A vast majority of people are skeptical about learning Russian or another unusual language online. If they are complete beginners, they doubt that they will be able to understand a single word a native speaker would say. On the other hand, advanced students may get disappointed, painfully trying to choose an effective teacher who will not only recommend endless lists of resources, but who will also be able to explain difficult lexical and grammatical points.

My personal teaching experience proves that for many students finding the right teacher out of hundreds of prospects can be quite difficult. Almost every tutor says that he or she is a native speaker and can provide you with the best of service. However, sometimes it seems that you are wasting time and money trying a new teacher every now and then, but failing to find the person who you get on with quite well. What should you do to avoid such a scenario?

Find a Professional Language Teacher

Always keep in mind that not every native speaker is a language teacher. This is something you should consider first of all when you skim the tutor's profile. Imagine somebody asking you to teach him or her your native language, for example, English. Can you explain why you use the present perfect in this case and the past simple in the other? Can you recommend the most relevant words, and help students remember them quickly? The teacher can.

See whether teachers you are considering have a special certification, where they have obtained it, and what teaching experience they have. A good teacher should have a linguistic education and he or she should have taken professional training in teaching language skills.

Decide On an Intermediary Language

OK, you have found a professional teacher. Then, see what language can serve as an intermediary one while learning the new language. It is particularly important if you are a beginner in Russian. I do know that some methods of teaching recommend not using any language except the one being taught. However, I am absolutely confident that if a teacher knows any other language that you do, it can only be helpful. In this case, your tutor can adequately translate new phrases or draw parallels in the intermediary language when explaining grammatical points in the new language you're learning.

For example, if a teacher knows English, he or she can explain to you why knowing Russian case endings is so important, and how they can change the meaning of what you say.

If you speak English, you know that you use a specific word order to say who does what. If you want to say that Michael loves Anna (and not Rosie), you put Anna after the verb love in order to transmit the love to Anna. And vice versa. If you want to say that Anna (and not Rosie) loves Michael, you put Anna before the verb love and, hence, you make Anna be the subject (the doer) in your phrase.

In Russian, the word order is free standing. So, you can say, Анна любит Майкла; Анну любит Майкл; Майкл любит Анну; or Майкла любит Анна. What a soap opera! How to understand who loves who? You should consider the ending: basic forms of the names are Анна and Майкл, and when you see a different ending at the end of the word Анну, Майкла, it means that this person undergoes an action, i.e., (s)he is beloved.

You may ask, if Анна любит Майкла/Майкла любит Анна equals Anna loves Michael, then what is the word order used for? A good question. It is used for stylistic purposes, to stress different things. When you say Анна любит Майкла, you want to stress that she loves Michael and not Peter or David. When you say Майкла любит Анна, you want to stress that he is beloved by Anna and not by Lill or Sarah.

To sum up, to show the relations of words in a sentence, we use the word order in English and case endings in Russian. So do you see how English is helpful to understand the concept of Russian cases?

Look for Skilled Translators

Sometimes, people waste time trying to explain the meaning of a word or even a sentence without translation, and only do so only with pictures or gestures, which can be confusing. I am certain that, especially at advanced levels, the teacher who can show the slightest differences in meaning with an adequate translation is more effective than one who cannot do it.

Determine Your Motivation

Decide why you want to study Russian. Some students are eager to talk to their Russian friends, or simply to learn one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Others are deeply interested in Russian history, or they are fascinated by a mysterious Russian culture and mentality or even consider marrying a Russian beauty. Some individuals would like to read classical books by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Russian; others are ambitious travelers with St.Petersburg on their wish list.

When you know why you want to learn Russian, think about what you need a teacher for: to create a logical course for you, to check your self-studying progress, to correct your mistakes, or what?

Understand How You Learn

Then consider: what is a good lesson for you? Why does this matter? Motivation is an engine which makes you move forward. And it is also the thing that determines the choice of learning material. While the range of language skills mastered at each level of language competence is relatively the same, the choice of texts, words and even pictures is affected by your aims.

So what do you prefer: logical, colorful schemes with arrows and bold typing--or contextual presentation of new points? How do you memorize new things: by drilling, by comparing with things you've already learned (associations, antonyms/synonyms, word-building), or by writing down everything new? What do you like more: being exposed to new rules or drawing your own conclusions based on the analysis of the context? Do you have time to do homework?

Ask your teacher what the session looks like, and to show you the materials he or she uses, such as sample pages from the textbooks or PDF files of lessons created by the teacher. This can tell you much more about the style the teacher prefers than just a striking video presentation.

Final Tips

When you write a message to potential teachers, explain to them:

  • Why you want to study Russian
  • Say what you can already do with the language and what resources you have already used, if any
  • Give more details of your learning style, e.g., “I need to see how the word is spelled before I memorize it,” or “I remember grammar rules only when I understand the scheme, when I have colorful charts,” or, “I don't forget words only when I have used them in my own context.”
  • Also, ask your teacher what, in his or her opinion, is a good lesson.

Reading other students’ feedback, and especially what the teacher has responded to them, can also be helpful.

I hope that these steps will lead you to an effective teacher. However, I admit that some students just want to speak to a native and meet new people and do not perceive the goal of making fast progress in Russian or any other language. If this is you, then just enjoy your stay in the italki community, and click on different teachers’ profiles. Within each one is a personality that is always interesting to discover.

Image Sources

Hero image by Joanne Johnson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)