IS RUSSIAN HARD?
You have a dream: an adventure, a discovery of the Russian speaking world, a deep connection with a local. They probably don’t even speak much English. So you’ll need to speak Russian at intermediate level at least.
Yet you keep hearing how hard Russian is. Maybe you’ve already experienced it firsthand and are wondering – how much harder can it get?
Ok, you’re always up for a challenge. But you don’t want to spend 10 years of your life learning a language.
So you are not sure if it’s all worth it. Is it doable at all?
Let’s sort it out.
What’s considered hard?
Hardness is relative and usually depends on 2 factors (besides mindset): complexity of the language system and distance from your native tongue (i.e. how many features a language has – in phonetics, vocabulary and grammar – that are different or don’t exist in your native tongue).
Plus, there’s the third factor – if you’re making it harder than it is (see the end of each section below).
First some basic linguistics info: all languages in the world are divided into several big families based on similarity (all the languages in a family have evolved from the same ancestor language a long time ago). Each family is then divided into groups, and so on.
A language from the same family or group as your native tongue has more similarities to it (both vocabulary and grammar patterns), so it’s usually easier to learn compared to a more “distanced” language.
Both Russian and English belong to the Indo-European language family (unlike Turkish, Arabic or Mandarin that are from different language families). Within this family, Russian belongs to Slavic languages and English to Germanic ones. So, Russian is the “first cousin” of English.
Russian is not as far from English as, say, Turkish, Arabic or Mandarin. That means, it’s not as hard for English speakers as these languages.
The opposite is also true: it’s easier for English speakers to learn German than Russian because they belong to the same group and share a lot. Sometimes (albeit not always) you can transfer whole sentence patterns from English to German and it will make perfect sense.
How it feels to learn your first foreign language that is not so close
If Russian is your first foreign language or you’ve learned a “closer” language before, then it’s going to be more challenging compared to if you’ve already learned a language like Mandarin Chinese, Turkish or even Polish (but in this case you probably wouldn’t be reading this article).
The biggest difficulty in this situation is to understand: yes, languages partly overlap in the way they describe the world, but there are also some different patterns and ways to express things.
So you often can’t borrow familiar structures from your native tongue, translate them literally into Russian and be understood. You need to learn some ways to express things that are natural to Russian and are different from English.
It’s your choice: you can think they are “weird”, “illogical” and “too hard”. Or you can choose to be open-minded and embrace the new exciting ways to see the world and express things.
If you choose the second path, you are going to be more successful at learning Russian and you’ll acquire it quicker. And of course, you’re going to have more fun!
If you have experience learning Spanish, you might be thinking… but why was learning it so easy then? Isn’t it in another group too?
Partly, it’s because both English and Spanish share lots of common vocabulary (Latin influenced English a lot). But of course, the second factor plays a role too:
– Ok, so we’ve learned the prepositional and the accusative case, but what’s the easier way people actually speak in daily life? – There’s no “easier way”. That’s how we speak.
(from a conversation with a learner of Russian)
It’s relatively easy to start speaking Spanish for an English speaker because its system is simple (at the beginning at least). So all you need is learn some vocabulary (a big part of which you already know because of the cognates in English) and you’re ready to jump into conversations.
Not so with languages like Turkish or Russian.
These triangles symbolize the amount of grammar you need to learn at each level, bottom = beginner level (it’s a simplification, but you get the idea):
In Russian we use most of our grammar patterns even in the most basic everyday conversations.
So if you’re serious about learning Russian and want to communicate fluently, it makes sense to consciously learn grammar and form good speaking skills based on it starting from elementary level. This way you’ll be able to understand people and you’ll be easier to understand much earlier!
But it balances out at higher levels: in Russian, you learn most of the grammar at the beginning (A1-A2 levels). If you’ve learned it well, then later there is not much new, so all you need is adding vocabulary.
So, if your native tongue is English and Russian is the first “distanced” language you learn, be ready that
- you are going to be overwhelmed with the amount of stuff (and the very idea that one can need that much grammar to be able to say such simple things);
- like everybody else, you’ll need to work hard to acquire those patterns and add them to your speaking repertoire.
What’s hard and easy in Russian for an English speaker
Alphabet and reading
Apart from what people usually think, Russian alphabet is easy to learn (if you haven’t already done it, you can learn it in 2 hours – after that you just keep practicing).
You already know about one third of it. The other third is familiar letters used for different sounds. The last third is unique letters.
Reading is easy because our letters correspond to the sounds consistently (there are a couple minor exceptions that follow simple logic).
Compare that to English: “Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through” – how many ways to read -ough have you counted?
You might be confused why we have so many vowel letters and why the heck there’re so many rules related to them. All you need to do is learn the basics of pronunciation – and once you can pronounce hard & soft consonants like a Russian (knowing where the tongue goes and being able to do it) – you won’t have any more questions left.
Don’t make it harder than it is:
1. Just learn it. You’ll see that it’s not as hard as it seemed.
2. Learn the basics of pronunciation.
3. Keep practicing.
There are 3 common difficulties:
1. long words
The solution is to divide them into parts in your mind – and conquer. You’ll get used to them in time cause they consists of predictable parts, follow common patterns and are so much fun to “decode”.
2. Ы and И
You can learn to pronounce these 2 different vowels in 2 minutes with someone experienced, and then just continue practicing.
They are important because the meaning would be totally different in many words:
быть – to be
бить – to beat
пытаться – to try
питаться – to feed oneself
3. hard and soft consonants
You can learn to pronounce them in 2 hours with someone experienced. Then it’s just practice time because your muscles need to remember it and make it automatic.
This is important because it can make a big difference:
лошка – spoon
Лёшка – personal name
угол – corner
уголь – charcoal
полька – a Polish woman
полка – shelf
The only difference between the two words in each pair is the sound “л” – whether it’s hard or soft. But the thing is, the European “l” sounds like neither of them (more like something in between). So if there is not enough context in the conversation, people might not understand what you mean exactly.
Don’t make it harder than it is:
1. Don’t be afraid of the “weird” sounds. Learn how to move the tongue to pronounce them.
2. You don’t need to sound perfect. You just need to sound clear.
3. Don’t panic because of O sounding like A sometimes: 1) you’ll get used to it as you practice; 2) even if you get it wrong, you won’t be misunderstood.
But there are some similar ones too (after all, Russian is a cousin of English plus there are some words borrowed from the same source):
three – три
school – школа
bus – автобус
cafe – кафе
programmer – программист
music – музыка
coffee – кофе
bank – банк
As you continue learning Russian, you’ll see that there are more and more words that are similar (esp. in IT, banking, slang and some international words we borrowed from Latin), for example:
браузер – browser
коворкинг – co-working place
маркетинг – marketing
хипстер – hipster
кредит – credit
информация – information
парламент – parliament
блог – blog
Vocab becomes a challenge at intermediate levels when you learn many prefixes that change the meaning of the word (similar to phrasal verbs in English: put down, put in, put off, etc.).
Don’t make it harder than it is:
1. Learn vocabulary in context instead of memorizing lists.
2. Practice how the words are pronounced until you can say them confidently.
3. No need to learn all the meanings of each word that you find in a dictionary – better learn the most useful one first. With time, you’ll add others.
4. Prioritize learning the words that you’re really going to use soon (and use them a lot). Because:
5. Repetition is the mother of learning. If you don’t use and revise your vocab, they will fade away from your memory.
Let’s see what’s hard, what’s easy and how not to make it harder than it is.
1. What’s hard about Russian grammar?
Mostly these are features that don’t exist in English (and some of them also don’t exist in other European languages).
But this is the lens we see the world through and this is how we describe it. This is the operating system built in on our computers.
But the biggest challenge of all that is cases.
What are cases in Russian?
There are some rudimentary cases in English.
You can say that he loves someone (the person is doing something) vs. someone loves him (he is an object of love).
Normally, you can tell who is the doer and who is the object based on the word order in English. This is one example when it’s not only the word order but also the forms of words that give you this information. This is what cases are.
In Russian, it works consistently. Chances are, we even decline your name!
This is John. And this is John’s cat.
Adding ‘s in English tells us that the cat belongs to John. In Russian, we also change words in a certain way to give this idea.
If your native language has cases, you have a huge benefit. Be sure to use it (even if you’re learning Russian through English).
Cases often have universal meanings throughout languages (e.g. accusative = object, dative = recipient, genitive = from, etc.) but not all of them overlap. It’s good to always notice which meanings are the same in your native tongue and in Russian and which are different.
What’s hard about Russian cases?
1. The new concept is not always easy to grasp and accept (depends on the explanation and the examples).
2. Each case has many different functions/usage contexts (the same endings are used to show information about different things). It can be overwhelming. (To avoid overwhelm: divide and conquer.)
3. Endings show not only the case but also if a word is singular or plural and what its gender is (yes, nouns and adjectives can be masculine, feminine or neuter in Russian). One ending gives information about these 3 parameters. (To avoid overwhelm: go step by step and ** LINK to the first post (?) ** practice what you’ve learned.)
2. Verbs of motion
What are verbs of motion in Russian?
In English, they are just different words: to go, to come, to go in, to go away, to go out, to approach, etc. In Russian, just the word “to go” can be translated into 6 different words (and more) depending on the situation.
I’m talking about words, so why did I include it in the Grammar category?
The thing is, for each meaning we have a distinction of:
1. moving in one direction (e.g. Where are you going?) and
2. more than one direction (say, when you frequent a place: I often go to a coworking place; or when you have a city tour and your trajectory is complicated; or when you walk there and back in your room while talking on the phone; etc).
This distinction is so consistent throughout all the “verbs of motion” vocabulary that we can consider it grammar.
Once you understand this principle, you can apply it to other words too (e.g. I’m flying to Indonesia tomorrow. vs. I often fly to London.). Then it’s only a matter of learning new vocabulary that fits in the same system.
There’s also the next level: if you need to add details like “to go in” or “to go out”, you add prefixes to the word.
The cool thing about the verbs of motion is that the system is very consistent and predictable.
What’s hard about verbs of motion?
2. More vocabulary to learn (but don’t worry, they are similar and you’ll learn them step by step).
3. Each group of verbs has several usage contexts, it can be overwhelming. (To avoid overwhelm: divide and conquer.)
4. Prefixes of verbs of motion can be confusing (depends on the explanation and the examples).
What is verbal aspect in Russian?
Aspect is a grammatical category <…> that expresses how an action extends over time.
For example, we can emphasize that we see an action as a process (like “I was eating”) or as a repetitive action (like “I used to eat”). These are some of the contexts for imperfective aspect.
Or we can see an action as momentary, without any reference to flow of time. This is one of the contexts for perfective aspect.
(Don’t confuse Russian aspects with English tenses: Present Perfect and Past Simple. They are different concepts.)
What’s unique about Russian (and other Slavic languages), is that Russian verbs usually come in pairs. For each lexical meaning, there are two verbs. One is used in the contexts typical for imperfective aspect and the other one for perfective.
What’s hard about verbal aspect?
2. More vocabulary to learn (but don’t worry, they are similar and you’ll learn them step by step).
3. Sometimes the contexts are obvious (e.g. the word “usually” is a signal for an imperfective verb). Other times, there are no “keywords” in the sentence and you need to learn seeing the situation as a whole in order to interpret it like a native.
4. They are usually explained poorly, books lack authentic examples and practice opportunities. That’s why aspects often stay as something “abstract” in the minds of learners.
2. What’s easy about Russian grammar?
2. There’s a clear logic behind the genders of nouns – you can tell the gender they belong to by the ending in most cases.
3. The tenses in Russian are easy. We have only past, future and present tense. Their formation is easy too, especially the past tense. (This simplicity is compensated by the aspects though.)
4. Russian doesn’t have articles.
5. The word order is flexible, so once you get used to this idea, it becomes fun.
6. The Russian grammar is logical and consistent – once you learn the logic, later it just reproduces itself on different levels (sometimes with little nuances added).
7. That means, there are no surprises at higher levels – no complicated “subjunctive mood” or anything like that. We express complicated English grammar constructions either with vocabulary, or using the same simple structures you learn at the beginning.
Have I forgotten anything? Let me know in the comments!
3. Don’t make Russian grammar harder than it is
1. Don’t believe Russian grammar is “not logical” – instead, get quick and clear explanations
They should be quick and clear so they help you practice that grammar (in speaking exercises and in speech), not make you confused and overwhelmed.
This is especially important for aspects. Usually aspects are explained poorly, in a very simplistic and as a result, more confusing way. That doesn’t help you learn using them.
No need to learn all cases at once. Don’t waste time learning all the usage contexts of verbs of motion now. Learning all endings of a case immediately does more harm than good to your Russian. All these are a sure recipe for overwhelm and bad speaking habits.
Yes, Russian grammar system feels complicated for beginners. And maybe you’d want to deal with it ASAP and forget about it. But the solution is not cramming it: your brain will just refuse to take it, and if not, you’ll have a hard time using it in speech.
Learning all at once is not only impossible but also not needed.
Not all cases, not all verbs of motion (and not all their usage contexts) are created equal. Some of them are used more often in communication and others can be learned later.
At the beginning, you will only need the essentials that cover most of the daily communicative situations. Once you’re confident with them, you can add some more.
For example, verbs of motion are often presented as a huge complicated system with lots of nuances, while you only need 2 verbs in their basic meanings to start with.
You need lots of meaningful, authentic examples. It’s hard to learn based on abstract formulas.
The examples should be *varied* – you’re learning a language, not mathematics.
This is especially vital for learning aspects. When it comes to aspects, examples in the books usually lack context. They have one-sentence fill-in-the-blanks exercises but not enough real life dialogues that would show you the bigger picture. It’s important because picking the right aspect depends on how you understand the context. But if you don’t learn to see the context the way Russians do, you’ll get the aspects only 50% right.
You’re not learning a dead language. If your goal is speaking and not passing a university grammar test, then memorizing “rules” and case charts and doing lots of written grammar exercises at the expense of speaking is a bad idea.
Instead, focus on transferring that knowledge to speaking skills. Learn one little piece – then practice it!
Let it not be covered in dust in a far corner of your memory like useless junk. It’s not a dead “grammar rule” – it’s a building block for your speaking.
If you don’t understand some concepts, you’d better clear them up with someone experienced.
Asking random native speakers about grammar often doesn’t help – they can only tell you what sounds correct or wrong but will have no idea why (or will create more confusion trying to explain something they can only guess).
If you need help turning Russian grammar into solid speaking habits, feel free get in touch.
Let’s sum it up
On the one hand, Russian is the “first cousin” of English – they both belong to the Indo-European language family. So it won’t be as hard as languages from other families (e.g. Turkish, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Japanese).
On the other hand, Russian (like other Slavic languages) has some features that make it both interesting and challenging. The hardest ones are: cases, verbs of motion and aspects.
But you don’t need to make it harder than it is. There is no way you can speak intelligibly and fluently if the explanations you received are not helpful, the examples don’t show real usage and you don’t have enough practice opportunities. If instead of speaking you memorize case charts and rules. If you try to learn all your grammar book’s content at once.
If you use the right strategies, learning Russian will be easier, more enjoyable and productive. You can dominate the Russian grammar and make it work for you – not only understand it but also make the grammar patterns your second nature so you can use them correctly in speech.
For that, you need good explanations by an experienced teacher, lots of examples and a system to turn that data into skills.
Many people have learned Russian and are speaking it fluently and confidently, and you can too. It’s not rocket science. You just need a system. Don’t give up and reach out for help if you need it.
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P.S. The photo was made in Kaliningrad, Russia by Aleksey Malinovski.