How long does it take to learn Russian?


One undeniable benefit to being born and raised in Russia? You don’t have to learn Russian! Learning Russian can be quite time-consuming and difficult, especially if you are learning from scratch.

I’m not going to tell you some unbelievable instant success stories like the ones you might see on the “Learn Russian in just 2 weeks!” websites. Nor will I give you vague platitudes like “it depends on your language skills and motivation.” What I want to give you is the objective truth about EXACTLY how long it will take to learn Russian. But first, let’s answer some important questions.

How to Measure?

First of all, what does it mean to measure objectively? You might think that I’d call upon my broad teaching experience to measure success, but not this time. What we need to do is dig into some scientific research. And thank God, some smart people from Europe, Russia and the U.S. have already done all the hard work for us. All we have to do is a little math.

Next, what units of measure shall we use to measure our learning success? Fortunately, we don’t need to count neurons or measure the weight of the brain. Plus, there’s a special unit in scientific pedagogy that applies perfectly to our efforts: a learning hour.

Do I Know Russian or I Just Think so?

Now that our understanding of objectivity and measurement is clear, we have to ask what does it mean to “know” Russian? If I can pick up a Russian-speaking girl at a party, does that mean I know Russian?

Well, academics say that you know a language if you’ve mastered four linguistic skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. The real question is how effectively can you implement these skills in practice. Whether you “remember some from school” or “got a Ph.D. in Russian” is a huge difference, even though in either situation you might be able to say you “know” Russian. Here is where objective scientific data comes to our aid.

Russian is Hard to Learn. Or it isn’t?

The FSI (Foreign Service Institute of America) defines 5 levels of language proficiency and says that you know the language if you’ve achieved at least level 3. At this level, you are conversationally fluent, but you do not have a fluent accent and make minor grammar mistakes.

The FSI is so passionate about categorization that they divided all major languages into 4 groups. It is easier to master a language if you already know a language in that same category. In the first category are languages similar to English. For example, an ordinary American will master French (with a level 3 proficiency) in 750 learning hours (about 30 weeks).

Heavyweights such as Mandarin, Arabic, and Japanese are in the fourth category. To learn them you’ll need 2,200 hours (88 weeks, or 2 years). But here’s the good news! Russian is not in this heavyweight category; it is in the third.

According to the FCI, a typical English speaker with no previous Russian background will master Russian (i.e. reach the 3rd level) in 1100 learning hours (44 weeks, or a little under a year). *

*These calculations assume that you work like a dog: 25 hours a week.

From this, we can draw a conclusion. Yes, Russian is hard to learn, but it’s not the hardest language on the planet Earth.

When will I Become Fluent?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) provides a different framework. It doesn’t divide languages by difficulty. Instead, CEFR describes 6 levels of language proficiency and describes what a learner should be able to do on each level.

To get to a proficient level on this scale (B1) in Russian you’ll need to put in 600 learning hours (24 weeks, or half a year). But the steps on this scale are quite large. To get to the next level after B1, you’ll need to work an additional 600 hours.

The Russian Ministry of Education created its system in the image and likeness of the CEFR. Its language proficiency scale also consists of 6 graduations.

To enter a Russian university you need to be at level B1 (the 1st certificate) in Russian. So, you’ll need to complete at least 600 hours of hard work, that is equal to a half of a year.

During your studies, you’ll learn to speak about different topics that are common in professional or scholarly settings. You’ll learn to understand a variety of phrases and conventions, and you’ll learn everything you need to know to write long letters to your friend from Norilsk.

Your next reasonable question could be: why American and Russian estimations of the language proficiency are different? Because they’re created for different purposes: the American one – to train specialists in foreign affairs and Russian – to provide education for foreigners in Russian institutions.

How to Learn Russian Fast?

But this information is all hypothetical. Apply calculations from the previous passage to yourself! To do that, ask yourself:

  • What level do I need?
  • How much time am I ready to spend on learning?

Let’s say I’m an average Joe from Wisconsin. Next year, I want to travel to Russia and stay there for a month. From the table above I see that I’ll need a Breakthrough (A1 level), which will take 100 hours. I think I can spend 1 hour a day, so I’ll get there in less than 3 months. When you break it down like this, you can see that it really doesn’t take too long to acquire basic communication skills.

So, the answer to the most burning question: “How to learn Russian fast?” is the following: to put more time into doing this! The more hours a day you spend learning, the faster you’ll hit your goal.

How can I tell How Far I Have Progressed in Learning Russian?

The most precise way to find it out is to pass a TORFL test. This exam is just like IELTS or TOEFL, but for Russian. You can take the exam in an authorized center. I won’t go into depth on TORFL just now, as it deserves its own detailed post.

What to Begin with?

Now you know, how much time you need to spend to master Russian at the desired level. But where’s the beginner’s starting point? Begin from here: watch a video, explore all letters and sounds, do quizzes and begin reading and writing The Russian language.

Helpful Resources

As usual, I offer you to have a look at other articles that may help you to find answers to your questions, such as what factors affect the learning process, how to create learning timetable and very motivating pieces of advice from a Russian learner.

Anastasia Korol

Anastasia Korol is an enthusiastic Russian language tutor. She gives effective, goal-oriented lessons to students all over the world. Thousands of people have already followed her Instagram.

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