How to Learn Russian – It’s Easier Than You Think!
Learning Russian has changed my life, and I believe it can change yours too – if you are open to it.
Russia evokes powerful emotions in all of us. It's nearly impossible to feel indifferent towards it: you either love it or hate it.
Having hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2018, and in a delicate political situation with Ukraine, it is clear that Russia isn't going away anytime soon, like it, or not. And yet, despite its international prowess, there is often a 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.
In this post, I’ll give you a few tips on how to learn Russian. Here’s what we’ll cover:
Table of contents
- Hacking The Language: How to Learn Russian and Why It Isn't As Hard As You Think
- Why Russian Should Be Your Next Language Of Choice
- Start Learning Russian Now
Hacking The Language: How to Learn Russian and Why It Isn't As Hard As You Think
I'd be lying if I said Russian was easy.
After many 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.
However, I checked several articles around the topic of “hardest languages for English Speakers”. I’m happy to say that 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.
Start With the Russian Alphabet
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 backward “R” (я pronounced [ja]) and immediately want to turn the other way.
Benny Lewis, founder of Fluent in 3 Months, has written extensively about why Chinese is not as difficult as it seems. He points out in particular that the number of characters in the language should not be seen as a huge obstacle.
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. That’s the way it should be!
Honestly, you could learn Cyrillic in a day. You may make a few mistakes here and there with a few tricky letters that pose as English letters. But 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. A
And many of the other ones have the same pronunciation, they just 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.
Spot the Adaptations From English
Romance languages are not the only ones to have adopted words from the English language (known as cognates). Russian has plenty as well. You just wouldn't know it because it looks different in Cyrillic.
For example, Russian has its own word for doctor: врач (pronounced vrach). But 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:
- парковать (parkovat) – “to park”
- адаптировать (adaptirovat) – “to adapt”
- адоптировать (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 because of Western media as well as technology-based words. These seem to be adopted almost with a general agreement across various languages.
For example “computer”, “microchip”, “camera”, and “television” are all pretty recognizable in Russian.
Work With the Immense Flexibility of 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 say 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 sentence in 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)
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 conjugation person. In “I go to the park” and “They go to the park”, the verb form is the same.
Because Russian has a defined conjugation for every pronoun, you don't need to include pronouns in sentences.
Learn the Many Russian Rules, But Face 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. They 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 in Russian:
- 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 too often)
There are very few exceptions to these rules, but there are five notable ones that occur mainly because of physical gender.
- Папа – “daddy, papa” → masculine
- Дядя – “uncle” → masculine
- Дедушка – “grandfather” → masculine
- Мужчина – “man” → masculine
- Кофе – “coffee” → masculine
And gender is just an example. 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 it with и as per the spelling rules.)
For neuter nouns:
- Replace o with а
- Replace e with “я” (don't forget the spelling rules)
- студент (“student”) – студенты (“students”)
- газета (“newspaper”) – газеты (“newspapers”)
- здание (“building”) – здания (“buildings”)
I find this much better than 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.
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 traveling 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. Only 5.5% of the Russian population claims English as a first or second language.
Westerners tend to gravitate towards other Western languages like French and Spanish due to their familiarity. But 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 a little Russian.
That's a lot of people we can meet with one language.
Travel To Russia And The Eastern Bloc
Russia is a country rich in history, culture, and traditions.
But too often we don't even consider it as a travel destination because we’re intimidated by the language and people. Russia gets about half the tourists that Spain and Italy get, and only one-third of 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
- Visit Red Square and Saint Basil's Cathedral and other beautiful attractions in Moscow
- Watch The Nutcracker in a Russian theater
- Buy original Matryoshka dolls
Couple that with the fact that Russian opens doors to communicating with people in the Eastern bloc and you've got a world of opportunities. I've gotten by with Russian in Poland and the Czech-Republic.
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 most 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. When I was just starting out, I only knew a few words. Now I am proficient in everyday conversation,but I can tell you that never once did anyone turn their back on me because of my level in Russian.
Understand And Partake In Customs
Westerners, unfortunately, often harbor the opinions that Russians are cold, crude, and unpleasant. While it is true that Russians can be a little rough around the edges at times, once you break through this hardened exterior they are warm, welcoming, and hospitable.
It also just so happens that Russia is filled with confusing customs, traditions, and superstitions that can befuddle a Westerner.
As Benny Lewis, Founder of Fluent in 3 Months, 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.
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 important 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.
Russians love Western culture, and they do learn English in school. They just don't use it frequently.
You can find more free resources to learn Russian in this post.
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.
I never really approached English from a linguistics perspective. As a result, I 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. This opens up a number of parallels to English that I never knew before. For example, English sentences have an order that’s completely different from Russian sentences, and still convey the same meaning.
I would even say my French got better as well, just by learning Russian. Grammar finally started to make sense.
Start Learning Russian Now
Russian is a commitment. Even the most talented language learners will probably struggle for months or 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 have.
If I have convinced you to take on the language, but you’re not sure where to start, give a look at Benny’s favourite resources to learn Russian!
Or, if you are Russian, давайте говорить по-русски (“let's speak Russian”)!
Original article by David Schneider, updated by the Fluent in 3 Months team.