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Can you believe this is my first ever blog post about Russian?
Very timely with how much it's in the news lately, David, who has his own travel blog where he documents his and and his Russian girlfriend's travel adventures, wrote to me with some encouraging words about this language.
On another fun side-note, someone has dubbed over my TEDx talk in Russian. It's the quickest I've ever had a video just with me in it uploaded in another language 😀
Over to you David!
Russia evokes powerful emotions from all of us. It's nearly impossible to feel indifferent towards it; you either love it or hate it.
Having hosted the Sochi Olympics, and in the midst of a confrontation with Ukraine that leave some to question whether this is Cold War Two, it is clear that Russia isn't going away anytime soon, like it, or not.
And yet, despite its international prowess, there is a severe lack of interest in wanting to understand Russia; its culture, its people, and its language.
And that's a shame.
I studied Russian for 4 years in college. I studied abroad there for a semester, worked a summer in Moscow, and have traveled there on several occasions as a tourist. My girlfriend of many years is Russian.
Russian has changed my life, and I believe it can change yours too – if you are open to it.
Why Russian Should Be Your Next Language Of Choice
In Russia, English can't be your fallback.
Ever wonder why Russians seem to always visit the same countries and do so as part of large, Russian speaking tour groups?
It's often because they are not comfortable speaking and travelling in English.
If you go to the list of countries by English speaking population and sort it, you will find Russia near the very bottom with only 5.5% of the population claiming English as a first or second language.
Westerners tend to gravitate towards other Western languages like French and Spanish due to their familiarity, but the fact is a much larger proportion of people in those countries can at least communicate in English if need be.
In Russia, however, you have over 140 million people that downright will not understand you if you don't speak even a little Russian.
That's a lot of people we can meet with one language.
Travel To Russia And The Eastern Block
Russia is a country rich in history, culture, and traditions.
But too often we don't even consider it as a travel destination on account of our own intimidation with the language and people. Russia gets about half the tourists that Spain and Italy get, and only one-third what France gets.
It's true that traveling in Russia can be quite difficult on account of the Cyrillic alphabet, visa restrictions, and the lack of English speakers.
But consider what bucket-list worthy items we're missing out on if we don't even try:
- Travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway
- Attend the 2018 Fifa World Cup (didn't I mention Russia is not going away?)
- Visit Red Square and Saint Basil's Cathedral and other beautiful attractions in Moscow
Couple that with the fact that Russian opens doors to communicating with people in the Eastern block (I've gotten by with Russian in Poland and the Czech-Republic) and you've got a world of opportunities.
Expectations For Westerners Are Low
The great news about learning Russian is that people will love you even if you only know a little bit. So few Westerners even attempt to learn the language that it's refreshing when someone shows initiative.
And Russians are not shy, as I find Asian cultures to be. They can be quite chatty even, once they get to know you.
My Russian has been at all sorts of levels from when I was just starting out and only knew a few words to now where I am proficient in everyday conversation, and I can tell you that never once did anyone turn their back on me on account of my level of Russian.
Understand And Partake In Customs
Westerners, unfortunately, often harbor the opinions that Russians are cold, crude, and downright unpleasant. While it is true that Russians can be a little rough around the edges at times, I find that once you break through this hardened exterior they are warm, welcoming, and incredibly hospitable.
It also just so happens that Russia is filled with confusing customs, traditions, and superstitions that can downright befuddle a Westerner.
As Benny can attest to, the best way to understand a culture is through its language.
Had I not learned Russian I would have been excluded from the vast majority of these customs, and likely would have just sat on the sidelines awestruck.
Instead, I have been able to be active in these various traditions, like giving a meaningful toast at a reception or singing a song in a group. At the time, these seemed somewhat trivial, but I realize now how paramount they were in building the foundations of a relationship with strangers.
Abundant Resources And Interest
Russian may be a complex and intimidating language, but there are plenty of resources to help you on your way. Russia has a population of over 140 million and there are another 27 million living abroad. A large proportion of them are interested in learning English and engaging with English speakers.
They love Western culture, and they do learn English in school. They just don't use it frequently.
Although I went to college for Applied Math, I probably spent the bulk of my time chatting with Russians who I connected with on social search sites like Italki, Scrabbin, and Papora. I would study sites like RussianForFree.com and listen to Russian radio on ListenLive. Youtube has a nice selection of videos with subtitles. I'm particularly fond of cartoons for beginners.
You Will Understand Your Own Language Better
Perhaps my most unexpected benefit from learning Russian is how much it has deepened my understanding of my own language.
Unfortunately, I never really approached English from a linguistics perspective and as a result, never really appreciated the various constructions that make English different.
When you start learning Russian you really have to dive into the grammar and the rules, and this opens up a number of parallels to English that I never knew before. Things like why English sentences are ordered the way they are whereas Russian ones can take a completely different form and still convey the same meaning.
I would even say my French got better as well, just by learning Russian, because finally grammar started to make sense.
Hacking The Language: Why Russian Isn't As Hard As You Think
I'd be lying if I said Russian was easy.
After all these years of studying and interacting with Russians, I still consider myself to be only conversational. Verbs of motion, verbal aspect, and completely unpredictable verb/preposition pairs will make your head spin.
Luckily, I'm happy to report that of several articles I checked around the topic of “hardest languages for English Speakers”, Russian didn't appear in the top 10 for any of them. It's still considered easier than Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
So let's focus on some of the bright sides of learning Russian.
Alphabet – easy to learn and wonderfully phonetic
One of the first things that turn people off from a new language is having to learn a different set of characters or letters.
People vastly overestimate how difficult this really is. They see the backwards “R” (я pronounced [ja]) and immediately want to turn the other way.
Benny has written extensively about why Chinese is not as difficult as it seems, pointing out in particular that the number of characters in the language should not be seen as a huge obstacle.
Well, if that's true for Chinese, which has thousands of characters, it should certainly be true for Russian, which has only 33 letters.
Remember, it may be Cyrillic but it is still an alphabet, and alphabets are made up of letters, just like English. But what makes it even easier than English is that these letters have consistent pronunciation. Ever try to say this poem in English aloud? Then you'll know how welcome a consistently pronounced alphabet is!
While Russian tends to have longer words than English, as well as some tricky sounds, at least it doesn't have this problem of sometimes needing to guess how a word is pronounced, like in English. Can you imagine?
You pronounce it like it's spelled and you spell it like it's pronounced – the way it should be.
Honestly, you could learn Cyrillic in a day, and while you may make a few mistakes here and there with a few tricky letters that pose as English letters, after a few weeks you'll have it down pat and you'll never have to think about it again. Promise.
In fact, there are several letters in Cyrillic that are exactly like their English counterparts in look and pronunciation: A, B, D, K, L, M, O, T.
And many of the other ones have the same pronunciation, they just a look a little funny. For example “г” is g and “ф” is f.
All and all, there are really only a few new sounds that need to be learned.
Additionally, I find the Cyrillic alphabet to be visually distinct. It still has that boxy look that English has where, at least to me, each letter looks relatively different from the other. I don't feel that as much with say, Arabic, which looks very curvy.
All of this will help expedite the memorization phase.
Adaptations From English
Romance languages are not the only ones to have adopted words from the English language (cognates). Russian has plenty as well, you just wouldn't know it because it looks different in Cyrillic. For example, while Russian has its own word for doctor – врач (pronounced vrach), you could just as easily say доктор (doctor) and that would be completely normal.
Additionally, there is a whole class of verbs that pretty much have just been Russified from English, for example:
парковать (pronounced parkovat – to park)
адаптировать (pronounced adaptirovat – to adapt)
адоптировать (pronounced adoptirovat – to adopt)
This may not be the case for all ‘ова' verbs, but there is enough to help you out.
In fact, more and more English words are finding their way into Russian on account of growing Western media influence as well as technology based words, which seem to be adopted almost with a general agreement across various languages. For example computer, micro-chip, camera, and television are all pretty recognizable in Russian.
Immense Flexibility With Sentence Structure
One of the things I realized about English AFTER learning Russian was just how rigid the sentence structure is. There's a right way to say something. For example, if you want to express that you are going to the park, you would probably say
I am going to the park
You wouldn't say
To the park, I go
Unless you want to sound like Master Yoda.
Russian isn't like that.
I could translate that a variety of ways, such as
я иду в парк (“I am going to the park” )
в парк иду (“To the park I go” without the subject)
в парк я иду (“To the park I go” with the subject)
*Also did you notice how in the second variant I left out the subject?
In English, we almost always include the pronoun, partly because we don't have a unique conjugation for each (example “I go to the park, they go to the park”)
Because Russian has a defined conjugation for every pronoun, you don't need to include it.
LOTS of Rules, But Few Exceptions
One of the aspects of Russian that appeals to me the most is that it's a very rule-based language. I was a Math major so I cling to repeatable procedures and a set of defined rules that I can wrap my head around.
This was one of my major turn-offs in high school when I was learning French.
For example, in French you have to memorize the gender for each individual word. Sure, there are tendencies for things to be masculine or feminine but in general it's not scalable. This creates additional annoyances when you add adjectives and possessive pronouns that also require agreement, stemming from the noun.
Russian isn't like that.
There is a set rule for what is masculine, feminine, and neuter (neutral third case) with almost no exceptions.
Rules for determining if a noun is masculine or feminine
- Look at the last letter of the word:
- If it is a consonant, or “й”, the word is masculine.
- If it is “а” or “я” it is feminine.
- If it is “о” or “е” it is neuter.
- If it is a soft sign “ь” then it could be either masculine or feminine. (relative to the above four, this doesn't happen to often)
There are very few exceptions to these rules, but there are five notable ones which occur mainly because of physical gender.
Папа – (Daddy, Papa) – Is Masculine
Дядя – (Uncle) – Is Masculine
Дедушка – (Grandfather) – Is Masculine
Мужчина – (Man) – Is Masculine
Кофе – (Coffee) – Is Masculine
And gender is just one instance of this. This carries over to how verbs change in the past and future tense, how nouns become plural, etc.
Rules, rules, rules.
For example, while it doesn't make much sense that mouse becomes mice in the English plural, Russian has these rules in the nominative case:
For masculine nouns:
If the word ends in a consonant, add “ы”.
Replace “й” with “и”
Replace “ь” with “и”
For feminine nouns:
Replace “я” with “и”
Replace “ь” with “и”
Replace “а” with “ы” (unless previous consonant is Г, К, Х, Ж, Ч, Ш, Щ then replace with “и” as per the spelling rules.)
For neuter nouns:
Replace “о” with “а”
Replace “е” with “я” (don't forget the spelling rules)
студент (student) – студенты (students)
газета (newspaper) – газеты (newspapers)
здание (building) – здания (buildings)
I find this much preferable to the randomness of English and romance languages.
The problem with Russian is that it has six declensions: Nominative, Accusative, Prepositional, Genitive, Dative, and Instrumental. If you've ever studied Latin, German or another Slavic language you're probably familiar with these.
And they kind of stink, and lead to tables like this:
This is pretty nasty looking, I know, my argument isn't that it's easy, but that it's reliable.
It also helps us break down the sentence structure and see how words relate to each other. It's because of these declensions that we can organize the sentence a bunch of different ways and still distinguish between the subject, the verb, and the direct object.
Make the Investment
Russian is a commitment, and even the most talented language learners will probably struggle for months or even years before they really crack it.
However, it brings with it a world of opportunities in terms of people to meet, places to go, and experiences to be had.
If you have any further questions about Russian, feel free to ask them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.
Or, if you are Russian, давайте говорить по-русски “let's speak Russian”!
In 2012 David left his corporate banking job to travel the world for two years. He speaks English, Russian, and basic French. Check out his travel blog and his new business blog at SelfMadeBusinessman.com. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.