Russian Language Blog

Using Mnemonics to Learn Russian? Posted by on Dec 5, 2013 in language

(Early Soviet poster pushes for literacy among women: “Woman! Learn to read!”. The young girl says to her mother: “Oh, mother! If you could read, you’d be able to help me!”)

Memorizing grammar rules and, especially, exceptions to them, can be, to put it mildly, not fun at all. What’s worse, they tend to в одно ухо влетают, из другого вылетают (go into one ear and out of the other).

That’s why I am a big fan of mnemonic devices. I still remember the very first one I learned back in the primary school, “жи/ши пиши с буквой и” (write letter “и” in the “жи” and “ши” syllables even though you hear it as “ы”), I’ve relied on it ever since.

Some others that stuck in my mind and that I still use include:

Иван Родил Девчонку Велел Тащить Пелёнку – the beginning letters of each word correspond with the beginning letters of the noun cases – именительный (nominative), родительный (genitive), дательный (dative), винительный (accusative), творительный (instrumental), предложный (prepositional).

Каждый Охотник Желает Знать Где Сидит Фазан (lit: each hunter wants to know where pheasant sits) does the same trick for the colors of the rainbow – красный (red), оранжевый (orange), жёлтый (yellow), зелёный (green), голубой (light blue), синий (dark blue), фиолетовый (purple).

Another one I remember, but fail to use most of the time is надеть одежду, одеть Надежду (to put on clothes, to dress Nadezhda). It helps to remember when to use the verb надеть (to put an article of clothing on oneself) and when to use одеть (to put an article on clothing on someone else).

I was recently reminded of a little rhyme that helps remember the planets in order and that goes like this: Меркурий – раз, Венера – два-с, три – Земля, четыре – Марс, пять – Юпитер, шесть – Сатурн, семь – Уран, восьмой – Нептун (Mercury is one; Venus – two; Earth – three; four – Mars; five – Jupiter; six – Saturn; seven – Uranus; Neptune is the eighth.)

There are lots of other “little helpers” that I use to, among other things, remember to write the word труженик (worker) with only one н, to not add ь at the end of невтерпёж (can’t wait) or to stress the correct vowel in the word торты (cakes).

The problem with many of these rules is that they are easy for native speakers. But I think they aren’t all that helpful if you are learning Russian as a foreign language. What, if any, mnemonics have you used to memorize Russian words or grammar rules? Have you tried creating your own мнемоника (mnemonics)? On the other hand, do you have a favorite English-language mnemonic rule that you wish you knew how to say in Russian?

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  1. Siobhan:

    I before E except after C, except when sounded as Eye or Ay as in Einstein and
    Weigh is the English mnemonic I greatly remember.

    Wish Russian was that easy, although these Russian mnemonics is so useful with better understanding the case structure in a sentence.

    • yelena:

      @Siobhan Siobhan, I love-love-love the “i before e except after c” rule! It saved me a lot of headache when I was learning English and its crazy ways of spelling words. Your comment reminded me about the “ира” mnemonics

      Повнимательней гляди:
      Если в слове имя Ира,
      Значит, в корне буква и
      Если после корня — а,
      В корне будет и всегда
      Вот пример, запоминай:
      Ноги вытер? — Вытирай!

      So, in words such as вытирать, забирать, стирать, убирать, проиграть “и” is unstressed and sounds somewhat like a “е”. However, as long as there’s that stressed “а” after the root, we should write и as in the name Ира. Again, this is one of the rules that has marginal utility to most learners of Russian as a foreign language. But it comes with a cute rhyme 🙂

  2. Erik M.:

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been curious about Russian mnemonics ever since I learned Каждый Охотник Желает Знать, which is the only one you mention that I knew.

    Жи/ши пиши с буквой и could be useful to people learning the spelling rules, but of course we non-native speakers have trouble hearing the ы sound in жи and ши at first. Similarly Надеть одежду, одеть Надежду guards against a mistake (prescriptively speaking) that non-native speakers are unlikely to even think of as a possibility.

    What is the Russian equivalent for “Kings Play Chess On Funny Green Squares” (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species) or

    Thirty days have September,
    April, June, and November?

    Also, are there any for learning to read music? English has “every good boy deserves favor” (with many variations) for the notes on the lines in treble clef.

    • yelena:

      @Erik M. Erik, I remember using костяшки пальцев (knuckles) to memorize the months with only 30 days in them. The Russian Wikipedia entry lists АпЮнСеНо (АПрель, иЮНь, СЕнтябрь, НОябрь) as a way to remember these months. But I think the English rhyme works well in Russian too: Тридцать дней в сентябре, апреле, июне и ноябре.

      Mnemonics for reading music – check out this forum (in Russian, let me know if I can help translate).

      Mnemonics for biology – two versions that I’ve found on this site (along with lots of other secondary-school science mnemonics, also in Russian):

      For plants – Цирк Огромный, Купол Пёстрый, Словно Радугу Вознёс (ты) – first letters correspond to царство (kingdom), отдел (phylum), класс (class), порядок (order), семейство (family), род (genus), вид (species). The final ты does not stand for anything and is only kept for the rhyme to, well, rhyme.

      For animals – Цепко Тащит Кот Огрызок Серебристой Рыбки Вёрткой – again, first letters correspond to царство, тип, класс, отряд, семейство, род, вид

  3. Rod:

    Interesting stuff but I don’t think those would be particularly helpful to non-native speakers indeed. I’d need a mnemonic sentence to even remember the mnemonic sentence…