Russian Language Blog

Conquer the Backwards R — Learn to Read Russian (Part I) Posted by on Nov 21, 2016 in language

Every so often a reader of this blog will be frustrated about not being able to read Russian characters. While we will occasionally include transliteration and audio, learning to read Cyrillic is much easier that you think! There are several reasons why reading Russian is beneficial, and we will look at some relatively painless ways of learning the alphabet.

Transliteration is Limited

There are several ways of writing Russian text in Latin characters. These systems differ in the ways they render Russian characters in Latin script, and that inconsistency can be confusing. For example, the letter х (ha) may be transliterated as “kh,” “x,” or “h.”

Moreover, the reader of transliterated Russian may be tempted to fall back on the phonetic rules of their first language when sounding them out. For instance, an English speaker reading the word zhizn’ (жизнь, “life”) may not realize, from the looks of the word, that “zh” is really the sound of “s” in “pleasure” and not the sound of “z” in “lizard,” and the apostrophe after the “n” makes that sound palatalized (“soft“).

Recognizing Loanwords

Learning to read Cyrillic allows you to understand international loanwords — in Russian and in other languages that use a similar alphabet. Imagine you are in a Russian city feeling illiterate because you cannot read words you would otherwise have surely recognized — ресторан, банк, кафе, библиотека, аэропорт, магазин (restaurant, bank, café, library, airport, shop/store), and so on. Transparent Language offers alphabet courses within its products, but here is a quick overview of the Russian alphabet to help you start reading.

Letters That Look And Sound (Generally) Like in Latin Alphabets

Both the Latin and the Cyrillic alphabets are based on the Greek alphabet, so a few letters are generally the same. Let us look at some of these letters (capital and lowercase), their approximate pronunciation, and some examples containing the letter.

  • Аа — “ah,” audio here; ма́ма (mom/mum), мак (poppy), мат (mat)
  • Ее — “yeh” at the beginning of words, after vowels or the hard sign (ъ); “eh” after consonants, with the preceding consonant palatalized/”softened”; те́ма (theme, topic), маке́т (mock-up)
  • Оо — “aw” (not “oh”!); кот (male cat), кто (who), том (/book/ volume); the sound will be closer to the letter “а” for unstressed syllables
  • Кк — non-aspirated “k”; кака́о (cocoa), ком (lump), так (so)
  • Мм — “m”; ме́тка (mark); коме́та (comet)
  • Тт — unaspirated “t”; тот (that); като́к (ice rink)

Letters That Look But Do Not Sound Like in Latin Alphabets

These are the guys that tend to throw learners off because they look like a different letter in the Latin alphabet!

  • Рр — trilled “r”; сестра́(sister), рок (rock music; also “fate”)
  • Сс — “s”; текст (text), систе́ма (system)
  • Вв — “v”; вариа́нт (variant); университе́т (university)
  • [technically, this is not exactly like a Latin letter but is reminiscent of one] Ии — “ee”; интерне́т (Internet); кино́ (cinema)
  • Нн — “n”; ›но́та (musical note), ›сена́тор (senator)
  • Уу — deep “ooh” (not the American expression of surprise “ooh!”); тури́ст (tourist), мину́та (minute)
  • Хх — like “ch” in “loch”; мона́рх (monarch), хара́ктер (personality, character)

We will continue learning the alphabet in our next post. For those just learning to read — how did you feel trying to put Russian letters together? Was the connection to Latin letters helpful or confusing?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    I would not put the Russian “И” in the category of letters that look the same but sound different. This is a letter that does not appear in English. Or am I wrong? Is this letter in the Latin Alphabet and if it is, could you tell us a little more about it? Thanks!

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Hi Moonyeen,

      That is a fair observation. I believe it was on this list (which I got the inspiration for from a Russian textbook) because some English readers may attempt to sound it out like an N, but you are right, it is not exactly the same shape as an N. I will make a comment about it in the post. Thank you.

  2. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    Continuation of my comment above: И looks like a backwards N but then, that is not really looking the same. It’s the same difference (!) between R and Я. Mirror images, but don’t really “look the same.”

  3. Brent:

    I really enjoyed trying to translate the words before looking at the actual translations. It was good practice, especially knowing I would indeed be able to work them out. Is there any way you could provide comparable material?

  4. Dave Wendt:

    Loan words are actually called <> that is “international words” possibly a Russian perspective that words belong to all nations and are not “on loan”.