Should I Learn German Or Russian? (How Can I Decide?)

avatarMille Larsen
9 mins read

OK, so you want to learn either German or Russian, but you can't decide.

I'm going to try and help you pick one, even though this might not be the easiest of tasks. Both languages belong to big countries with huge populations, rich cultures, and interesting histories. They both have their own, distinctive "sound" to them which many find beautiful, interesting, or appealing in, perhaps, a Bond-Villain kind of way... (OK, maybe I'm not being fair here..)

They also both represent their own challenges for the English-speaking language learner. German, although related to English, is more complicated in terms of grammar. The complexity of the German language is dwarfed next to the beast that is the Russian language, though, so there is that.

Most people don't pick a language to learn because it's the easier option, however. They don't always tend to care about the GDP, job opportunities, or national dishes either. Most people, who succeed to learn a foreign language, do so because they're absolutely in love with the language and everything about it.

You might be reading this article because you want to learn German AND Russian at the same time. And although I'm going to help you try and pick one, studying both actually might be the solution for you.

But without any more beating around the bush, let's try and get into it. In the following, I'm going to have a look at the two languages from a few different perspectives, which I hope might help you decide!

So What Can You Do With German Or Russian?

Languages, all the magic aside, are mediums of communication. They're a sort of tool that you use to make yourself understood and to understand what other people are saying. Like it's the case for most tools, languages are specialized. If you try hammering in nails with a screwdriver, you won't get far. (Well, I actually never tried..)

So there are things Russian is good for and other things that German will help you with. Each language opens different doors and opportunities in the world.

What kind of things might those be?

Traveling And Touristy Things?

Tourism is a biggie for many language learners. While some people who learn a foreign language never leave their native soil, most have an aspiration of going traveling and getting by in a country where the language is spoken without relying on English.

If you speak German, for instance, you'll be able to go to Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, and a lot of other places where German is spoken. Germany, along with other German-speaking countries do, however, rank relatively high in terms of English proficiency. This means that you might be able to do your touristy things perfectly fine without actually speaking German.

So in other words - learning German is not essential for traveling in German-speaking countries, because many, if not most people will be able to communicate with you in English, especially if they're employed in the tourist sector. (But do try to get a little more adventurous!)

Russia, on the other hand, has a much lower rank on the English proficiency index, meaning that actually speaking the local language will be more helpful when traveling there.

So, with everything else being equal, for traveling, I'd suggest that you pick Russian. Knowing the local language is always beneficial when traveling, and it will probably significantly improve your experience as a traveler, never mind the country. But while German is good to know, when going to Germany, Russian is (almost) a must if you want to get out of the tourist-centers in Russia.

Get Smarter?

Maybe you want to learn a language for academic reasons. There's no doubt that knowing another language will significantly widen your horizons and open up your mind to different ways of thinking, other perspectives, and new things to learn.

OK, it's hard to actually measure if people who speak more languages are smarter than those who only speak one. Sure, one might conclude that multi-linguals score higher on IQ-tests, but their high IQ might not be the result of them knowing multiple languages. It's actually more probable that smart people are more likely to pick up foreign languages. (Yes, I'm suggesting that you, sir or madam, might be an intelligent individual!)

Still, even though you can't be sure to score higher on IQ-tests from studying a foreign language, it's certain that there is a wide range of benefits to learning one. You'll improve your mental health, you'll be able to add another language to your CV and your life will be overall richer.

You might also want to use the language to go study abroad. Tuition fees in the US are notoriously expensive and going to study in a foreign country could be a cheaper option in addition to a life-defining experience.

There is no shortage of options for someone who wants to use either the German or Russian language for studying abroad. Some might argue that the universities in German-speaking countries are better than those in Russia, and according to rankings, this does seem to be the case.

The technological university of Zurich, ETH, is supposed to be the 6th best university in the world, whereas the best learning-institution in Russia is the Lomonosov university in Moscow, coming in at an 84th place.

the 84th best university in the world is still pretty good in my book, though. It's better than the Pennsylvania State University, the Boston University, and several hundreds of other big, international learning institutions, and you'll be learning everything in Russian!

In short - I wouldn't pick a language simply because the country where it is spoken has a university that ranks higher, but you might want to look a little closer at the programs offered and the different specialties.

Make Money?

You want to learn a language to make money?


Whether you want to invest in a new market, look for international job openings, or make yourself more attractive to local companies who deal with foreign markets, learning German or Russian will be an asset.

Germany is the biggest economy of the European Union and one of the most important trade partners to the US. In 2018, the US and Germany exchanged goods for something like $250 billion, which is absolutely huge.

There is no doubt that the German language can come in extremely handy if you work in a multinational company that deals with Germany.

Starting a new life in Germany and going there to work is also clearly an option.

Russia, on the other hand is in a different situation.

While Russia is a huge country with an important economy, its trade relationship with the US isn't the best. Due to political tensions and sanctions, there simply isn't a lot of activity between the two countries. The potential is huge, however, but you might want to think twice before learning Russian for business-reasons unless you already have a clear, viable project in mind!

Is Russian Or German Easier To Learn?

Then there's language difficulty. A lot of things will probably play a role when it comes to picking a language to study, but how hard German and Russian is respectively might be one of the more important factors.

German is actually closely related to English. This becomes clear when you compare vocabulary for example, and it makes it a whole lot easier to pick up new words. It's got the reputation of being difficult when it comes to grammar, more so than other Germanic languages like Dutch, for example.

German grammar is nothing special next to Russian, however. Russian is known for being a difficult language. And quite rightly so!

What makes the German language a little more advanced than languages like Dutch or even French, is mostly the case-system. German has 4 cases which means that nouns change depending on the "role" they take in a phrase. In Russian, we have six cases, and they're definitely not simpler than the German ones.

And where German vocabulary is relatively close to English, Russian words seem almost completely unrelated to the words we already know. This is obviously because the Russian language is a Slavic language, meaning that it's only very remotely related to English, whereas German could be described as a "cousin" of English.

What might be surprising to some is that the different alphabet that is used for writing Russian only represents a minor challenge. Sure, it's another thing you need to learn, but getting the Cyrillic alphabet under your skin is actually something you could do in a matter of days. While Russian might take time to learn, the alphabet is only a small part.

"Difficulty" is actually not really very easy to measure, because it depends on so many things. The FSI categorizes languages by the time they take for an English speaker, following their program, to reach a high level of fluency. According to them, German needs 900 classroom hours whereas Russian takes 1100.

But this number is clearly over-simplified.

I've tried developing a calculator that takes more aspects of language learning into account when calculating how long it takes to learn a language, but it, too, is far from perfect.

An important point, however, is that you're going to learn the language you're the most motivated to learn faster and more effectively than one that you're not necessarily 100% in love with.

And this brings me to the last factor:

Which Language Keeps You Awake At Night?

The single most important box to check when deciding whether to learn German or Russian is motivation.

It doesn't matter how beneficial and (theoretically) easy it might be for you to learn German if Russian is the thing that you dream about. Likewise, if you get some kind of uncontrollable joy from hearing the German language spoken, there's nothing that can keep you from becoming fluent in it.

The strongest factor to consider when deciding which language to learn is love. You've got to pick the one you love the most because everything else simply gets easier if only you're crazy about the language.

If you're not particularly into either language, learning one will be much more hard work.

And if you're taken by both of them? You might have to learn both.

Learning two languages at a time isn't easy, though. You'll notice that time management can be extremely tough, especially when you need to divide your available study-time between two very big tasks, so think carefully before taking on both languages at once.