, the first problem is finding the time, outside of class, to consolidate what you’ve learnt. This is something you probably experience with your own adult English students: the vast majority of them will have jobs and families, meaning outside of class, homework and extra language practice fall to the bottom of the “to do” list. I’ve found that using my very long commute is a really effective way of revising vocabulary (and generally catching up on my homework!). Rather than carrying my flashcards around with me, I’ve found the brilliant IH My Words app that I can carry around me with me wherever I go. It’s basically a vocabulary builder from International House, but rather than just adding the word and its meaning, you can also add in a photo (great for concrete nouns!), and you can record your voice and save the recording, so you can record yourself (or your teacher) saying the word to make sure you correctly learn how to pronounce it and where the stress should be. Users can also create free categories, so you can put your new vocabulary into different groups. These additional features put it a cut above most other online vocabulary builders and considering it’s free, should be in every language learner’s toolkit!

The second problem related to learning vocabulary is finding new groups of words to learn. Of course, we always need to be finding new material that isn’t covered in class, and I think building up vocabulary is one of the best ways you can do this. I bought myself a children’s book, My First 100 Russian Words, to help me learn a basic vocabulary, as I’m quite unsure of how to go about actually finding the words to learn! This book covers some helpful categories, such as colours, shapes and basic actions that we haven’t been looking at in class. On top of this, I’ve also been using Memrise (which Lucy wrote all about quite recently). You can learn pretty much anything as long as someone’s built a course, and it basically teaches you little snippets of information that you then revise until you can remember it without even thinking. It’s very clever, has a lovely layout, and is a really fantastic free resource for when you have a spare 10 minutes. If you are using it to learn vocabulary, you could simply brush past the words you don’t think you’ll need or already know, and note down any really useful words in your notebook or My Words app, as well as practising them when Memrise reminds you to!

Have you got any fail safe tips for learning or memorizing new vocabulary? Found something that really works, or something that really doesn’t? Please let us know in the comments below!





To find out more about Becca’s educational journey through the Russian language, click on the links below.

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Speaking

Part 4: Motivation



  • I have been using and recommending a program called memrise which is a flashcard program which sound like your app. They send periodic reminders for you to review your language. And it’s free!!

    Posted by Bob on March 15th 2013
  • Dear Bob,
    Thank you for the recommendation! I’ve been using Memrise too and find it very useful, especially with the email reminders 🙂
    Best wishes,

    Posted by Becca Evans on March 18th 2013

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