By Wordwide FX Financial Translations
By Meredith Cicerchia
Russian has a reputation as being a difficult language to learn. This may be due to its Cyrillic alphabet, grammar or status as a less commonly taught world language (compared to the likes of French and Spanish). Nonetheless, it isn’t as hard as some English speakers make it out to be. Let’s take a look at the things that make Russian challenging and the less complex aspects that might convince you to give it a try!
A learner’s perspective on Russian
Keep in mind that when you start studying a language like Russian, the difficulty you actually experience is always relative to the language or languages you already speak (more on contrastive analysis). When I first began Russian classes, I had just finished 4 years of learning French and Italian and spoke English as my mother tongue.
Instead of seeing the new alphabet as a negative, I found it a refreshing break from the “similar” but “not quite the same” alphabet issues that plague romance languages for English speakers (think accents on French vowels). While pronunciation could be a mouthful for certain words, it also seemed like everything became a lot easier once I figured out the rules. Russian words were pronounced as they were written — which is more than I can say for my latest language, Danish — and there were almost no exceptions.
Sure, certain things were hard, such as understanding the whole case system, but some things seemed surprisingly easy (past tense for example). I was lucky enough to have a native-speaker teacher who mixed in Russian poetry, songs and children’s books with grammar lessons. She kept us entertained and motivated as we trudged through the more difficult aspects of beginner Russian language study.
Remember that if you learn to love a language like Russian and have fun studying it, what may initially seem hard becomes just another challenge you can be proud of later on. Plus, in the English speaking world Russian is seen as quite an undertaking so my progress was heavily praised and I felt much more confident and motivated talking about my life and hobbies in Russian than when I had tried to enquire about a train schedule in Paris (only to have someone answer me in English).
So, what makes Russian hard to learn?
The bottom line is, you have to learn it. Yes, it’s different, but there are definitely some shortcuts to help you figure Russian letters out and they aren’t as hard to write as say Arabic. Also, if you’re familiar with the hair-pulling challenge of mastering Chinese characters, you can be thankful that at least there is an alphabet!
For me, the alphabet became somewhat of a secret code. An English P was a Russian R, C was an S, H was an N, a backwards N was an I and a backwards R was a “ya” sound. There were some similar letters with English, A and O for example and then there were some fun new ones like F which was written like a double P ф and P which is essentially the mathematics sign for pi п. Have a look and you’ll see what I mean.
While it does take a little getting used to when you first start reading and writing in a new alphabet, the most challenging part in Russian was differentiating cursive from print. To write a lower-case M in Russian you just use the capital form, only smaller м. That’s because if you write it in the English way an m is actually the cursive lower-case letter for t. Go figure!
There is no denying that the Russian language can sometimes be a mouthful. Try greeting someone with здравствуйте (ZDRAST-vwee-tye) or apologizing using извиниться (eez-vin-EET-sya). They take some time to get your tongue around and as an English speaker you initially find yourself doing a lot of verbal stumbling as you attempt to put the sounds together.
The good things is, if you listen to a lot of Russian, you can train your ear to hear the way sounds combine. Once you do this, you’ll improve your listening comprehension as you’ll be able to pick out individual words when they’re said, but also get better at producing them. Songs and poetry memorized and recited can also be a helpful technique for learning the pronunciation.
And of course, Russian is said the way it is spelled so you don’t have to guess at how to pronounce things, the way English language learners do. Everything is straightforward and you can sound words out. Russian has a few pronunciation shortcuts too. Consider the letter ч which represents the English sound “ch” (and looks a lot like an upside down chair).
Prepositions are hard in Russian but give me an example of a language where they are easy! The problem with prepositions is they don’t translate from language to language and are somewhat arbitrarily assigned to different verbs. Russian adds a whole new layer of complexity by using cases instead of prepositions (more on this later) which means you really just have to buckle down and study this in Russian (and any other language for that matter). Of course there are a few easy ones like в (into, to, it, at) which you’ll need to express where you live and на (onto to) which is good for describing scenes, but sadly you can’t just stick them into a sentence and expect things to work, as the Russian case system necessitates a few adjustments (more on that later).
English speakers may see conjugations as hard but after learning Romance languages, they become somewhat standard fare and a to be expected step in beginners grammar. Russian has two main verb groups to learn and each one has 6 forms in present tense (but there is only one present tense so forget having to learn both ‘I go’ and ‘I’m going’). The endings for ‘I’ -ю and ‘they’ -ют look somewhat similar but you don’t have to worry about memorizing separate forms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ because they use the same one.
The good thing is, you can rehearse conjugations for a handful of verbs and then pretty much know what you’re doing with the rest of them. There are irregular verbs in Russian but usually their stem tells you all you need to know to conjugate them.
The Case System
I’ve saved the hardest for last and that’s because if you haven’t already met a case system in a foreign language (for example, German), then you may go running in the opposite direction when you understand what it’s all about. Please don’t! It’s hard, but it’s possible to get started without it and learn it when you’re a little more advanced.
Think of it this way, Russian has 6 possible labels you can stick on a sentence: nominative (subject case), accusative (object case), genitive (possessive case), dative (using to + noun), instrumental and prepositional. If you know what kind of sentence you’re using, then you can understand which endings you’re going to need. This is a somewhat over-simplified description of cases (if you want more detail, try this article) but just take it from me, they are hard, they require memorization and fine-tuning and Russian speakers will totally forgive you for messing them up in the beginning.
What makes Russian easy?
They don’t exist in Russian- hurrah! No worrying about feminine and masculine forms like ‘le’ and ‘la’ or whether it’s ‘the day’ or ‘a day’ because the case system does all that specification for you. Would I rather have articles than the Russian case system? Maybe, but that’s no reason to rain on the article-less parade.
Unlike in French where you can sometimes spend a few minutes pondering the possible gender of a word, Russian has some pretty clear markers for denoting masculine, feminine and neuter words (with the exception of words that end in ь). Consonants or an й at the end point to masculine, а and я are all feminine and o and e are neuter. Easy-peasy.
All you need is intonation to ask a question in Russian. How beautifully simple is that? Just stick a question mark at the end of “You speak Russian,” make your voice go up and it becomes “Do you speak Russian?” There’s no fussing about with word order like in English, plus there’s no ‘qu’est-ce que’ which all former French students will be immediately grateful for. The rest of the question words are also straightforward to use.
Making Things Negative
Russians have a two letter solution for negatives and it comes before the verb. You just need не. If you want a more complex negative, to express ‘nothing’ for example, you can just go with the double-negative and stick your не before the verb and ничего after.
No Verb ‘to be’
If you’ve studied Italian then you know hard it can be to decide which form of “to be” you need to use for a given sentence (see our post on stare/essere). Well in Russian it’s easy because you can just skip the verb altogether!
Some languages can take a little work to get excited about, but with Russian you’re learning a language with one of the most amazing literary traditions on the planet. From poetry to short stories and classic novels, everything opens up to you when you learn the language! They’ll be challenges such as figuring out which character is which given the surplus of nicknames that can come wandering into long Russian novels (and cause mass confusion), but there will never be a lack of decent things to read. Plus, the country is rich in history, has some great films and ballads like Oчи чёрные or “Dark eyes” that will be impossible to get out of your head.
Summing things up…
Is Russian a hard language to learn? Yes and no. All languages are hard to learn and if it’s your first time studying a second language, you are bound to struggle with the requirements of ‘learning a language’ to begin with. That’s why we have this nifty blog full of helpful hints from applied linguists who study this stuff for a living.