You’d like to start learning Russian, but you are familiar with its reputation as one of the hardest languages in the world. Yes, Russian is often blamed for having horrible grammar, difficult pronunciation and weird vocabulary. But remember, whatever people say, Russian is absolutely learnable!
To dispel your doubts I decided to analyze the most widely-spread opinions and honestly share my own teaching experience so that you can form your own opinion – is it really that scary or not?
According to American scientists, Russian, together with other Slavic languages is in the third group of difficulty out of four. The exact calculation of time required to it’s mastering you can find here.
And now let’s find out what it means to be third out of four. What are the hardest points and which of them will you overcome easily?
Russian Alphabet ★★☆☆☆
The first thing that throws off those looking to learn Russian is that our alphabet, Cyrillic, looks a bit like the latin alphabet but is actually quite different.
That’s true, there are a couple of new letters and sounds that will be tough to get the hang of. Another thing is that some letters represent different sounds than what you are used to. For example, the letter Р sounds like “r”, and B like “v”. It’ll take time to get accustomed to these, as your whole life your brain has viewed these symbols one way, and now you’re asking it to change the rules.But to tell the truth, it’s not really such a big challenge. We usually learn whole the Russian alphabet with my students within an hour or so. If you want to try it yourself, I made a special 4-step guide to ease your task.
Another spooky ghost story is Russian cursive writing. “No one can ever understand it” – they say. If so, why would 100% of Russians use it daily? Because it’s more a relief than a complication. You can use block letters – no problem, but if you learn how to write in cursive, you’ll gradually speed up your writing.
Is Russian cursive difficult to learn? No, I wouldn’t say so. That’s why I definitely advise you not keep it on the back burner. It definitely looks intimidating, at first. To master it you can use a special guide that not only contains a video of all the cursive letters and their connections but a worksheet in pdf that you can download absolutely for free.
Quick Tip: begin mastering cursive writing at the beginning. In future, it will save you a ton of time!
The Russian pronunciation system contains sounds that will be new to an English speaker. The most frequent stumbling blocks are these:
- Soft consonants
It’s not that these sounds are difficult, they are just completely new. Some learners grasp them easily, but for some it takes more time. A better option for such students is to learn the mechanics of the sounds.
Quick Tip: spend some money on a lesson or two with a tutor who will show you how exactly should work your tongue and mouth to produce correct sounds.
But generally, comparison with, let’s say Chinese, the Russian phonetic system is super-easy! No additional tones or anything that advanced. Once you’ve learned how to produce these sounds – your pronunciation mission is completed.
Sure, there are some pronunciation and reading rules, but in most cases, each Russian letter stands for its own sound. That is why we even begin reading in the first 20 minutes of the first lesson.
It’s even easier than English as the amount of letters that you don’t pronounce is very small. You won’t meet such words as “thought”, “might” or “etiquette”.Russian words are long and therefore hard to pronounce. That’s true, but if you learn to split them into parts, they become easier to digest. For instance, /zdrastvujti /looks like a tongue twister, but if you divide it like this zd-ra-st-vui-ti it will become much more palatable.
Quick Tip: begin reading with books for children.
Though there are some difficult parts in the language, speaking Russian is not one of them. Going forward, your main enemy will be Russian grammar. But even if you break all possible grammar rules, while speaking to a native speaker you will still be understood!
Quick Tip: begin interacting with native speakers as early as possible, even if you unsure in your grammar proficiency.
They also say that Russian speech is difficult to understand. But that can be said about any language, especially if you’re accustomed to adopting audio materials from your textbook. To deal with this problem, you’ll need to put some effort into listening.
The Russian language has accents like any other language, but few that make it too difficult for one person to communicate with another because of their accent or dialect. People from the far East easily understand people from the far West. Unlike, for example, Spanish, which is different from one country to another, or Chinese, which is different from province to province.
For you, as a learner, this means that you absolutely don’t need to learn Moscow Russian and the flavor spoken in St. Petersburg. One size fits all!
Russian Grammar ★★★★★
If the things I mentioned above require relatively little effort, Russian grammar is something you really need to work on hard. Worse yet, the learning curve is steep and there’s a lot of information you have to internalize right at the start.
I heard a story that beautifully illustrates what I mean. Once, students learned how to say “I’ve got” in Russian and applied this construction to an object. After class, one of them came to their teacher and asked: “Why can’t I apply this phrase for a number of things. I know how to say “I have”, “two” and “brother”. Why can’t I say “I have two brothers?” The teacher smiled and replied: “Dear, believe me, you are not ready for that.”
It seems strange, but even such a simple phrase involves a big piece of grammar. As a language starter, you will face the following difficulties.
- Verbs of motion
- Verbs aspects
In the following passages, I’d like to say a couple of words about each of them. But my general advice is this:
Quick Tip: Don’t begin learning language with grammar. Before, learn the basic vocabulary and practice very simple dialogues. Here you can find a post where I gathered the most common 100 words that are great to begin with.
For those who speak gender-neutral English, it is strange that all the nouns in Russian must have a gender: masculine, feminine or neutral.
From the English sentence “I’ll come with a friend,” it’s absolutely unclear who this friend is: a girl-friend or a boy-friend. As a non-native English speaker, I always ask myself, ‘how can people live in such uncertainty: a male or female? This is important!’ (I’m kidding!) From a similar Russian sentence, you will know that for sure.
However, genders are applied not only to animate objects but to all objects that you can name. And genders have long-lasting grammar consequences. If we talk about a “pencil” (which is a feminine noun), then all the words that are somehow related to this object will have one endings. When we talk about a “pen” (which is masculine) the endings of all surrounding words will be different.
To give you a visual example, I will add X-ending to feminine-related words and Y to masculine. Here’s what we have.
- Give me thatX lovelyX penX
- Give me thatY lovelyY pencilY
Conclusion: grammar gender – is a new category for English speakers, it influences many words in a sentence. But generally, students don’t get stuck at this point for a long time.
This is, probably the most difficult part of the language. There are six different grammar cases and they influence most of the words: nouns, adjectives, numerals, and others. I don’t want to disclose the concept of cases here (if you want, you can read a detailed explanation here), I’d better show you a practical example.
This is probably the most difficult part of the language. There are six different grammar cases and they influence most of the words: nouns, adjectives, numerals, and others. I don’t want to get too far into the concept of cases here (if you want, you can read a detailed explanation here), I’d better show you a practical example:
Let’s take the word “a book” (kniga). In the Russian language, it will look differently in different sentences. In a sentence “I read a book” it will look like knigu. In a sentence “I learned it from a book” it will be knigi. In the phrase “…based on a book” it will change into knige.
And the difficulty is that in a sentence “Take that beautiful book” all three words (that, beautiful and book) will get a certain ending depending on the case. The wider a sentence is, the more changes you need to make. For English speakers, that’s a lot of linguistic calculating to do, especially in conversation.
So, what’s the problem you may ask? The problem is in the amount of these endings (it’s huge!). Sometimes they repeat, sometimes they’re different, they depend on different factors and this makes them very difficult to memorize. But it absolutely doesn’t mean you should bail on learning Russian, because there is a solution!
Quick Tip: before bursting into learning all the cases’ endings, you should understand the overall concept of cases and how they work. I wrote about it here. This post answers many questions that you’ll have.
From my observation, some students like the mess they get with cases’ endings. For them, it’s a pleasant activity like solving crossword puzzles. If you’re not one of them, you’ll be looking for a way to hack the cases without making your head explode.
Quick Tip: Now I want to share a post that will save you days or weeks of learning. In this post, I’m giving a step-by-step system that will allow you to master the most difficult case – the genitive. If you get the logic of this approach, you can spread to any other case and deal with cases faster.
I’m not kidding. Save this link, or share it on social media so as not to lose it, because the Russian cases are a problem that every learner will likely have trouble with.
Verbs of Motion
Let’s take a simple verb “to go”. In English we can go on foot or by bus – it’s all the same. In Russian, it’s more complicated.
First of all, for the Russian language it’s important how exactly you go: do you walk or you go by transport. An English sentence “I go to work” doesn’t tell us how you are getting to your workplace, but from an equivalent Russian sentence, I will be 100% sure whether you used transport or not.
The detail of Russian grammar isn’t just for the mode of travel.. The English phrase “I go” says that a person moves, somehow. In Russian, native speakers understand how exactly you go: did you move in one direction or in multiple directions, or back and forth. There is much more information packed into a sentence.
Verbs of motion seem quite strange the first time. I would say that they are as difficult for an English speaker as for a Russian speaker – to understand the importance of articles.
Quick Tip: If you can’t memorize all the forms of motion verbs (or, actually, any other words), learn by heart a phrase or a short sentence, that would involve the unit you need. Words in a context are fare easier to remember and then apply properly.
Aspects of Verbs
To put it in a very simple way, Russians have several versions of each verb: one is for emphasizing the process, and another for emphasizing the result. For instance, the verb pit’ (to drink) may be used in its usual form when we say, for instance, “I like to drink beer”. But if we want to say “I’d like to drink a glass of beer”, it will turn into vipit‘.
It slightly resembles the English perfect tenses where the result is also important, but the way how Russians form perfective forms is amazingly broad! They use prefixes, but the amount is really big: some words get one prefix, some get another. Here you’ll need to have a lot practice.
Where is Russian Grammar Simple?
It’s obvious that there are some points in Russian grammar that require a lot of effort. But for the sake of our analysis and your sanity, let’s check out the easier parts of Russian grammar (yes, they exist!).
There are no articles in the Russian language! For a native speaker, it’s totally indifferent, whether we discuss a random object or the one that is familiar to us: in English there’s a fair bit of difference between “Call a doctor!” and “Call the doctor!” In Russian, that distinction doesn’t exist.
No Auxiliary Verbs
Forget all the forms of “to be” in present tense: you won’t need them in Russian. Instead of “Where is my bag?” in Russian you should say “Where my bag?”. Some learners note that they feel uncomfortable without articles and auxiliaries, but you will get accustomed to the new language system soon.
Only Three Tenses
The Russian language doesn’t operate with such a massive number of tenses. From the perspective of a native speaker, there are just three tenses: present future and past. Though, there are also special structures similar to the English “perfect” and “continuous”. Anyway, understanding the overall structure of tenses is way easier than the English language.
A Plethora of Learning Materials
Unlike some ten years ago, the amount of quality student books and learning materials has grown significantly. Every day there are new books, apps, and possibilities for learning in Russian or to immerse yourself into the language environment by listening to podcasts or finding a language partner. These articles are one of them! Let’s have a look at some others.
Russian Courses for Beginners
Five years ago, I could have said that Russian beginners have nothing to choose from, nowhere to start. Today there are a number of good resources that you can use. I picked up some courses that you can listen to for free.
- A full course for complete beginners (YouTube) – a course made of 17 long detailed Russian lessons.
- A mini-course to begin with (YouTube) – a course of 3-6 minute lessons to grasp some basic things.
- I speak Russian (Coursearea) – a course for language starters that will let you resolve the easiest communicative tasks
- Understanding Russians (Coursearea) – I totally recommend this course for everyone! Made by the professor of one of the best Russian universities the course focuses on practical aspects of communication.
If you start learning a language with a tutor, he or she will pick up a proper student book based on your requirements. But if you want to start on your own, here are some good options.
- Russian for dummies – the book is written in a very clear and spoken language. It’s easy to read and it will become a very good starting point.
- The everything learning Russian book – another self-learning guide with clear explanations and helpful tips.
Having a language partner may boost up your language learning. That’s nothing wrong with learning on your own, but communication is a magic key to success. And besides, the amount of Russians, ready for language exchange is more than enough.
Having a language partner may boost up your language learning. There’s nothing wrong with learning on your own, but communication is a magic key to success. And besides, the amount of Russians ready for language exchange is more than enough to get you started.
There are many platforms that provide such services. I’ll recommend you two that I’ve personally tried.
- mylanguageexchange.com – unlike many sites that offer dating under the cover of language learning, this is focused on education. A premium account that allows you to write to other users costs 6$ (if you don’t pay you still can “wink” to another user). Once, you’ve chosen who to talk to you can continue talking on Skype, WhatsUp or any other messenger.
- italki.com – this is a site for looking for online tutors, where you can also find someone for speaking practice at a very reasonable price.
There are a huge number of movies on the web in Russian you can watch. Not to repeat myself, I’ll just leave a link on the post, where I discuss all the sites where you can find films: dubbed, with subtitles in different languages. My personal choice is this (they are with English subtitles):
Here are a couple of ideas for those who want to know, how does modern Russin music look like. Try yourself as a backup vocalist, sing along!
Let’s draw a conclusion. Generally, Russian is not that hard to learn, except for one part – grammar, which will require time and effort. This aspect moves Russian up in the difficulty rating.
So the practical conclusion is this. If you want to pick up something easy, choose a language from your language family. There you will find more cognates and a grammar system will be very alike.
For non-Slavic language native speakers, the main “difficulty” of Russian is that it’s simply different. But at the same time, this “otherness” is the reason why Russian is loved by so many people all over the world.