There are four skills associated with language acquisition: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. A lot of learners spend all their time working on their speaking skills, but struggle with the listening part.
Learning a language in a classroom can give you a false sense of confidence sometimes. Instructors often speak at a slower pace and enunciate, but when you talk to people in a less formal setting, all bets are off.
I remember my first day of Russian class. I was a complete beginner and when the teachers started speaking at what was a normal speed, I wanted to cry. I had no clue what was going on and understand less than 20% of what I was hearing.
Five years later, I feel much more secure in my comprehension abilities. Keep reading to find out how to improve your listening skills!
1) Practice Active Listening
Listen to spoken Russian by using audio recordings (like mp3s) or videos. Listen one time through and write down what you think you heard. Then replay the audio and listen again.
If you can find transcripts to accompany the audio, you can check what you think you heard with what’s written. If you don’t have a transcript, try asking an instructor or native speaker to check your answers.
Listening comprehension doesn't have to be boring anymore. In 2017, we're no longer limited to silly textbook dialogues. There are tons of options for audio resources with native speakers.
Youtube has millions of videos on every subject you can imagine, so finding some Youtube channels to practice Russian shouldn’t be hard. You can use songs, movies, news clips, and funny viral videos to hone your listening skills.
RussianPod101 is an amazing site offering Russian lessons in the form of podcasts. They offer transcripts of each episode and let you play back individual words and phrases at a slower speed, making Russianpod101 a valuable resource for developing your listening skills.
The Foreign Service Institute has released over 48 free language guides for novices, including one for Russian. The guides have a pronunciation component in each lesson so you can break down phrases by syllable. You can find them online and in your local library.
If you're working with an instructor or know any native speakers, ask them to read the FSI dialogues at two speeds, slow and normal. This way, it'll be easier for you to imitate their accents and cadences.
2) Practice Pronunciation
Practicing pronunciation is an important but undervalued skill in language learning. You might never sound "fluent", but you should push yourself. If you neglect pronunciation, native speakers will have a hard time understanding you and you'll just get discouraged.
Improving your accent will affect your confidence and your ability to be understood by others. Plus, learning the correct pronunciation will make the language sound less foreign when you hear it.
How to Practice
One way to improve your pronunciation is to focus on the sounds that are different from English. Part of what makes some people sound like "gringos" or unauthentic is that they use English sounds in foreign words.
Make sure you know how each consonant and vowel is supposed to sound. For example: It's crucial to know when to pronounce the letter г like a G and when to pronounce it like a V.
There are subtle differences between how vowels are pronounced in Russian and English. Try to hear the distinctions and replicate them. Watch videos like this one that break down the sounds:
Also, practice sounds like ы and the rolled r which aren’t present in English, but are used in other languages like Spanish and Italian. Here's a good explanation:
Identify your problem letters (these are probably the ones that are unique to Russian) and practice them individually. Then, pick another audio clip (like a song, speech, or dialogue) that you can replay.
Listen to a few seconds at a time and try to imitate the speaker. The key is to break the clips down into bite-size chunks, so it's more manageable. This way, you're less likely to get discouraged.
Another way to help you get used to how unique Russian sounds, is to listen to an audio clip with your headphones in and record yourself trying to repeat what the speaker is saying.
Then, you can play back the recording of your voice and compare the sounds you made to those of the clip. This will help you identify your areas of weakness. This exercise definitely feels weird, but it helps.
3) Make it a Habit
Combine listening exercises and pronunciation drills for your own personal “Russian boot camp”. For example: spend a few minutes practicing your problem sounds, a few listening, and a few imitating native speakers.
If you're very busy or if you get distracted easily, you might want to start with just 5-7 minutes for each component. Language learning shouldn't feel like a chore, so try to keep the drills relatively short so as not to burn yourself out.
You can use your judgment to decide how much you want to practice each day. This will take a bit of self-discipline, but it'll also give you freedom over your personal language learning process.
Brief but sustained practice is better than sporadic, long sessions. Remember: a little bit goes a long way.
Developing a good accent can boost your confidence and impress other people, but you have to work at it.
Look at our list of helpful YouTube channels for inspiration and imitate the native-speakers you hear.
Keep it short but fun by working on your listening comprehension and pronunciation every day in short bursts.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.
Practicing pronunciation can be tedious, but it’s important. If you put in a little work every day, your Russian accent and listening skills will definitely improve!