How to Memorize Russian Words with Less Effort

russian alphabet background

The English-speaking learners of Russian often complain about having hard time memorizing Russian words, which seem too long and difficult to pronounce. In this post we will look at some ways to simplify the process of memorizing Russian words.

First of all, let us agree that memorizing is a learning skill, which requires time and concentration of the learner’s attention, which means that the words cannot “jump” into our memory without our participation. So, the first condition of good memorizing is your intellectual and emotional state. Do not even try to memorize anything when your mind is busy thinking over some work problem or when you are excited or disturbed by something. Also, a very important thing is motivation. If you know exactly why you are learning Russian and how you may use knowledge of these particular words in the future, then you will memorize everything quickly and, as some students often put it, “almost without effort.”

To make your memorizing process as efficient as it can be, you may want to start a book (or a file) of new words, then you can enter every new word you come across, and thus, you can see your progress, daily. Some people, however, are not big fans of writing, they memorize everything “by ear” or “by their eyes”, so let us leave this choice to every person, individually.

The first thing you meed to do to remember a new Russian word is to look at it with full attention, and read it loud, trying to hear your own voice as you pronounce it and remember how the word is spelled with your eyes.

Let us take the word неожиданность, for example. It is long and difficult to read for a beginner. First, you need to know the basic information about the word: it is a feminine, singular noun, it has 5 vowels, which means it has 5 syllables (неоИан-ность), it has a stress on the 3-rd syllable (letter и is stressed) and it is used in its dictionary form (has no specific ending). All this information is usually available in dictionaries.

Now, for the pronounciation. Try to read it loud: неожиданность [ni-a-zhi-dan-nast’]. Repeat the word a couple of times and get your tongue accustomed to saying it.

So far so good, you will say, but what does it mean? The unpleasant thing is the fact that this word does not have a direct, completely equivalent translation into English, “неожиданность” means: an unexpected event, a surprise, something that happened unexpectedly. All right, you can probably remember the meaning of the word, but how can you remember this incredible sequence of letters?!

Here is a way: look at its syllables first-

неожиданность – [ni-a-zhi-dan-nast’] – and interpret it as: [new-a-zhid-an-nast] or even as: [new-as-shit-on-us]. I am sure this way the word is crooked all over, but it is beginning to create a trace in your mind.

The fact is, when you try to build up a meaningful association between a new piece of language [ni-a-zhi-dan-nast’] and something already familiar [new-as-shit-on-us] – no matter how crazy it may sound, our memory “catches” the new meaning right away, creates a visual association (I am sure your brain has already built an image in association with the [new-as-shit-on-us] combination), and then memorizing takes place. The only thing you need to know now is to make a mental note for yourself that Russian word неожиданность means something new happening unexpectedly, that is is a noun and sounds somewhat similar to the phrase [new-as-shit-on-us]: ni-a-zhi-dan-nast’.

The next step will be to train using this word in other word combinations (preferably, in the most commonly used combinations – just as it appears in its language:

приятная неожиданность – a pleasant unexpected event

Вот так неожиданность! – What an unexpected event!

You may also try to make up a sentence containing the word:

Это была полная неожиданность – It was a completely unexpected event (news)!

There are many other methods of memorizing language material, and we are going to look at more of them in our future posts, but most of those methods aim to achieve the same effect: to develop an image in your mind, which will “stick” to the meaning and to your way of “hearing” the new word. Try the above method for now – play with your words, try to develop associations with their meanings or the ways they sound and memorizing will become a lot easier.

As the last little tip I’d like to suggest you not to waste your time trying to memorize difficult words. If a word seems quite difficult, just skip it for now and go on to work with the next one; try to choose the easiest and the most “likeable” words in the first place. Try the ones which you can easily pronounce and associate with something familiar. This will save you the time and emotion of having to remember the “immemorizeable” stuff.

Did you understand what I meant by “immemorizeable”, by the way? Right, I meant to say: something that cannot be memorized. Your mind just did the job of understanding of this word (which does not exist in the English language, but is understandable to you because of its quite understandable parts). When you try to memorize Russian words, your brain pushes every new word through a similar process. This is why, if you learn to divide the “meaningless” Russian words into meaningful units of sounds, you can easily use your existing mind strategies for memorizing of the new words.

Thank you for reading this! See you soon with our next post.

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Jerry Jay Carroll

New York Times bestselling author

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