One of the best things to do before your trip to Russia is to learn the Russian alphabet aka the Cyrillic alphabet. This post will detail how to learn the Cyrillic alphabet with tips from my previous trips to Russia and Serbia. I include the best free apps for learning the Cyrillic alphabet as well as helpful language apps for learning useful phrases in Russian (or another language). This post also applies to learning the Cyrillic alphabet for other countries, including Serbia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belarus, …
Why bother learning the Cyrillic alphabet?
When you’re in the major cities in Russia, you’ll find some English speakers, but not everyone speaks English and most signs will be in Russian. Being able to figure out what a word is often enough to get started and/or guess.
Most importantly, if you’ll be taking the Moscow metro, the directions and stop names are in Cyrillic although they’ve started announcing the stops in English. Being able to figure out the right direction will save you a lot of time instead of getting on the wrong train.
The alphabet is just the start, but the minimum that I’d say is to learn the Russian alphabet before visiting Russia. I was surprised how many words, once pronounced out loud, sounded a bit like words in English and other European languages.
I was recently in Serbia and knowing the Cyrillic alphabet was quite helpful there as well. There are definitely differences, however it helped me a lot with pronunciation as I was able to order things in Serbian. I’ve also heard that for many former USSR countries, Russian is quite helpful as the older generation can understand it well.
Languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet
It’s great to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as you’ll be able to read other languages in Cyrillic. Expect some differences as some languages, such as Bulgarian, have additional letters that aren’t in Russian.
How long does it take to learn the Cyrillic alphabet?
It should take about 3-4 hours to learn the Cyrillic alphabet if you’re in the right mindset. I broke it up into one-hour chunks while my husband did it all at once. Some apps (such as Duolingo) will take longer while others are better tailored to learning the Cyrillic alphabet before your trip.
How did I learn the Cyrillic alphabet?
I used a slightly silly app called RusAlphabet, Cyrillic in 3 hours, or whatever he’s calling it now (Russian Alphabet Mastery). It is created by a Canadian guy (?) who goes through the Cyrillic Alphabet while inverting English letters, contextual clues, substituting Cyrillic letters in English, and showing you random signs in Russian with different fonts.
One of the hardest things about learning the Russian alphabet is putting together the words in a way that it’s smooth rather than choppy. I felt it was really helpful as it meant that I learned the Cyrillic alphabet with a good amount of context while hearing it put together. I loved that he gave you additional signs to try out before saying it with the help of a native speaker.
For learning touristy phrases in Russia (or any other language), I love Triposo. It downloads Wikitravel for you, which includes helpful phrases that many travelers need along with pronunciation in English/Cyrillic, travel tips, and maps. I recommend downloading it offline before your trip.
I’m lactose-intolerant, so I often have to discuss food allergies, which can be complicated in another language. I love that Triposo makes it so that you can click a phrase to explain what you want in big font, so if your speaking isn’t going well, you can can hand the phone over.
How did others learn the Cyrillic alphabet?
Write each letter over and over
This is not the most exciting way, but it is quite effective to write each letter over and over until you memorize it. A few people have cited this as the way that they memorized the Cyrillic alphabet although it can be time consuming.
Create a mnemonic system
Create your own system for memorizing the letters. For instance, the Д (D) looks like a little house on stilts, and house in russian is dom – so when I saw that letter I remembered “d”om. (Thanks to Luda.)
This is a given, but Duolingo is one of the easiest ways to learn many languages for free. The app is free to download and helpful if you’re planning on learning the alphabet. However, I felt like it went a bit too fast (IMO) and I ended up switching to RusAlphabet.
I find that Duolingo is a great way to start learning a language in general, however it has its pitfalls. Namely, learning animals and not learning tourist phrases. However, you can skip sections if you’re not sure that they’ll be helpful.
If your goal longterm is to become fluent in Russian, I recommend working through Duolingo while supplementing this with children’s books and grammar books. My biggest issue with Duolingo (I’ve used it for Dutch) is that it doesn’t explain why certain things are done or exceptions to specific rules. For me, it’s contributed to a lot of errors that I make in Dutch as I never learned the exceptions of when you do X or Y.
Memrise has been cited as one of the easiest ways to learn the Cyrillic alphabet when I asked other travelers. They have a lesson focused on the alphabet and if you’re looking for a quick way to learn, consider trying it out. They have detailed podcasts for learning Russian beyond the alphabet as well!