How Hard Is It to Learn Russian?
The dreaded Russian language, with its complicated alphabet and impossible-sounding pronunciation, has long had a reputation of being an incredibly complex language to learn. Yet, over 250 million manage to learn it as babies and speak it as a native language. So, what’s their secret? Is Russian somehow in their blood? Or is it still possible to wrap your head around this mystical language and become fluent even as an adult?
In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at how easy or difficult it might be to become more-or-less fluent in Russian.
A Quick Introduction to Russian
Russian is one of the three members of East Slavic languages (the others being Belarusian and Ukrainian). It’s spoken as an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and is also common throughout the former Eastern Bloc. With over 140 million native speakers, it’s also the biggest language in Europe.
What most obviously sets it apart from other European languages, is the fact that Russian does not use the Latin alphabet. Instead, theRussian alphabet in the Cyrillic script is used. This, combined with the existence of “soft” and “hard” sounds has given Russian the infamy as being a very difficult language. Indeed, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) classifies Russian as a Category IV language and estimates it would take an English-speaker around 1,100 hours to learn.
But, before we give up even before trying, let’s see if this reputation is earned.
Don’t Believe in Estimates, Focus on Your Goals
Let’s start by disagreeing with the FSI. They get it wrong on so many levels. Yes, Russian might have a different alphabet and, as they put it, “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” but that’s not necessarily what makes a language difficult. What makes a language difficult is a wrong approach to learning it and a lack of motivation.
Don’t get me wrong – obviously, it will be easier for a German speaker to learn Dutch, or a Portuguese speaker to learn Spanish since these languages already have quite a few aspects in common. But don’t let that deter you. In the right environment and with the right technique, anybody can learn any language.
And Russian is no different. Despite the complicated-looking alphabet, there are aspects of the language that can be a lot easier to grasp than English. Let’s focus on a few factors that make Russian simple.
The Russian Alphabet Is Phonetic
Unlike English, which can have near-impossible pronunciation rules (or lack thereof), Russian is pronounced exactly how it is written. Even if the writing happens in a different script. So, the dreaded Russian alphabet is not as complicated as it first looks.
You can first take a calming breath, and then see that the Russian alphabet already has quite a few letters that you are familiar with. О, К, and А, to name a few, will be exactly the same as they are in English. There are other letters that look the same as English ones but have different sounds – for example, В, Н, and У. In all honesty, that does still leave you quite a bit to learn. But it’s still an alphabet. And, even better, it’s a phonetic alphabet – once you’ve learned the new letters, you will know exactly how each is pronounced in every word they appear in.
There are still, of course, foreign looking letters in the alphabet and sounds that English-speakers need to get used to (Ж, Ц, Ч, Ш, and Щ) but all of that is not nearly as scary as it first looks.
Clear Rules Make Learning Russian Easy
Additionally, Russian has a refreshingly simple and rigid system of rules. Once you get your head around them, Russian rules apply to almost all instances. Compare that to German, for example, where every rule can have almost as many exceptions.
Let’s take the example of genders in Russian words. Like in French, Spanish, and German, each noun has a gender – either feminine, masculine, or neutral, in this case. But, unlike in the other languages, in Russian it is very simple to determine the right gender for most given words – you just have to look at the last letter of any word. Creating plurals is also very rule-based and simple to learn.
Again, this doesn’t mean that learning all of these different grammar rules will be a walk in the park but, at least once you’ve learned them, they will actually help you (unlike some “helpful” rules in English, for example).
Grammatical Cases Can Be Confusing but Helpful
Another reason why Russian is often described as very difficult is the existence of grammatical cases in the language. This usually frightens a lot of English-speakers simply because English has mostly lost its cases. And sure, if you’ve never had contact with grammatical cases before, they can be a bit daunting. But luckily Russian doesn’t even use that many cases – there’s only six, compared to 15 in Finnish and 18 in Hungarian.
While English mostly uses prepositions to fill the role of a grammatical case, in Russian you would change the end of the noun depending on its role in the sentence.
Although this can be confusing at first, once you’ve learned how to use cases, you will realise it’s actually a great way to quickly grasp what is being said. Cases quickly reveal what the relationship between the noun and the verb is. Much unlike prepositions which can, in longer sentences, become rather clumsy and awkward to use.
The Verdict – Russian Is Challenging but Learnable
Although there are quite a few aspects to learning Russian that English speakers are simply not accustomed to – like the new alphabet, grammatical cases, and gendered words – with the right attitude and motivation, it is as simple of a language as any other to learn.
While Russian might not be so closely related to English as German or Dutch, meaning there are a few more challenges to get over, it is not what you’re learning, but how you’re learning it, that’s important. The cold, hard fact is that your approach to learning will almost definitely be the biggest determinator of your success or failure. You can choose to focus on the difficulties that Russian presents (let’s be honest, there are a couple) or, alternatively, break the task down into smaller bite-size chunks and make learning fun and easy for yourself.
10 Reasons Why The Russian Language Isn’t That Difficult
Today I’m going to convince you that Russian is actually far easier to learn than you’ve been led to believe.
It’s not (or at least doesn’t have to be) a near-impossible undertaking.
A year or so ago I moved to a small town in Russia and lived immersed in the language having learned almost nothing before arriving.
I kept hearing about how difficult Russian is to learn up until that point but my experience there said something very different.
Within 5 months I was communicating comfortably in Russian, befriending many new people and lived for several more months in Italy with my new Russian girlfriend at the time (who could only speak Russian).
And just a few months ago I was able to use Russian extensively during my stay in Georgia.
Russian is no more challenging than any other language I’ve attempted.
The truth is:
Wrong learning approaches make easy tasks unnecessarilychallenging.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI for short) places Russian into one its highest categories in terms of its relative difficulty for native English speakers (in other words one of the most challenging major languages).
But as I said regarding Arabic a while back, the FSI gets it wrong and the difficulty level primarily depends on the way the language is approached.
It’s also dependant upon your attitude!
Keep convincing yourself that Russian is insanely difficult and it willbe insanely difficult.
So let’s get started on why Russian’s easier than you think.
NOTE: Before I go any further, make sure to sign up with your email at the bottom of this post and select Russian for more Russian content delivered straight to your inbox.
Reason 1: The alphabet is actually very easy to learn
Let’s start with the most obvious one.
The strange letters.
To the unititiated, Russian looks pretty intimidating yet also oddly familiar.
You see a bunch of letters that look just like regular old English letters (plus tweaked or inverted English letters) but in actual fact many of them represent something completely different.
H isn’t a H and P isn’t a P. 🙂
Cyrillic is very similar to (and mostly derived from) Greek which shares a common origin with our own alphabet. Just as I mentioned in my Semitic languages article, all these languages originally came from Phoenician, so even today you can see very close resemblances in many letters.
As a general rule, of all the letters in the Russian alphabet these are the ones that you should not have any trouble with:
Дд (almost looks like a capital ‘D’ with two feet)
Зз (looks like the cursive ‘Z’ in English (assuming you learned cursive in school that is))
Сс (‘S’ sound in Russian. Sometimes the letter ‘C’ is pronounced the same way in English)
These are the letters that you should be able to identify almostimmediately and not have to worry about when learning Russian.
That leaves us with another 23 letters to learn.
If you studied math in high school (or Greek by chance), you won’t have too much trouble identifying these either:
Гг (the Greek letter gamma (‘G’ sound))
Пп (pi. Who doesn’t know pi? (‘P’ sound))
Фф (phi. (‘F’ sound)
Лл (very closely resembles the Greek ‘L’ lambda)
These symbols are universally recognizable.
So there are 19 unusual letters remaining for native English speakers.
Here’s where a bit of creativity with memory hooks and image association come in handy helping you to remember them.
These are some of the little hooks I used to remember these letters when I was learning. Associate sounds and text with your own images and hooks that help you remember:
Image association examples:
Чч looks like an upside down CHair (‘CH’ sound).
Жж looks like two top and two bottom teeth touching together just like they almost do when you pronounce it (‘ZH’ sound).
Memory hook examples:
Little b (Бб) = actually B.
Big b (Вв), actually V.
“Ya, that R is backward.” (Яя)
Уу is a ‘U’ sound. The letter ‘U’ is pronounced ‘Yu’.
Be creative about it.
The trickiest two letters of all for English speakers learning Russian are technically not even real letters. They’re two signifiers/markers:
Ъъ – hard sign
Ьь – soft sign
They don’t make any sound on their own.
All they do is signify whether or not the consonant before them is pronounced soft or hard (palatalized or not).
The temptation at this point is to say ‘what the?’ and feel overwhelmed but I’m going to make a really important suggestion here (I’m sure a lot of Russian vets and teachers will argue with me here):
Ignore them until you’re past the beginner stage.
Just focus on listening and repeating.
As long as your learning material comes with clear audio so you can hear exactly how words are pronounced then that’s all you need to focus on. Trying to make sense of written explanations on pronunciation mechanics will confuse you and waste time better spent practicing what you hear.
Over time and with use, you’ll develop an ear for the differences and the hard and soft markers will make sense.
See my next point.
Reason 2: Russian pronunciation only becomes difficult when textbooks overcomplicate it
For goodness sake, learn pronunciation by imitation of what youhear (applies to every language).
Not by reading instructions!
When I first attempted (and failed) Russian many years ago, I made the common mistake of trying to learn pronunciation by following pronunciation guides.
Reading how to speak properly (eye roll).
You need to be able to hear (and imitate) language.
Most textbooks start with a lot of technical blather about things like ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ consonants. For example:
мат is pronounced as you would expect it to in English (mat).
мать has a signifier on the end of it which means it’s a little different (more like matye).
But explaining the process behind this just overwhelms people and is utterly meaningless to the average learner.
Yes, when reading Russian you’ll need to be aware of them (because they’re used a lot) but unless you’re a linguist studying Russian phonetics then you simply do not need to try to get your head around phonetic technicalities.
Remember: Phonetic changes happen in every languageincluding English.
They’re a natural phenomenon.
The only difference is that Russians actually point out certain phonetic changes by including ь or ъ in writing. Russian is no more difficult to pronounce than any other language.
I’m convinced that if people would spend more time just listening to native speaker dialogue and repeating what they hear, there’d be so much less confusion!
Other common areas of trouble for English speaking Russian learners are Ы (which is just basically a combination of U+I) andР (rolled ‘R’).
I offer the same advice that I would to people who struggle with guttural sounds in Arabic:
The more you do it, the better you get at it (aka practice!).
By the way, if you get pronunciation wrong in the beginning then people aren’t going to crucify you for it.
For the first month or so in Russia, I was pronouncing вы as veeinstead of vui.
People understood me just fine.
After lots of usage, it improved and now I say it the right way.
So keep at it.
Reason 3: Russians EXPECT you to speak Russian and rarely if ever resort to English in Russia
This is an amazingly good thing.
The problem with a lot of overseas language immersion these days is that so many people already speak English and will try to accommodate you as a visitor.
It’s good for tourists who aren’t learning the language but bad for language learners.
One thing I found out very quickly in Russia however is that their society generally expects you as an outsider to assimilate and learn Russian. Finding people outside of the tourist spots in Moscow who speak English by default is an almost impossible mission.
You need Russian to get by.
For this reason, when I first moved to a smaller town I had no choice but to learn Russian quickly to live there.
It was essential.
The few times I was out and asked people “Do you speak English?” actually got me some very unappreciative stares so I learned fast that if I needed things done, it was Russian or nothing.
This ‘deep end immersion’ factor makes learning Russian a heck of a lot easier than many other languages.
Reason 4: There’s an abundance of cognate words in Russian
Russian actually has more English cognates than most other languages outside Europe.
These are words that look/sound very similar and have the same meaning.
Here are just a few common examples:
центр (tsenter) – center
студент (student) – student
класс (klas) – class
иде́я (ideya) – idea
проект (prayekt) – project
но́мер (nomer) – number
фильм (film) – film
ю́мор (yumor) – humor
сестра́ (sestra) + брат (brat) – sister + brother
вода́ (voda) – water
Of course there are some false friends too (words that appear to be cognates but have different (or related) meanings).
костюм (kostyum) – suit
магазин (magazin) – shop
фабрика (fabrika) – factory
Cognates can give you a huge leg-up when learning another language and thankfully Russian has many of them.
Reason 5: Long words aren’t tough if you see them as just compounded words and syllables
This goes with my other pronunciation point.
Russian, like German, has some really long words (including compounds) that look impossible to pronounce at first glance.
But they’re simple if you just carve them up into smaller pieces. For example:
Здравствуйте = hello/greeting
Obviously this is the first word that most people learn since it’s the most common greeting. It also feels like a tongue twister to a newbie.
But if you break it into two halves like so:
It’s a lot easier to say the two smaller pieces.
Practice the smaller pieces over and over until you’ve got it and then say them together.
This is especially helpful when adjusting to the consonant clusters (words with 3 or 4 consonants all together – e.g. Здр+авствуйте).
Reason 6: There’s no shortage of excellent Russian learning material
Thankfully there’s plenty of great Russian material to learn from – both free and paid.
RT.com also has handy section for starting on Russian.
As always, italki is the place to go for Skype Russian lessons. It’s incredibly cheap and the closest thing to actually being in Russia.
Rocket Russian is the best paid online course for learning the language. The natural dialogues and speech recognition are its strongest features.
When I was in Russia, I used Glossika’s Russian course andRapid Russian MP3’s every morning. I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful both of these paid resources were for helping me pick up Russian quickly.
There are plenty of great books on Russian out there but two I’ll mention that I’ve found helpful are Shaum’s Russian Grammar(as a clear reference book) and The Everything Learning Russian Book (a simple, not-too-dense course book).
If you’ve got other suggestions for resources you’ve used, please share them in the comment section below.
Reason 7: See noun cases as a blessing rather than a curse
Noun cases are probably the most-complained-about aspect of learning Russian.
They’re certainly not unique to Russian but among English speaking learners it seems to be the area that causes the most confusion.
This is because in English, we don’t clearly indicate noun cases by affixing anything to the noun. For example:
“This book is good.” – nominative
“I read the book.” – accusative
“The book’s cover.” – genitive
“On the book.” – prepositional
“With a book.” – instrumental
“I gave the book a review.” – dative
In each one of these sentences, ‘book’ takes on a very different role. We write it exactly the same way in each instance even though it’s not the same.
In Russian, it’s different.
‘Book’ has different endings based on the role it plays in each sentence (and different again for plural forms):
As I often say, if you approach this with a traditional, grammar-first learning style, it will be immensely challenging.
And tedious as hell.
But I’ll give you another way to look at it.
Firstly, if you look back at the English examples above you’ll see that in most of them the noun case is actually indicated by a word or ‘s’ suffix.
E.g. “The book’s cover/The cover of the book.”
We know that ‘book’ is genitive here because we see ‘s’ or the word ‘of’.
So start to think of it like this: bookof
Likewise for the other cases: bookis, bookwith, bookon, etc.
That’s basically what’s happening with Russian noun case suffixes. For English, we use a separate word altogether but in Russian it’s a suffix. You only think it’s completely foreign to English but it’s not.
Noun cases are also blessings in disguise.
I’ve had many different situations where I’m conversing with Russians and I don’t fully understand what’s being said but the noun case gives away the meaning and context.
Hearing the case ending helps me figure out what’s being said.
It’s also immensely helpful in this regard when the noun is the first word in the sentence which kind of preps you for what’s coming (e.g. if you hear книг-у first then you know that whatever’s coming next involves something being done to a book).
Freely and unashamedly use the wrong cases.
If you shut up because you’re afraid or unable to use the correct noun cases then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice.
You need to make tonnes of mistakes and not be shy about it.
Even if you only know the nominative case then I advise you to use it in every possible context you can as often as you can.
I did this constantly in Russia and over time I began to adjustand use the correct cases naturally (either (a) because I was corrected often or (b) because I was exposed repeatedly to correct forms in conversation). I’m still far from perfect but so much better through frequent use.
But you won’t be exposed to correct forms in conversation if you don’t actually put yourself there to begin with!
Reason 8: Learn verbs of motion individually AND contextually and they’re easy
When I first started, I was pulling my hair out over Russian verbs of motion.
But that’s because I approached them the wrong way (and textbooks overcomplicated them).
Take the verb ‘to go’ for instance which technically doesn’t exist in Russian the same way we understand it in English.
Russian verbs of motion imply the ‘method’ or ‘kind’ of movement (e.g. going on foot, flying, going by some form of transport, climbing, etc.).
The two most confusing are (were for me) ‘to go on foot’ (Ходить/Идти) and ‘to go by transport’ (Ездить/Ехать).
There’s an indefinite/multidirectional form (Ходить/Ездить) and a definite/unidirectional form (Идти/Ехать) of both.
That means that for verbs of motion, there are 2 separate sets of conjugation rules you need to memorize just to be able to communicate correctly (since ‘to go’ is one of the most foundational verbs in any language).
Sounds confusing as hell, right?
Well it is if you try to learn it this way!
But let’s look at it the simple way:
Suppose instead that you’re dealing with two separate wordsand instead of memorizing two conjugation tables and struggling to remember which one to use, you learn the verbs incontextual chunks.
So instead of seeing Ходить and Идти as two forms of the same word, see them as two completely distinct words andonly as they relate to real situations.
Practice and apply them in context so they stick and become real-world applicable.
Я иду в школу
I’m walking to (definitively) the school (i.e. right now).
Я хожу в школу
I walk to the school (e.g. often, every day).
Instead of trying to get your head around an entire set of conjugation rules and when to use them, take one or two simple real-world applications like this and use them constantly until they become habit.
One other note on verb prefixes:
Russian attaches prefixes to verbs to indicate direction of motion. For example:
выходить = вы+ходить (to go out)
приходить = при+ходить (to come/arrive)
This is actually incredibly easy if you treat prefixes as if they’re individual words just like we do in English.
For example, in English we say “go around”, “go out, “go across”, etc.
Just think of Russian like this: “aroundgo”, “outgo”, “acrossgo”.
Reason 9: There are many features of Russian that are comparatively very easy compared to other languages
There are many other features of the Russian language that make life easy for new learners.
Here are just a few in no particular order:
- Word order is flexible. Although sentences usually follow the S-V-O structure, they make perfect sense in other orders too.
- You don’t have to worry about the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense. You are beautiful is simply you beautiful.
- Questions are formed by simply changing the intonation of regular statements (e.g. Мы смотрим телевизор -> Мы смотрим телевизор?). Easy!
- To make verbs, nouns and adjectives negative you simply say не before it.
- There are no definite or indefinite articles in Russian!(a/an, the)
Instead of talking about all the ‘difficult‘ aspects of Russian grammar, focus on what’s actually easy compared to other languages.
This will positively affect your attitude and attitude is everything in language learning! 🙂
Reason 10: Russians are some of the most enthusiastic people when it comes to sharing their language and culture
Russians are fiercely proud of their culture and language.
I love this about them.
I’ve found that the reception I’ve received from people when they see I’m trying to assimilate and learn their language is extremely positive and encouraging.
People want to help you succeed.
Getting back to one of my original points up top about Russians not resorting to English: my experience with Russian (which differed greatly in comparison to places like Korea and Egypt) showed me that for Russians, the world does not revolve around the Anglosphere.
In many parts of the non-English speaking world, people strive to learn English not just for career but so that they can adapt tous.
Being in Russia really feels like being in another world or dimension at times – one where English dominance never existed.
Granted, I’m sure that this is largely a result of politics and the Soviet Union being isolationist for so long but in terms of language immersion, it’s a really refreshing thing to experience.
Almost everywhere you go, you need to adapt to them.
As I’ve said before, ordinary Russian people are so warm and hospitable, especially when they see how much you respect and appreciate their language and culture.