Is Russian hard to learn?
- Mille Larsen •12 mins read
The Russian language has the reputation of being really difficult. It's got a foreign alphabet, Cyrillic, a lot of grammar rules, complicated pronunciation and it represents a whole other culture.
But is Russian really that hard?
I'd say no. Russian obviously takes some time to learn. It's not something that you can do in the matter of months. Still, there are millions upon millions of Russian children who learn their language from their parents every year. So it cannot be a question of high academic capacities or language talent. If you put in the time, you're persistent and consistent and keep at it, you will learn Russian. It won't be hard, but it'll take time!
What's supposedly difficult about Russian?
First of all, let's go into a few of the aspects of the Russian language that people consider difficult.
The Cyrillic alphabet - no big deal
Many people are hesitant to start learning Russian simply because of its alphabet. This is crazy
The alphabet is the easiest thing about learning Russian. I can say without exaggeration that you can learn it in under a week without a lot of efforts.
Think of it this way: In order to learn to speak any foreign language, Russian included, you need to learn 2-10.000 words by heart. That's thousands of letter-combinations that need to be matched to the ways they're pronounced and their meanings. That's a lot, but why don't people dwell on it?
Learning the Cyrillic alphabet is simply learning 33 little symbols by heart and matching them to their corresponding sounds. If you really went at it you could do it in a day! I recommend doing some handwriting exercises 2-3 times a day for about a week, and you'll know the alphabet well enough.
That's all it takes.
Russian has many grammar rules (but few exeptions)
That's right. The Russian language can be complicated in terms of grammar. It's got a lot of rules that you need to follow in order to speak Russian correctly. But really, so do most languages.
Take English for example. You might not be conscious of the English language's many rules because speaking it is like second nature to you. But it's a complicated language. The difference between English and Russian in that regard is that it appears that in English, for every rule, there are several exceptions. While learning English, you need to learn the rules to speak the language properly. Then you need to know when not to apply them!
Russian does have that kind of exceptions too, but not nearly as many. It's much more consistent, and as soon as you've learned a grammatical rule or concept, you can be pretty sure that it applies.
Grammatical cases - The beast of Russian grammar!
It seems that you cannot mention Russian without also mentioning its 6 grammatical cases. "Nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional." There, consider them mentioned!
No, really, Russian cases are nothing to be scared of.
I'm going to try and explain how each case works in the following - don't worry if it seems complicated. It'll become instinctive as you get used to Russian, and you'll start using the cases correctly without thinking about them! (If you want to skip the explanation and go straight to my explanation on why cases are easy, be my guest!)
Here's how they work:
Nominative - this one is the "base" word that you'll find in a dictionary. It's the case that describes "who" is doing something. "The blogger is writing". Who is writing? The blogger is, so "blogger" should be in the nominative form.
Genitive - is about ownership or belonging. "The spelling mistakes of the blogger". In this case "blogger" should be in the genitive form.
Dative - this is about direction. "He's sending a box of chocolates to the blogger". Here "blogger" should be in the dative form.
Accusative - this is about doing something to something. "I corrected the blogger" - here, an action has been performed towards the blogger. So "blogger" should be in the accusative form.
Instrumental - is used to describe the "instrument" with which an action is performed. "The blogger is working with a computer" Here, "computer" should be in the instrumental form.
Propositional - is always used with a preposition. It's used in sentences where you can use the word "about" (to specify how an action is about something) or "at" (to describe a point in time or space). "The blogger is thinking about sleeping" or "The blogger is sleeping at the library"
Okay, so perhaps that was a mouthful! I personally hate to read about this kind of thing, and I always try to learn about grammatical concepts like cases from actually using and consuming the language, rather than trying to analyze it.
The thing is, that in a way you already use these cases in English. In Russian, for each case, a suffix in the Russian word will change. Each case has its own suffixes that are simply added to the end of the word. These are pretty consistent and almost always follow the rules.
In English, we (mostly) don't use suffixes to add to the word. Instead we use separate words that we throw in somewhere in the sentence!
As you might have noticed in the above, the genitive case uses the word "of" to mark it as genitive in English (or "'s" is in "the blogger's"), Dative uses "to", instrumental "with" and prepositional "about".
In other words, you're already used to adding extra parts to words depending on their grammatical case in English. Russian merely makes this more consistent and regular because it adds these words as suffixes to the words instead of separate words in the sentence.
Think of Russian this way. In genitive, "flower" becomes " flowerof" in dative " flowerto" in instrumental " flowerwith" etc.
In other words - Russian cases are not as complicated as they're made out to be. English already uses cases too in a way.
But as I said - take these explanations with a grain of salt. You'll learn to use Russian cases correctly from seeing them over and over in their correct context, and at some point it'll just start to click because you're getting used to them!
Russian pronunciation is actually not that bad. Like most languages, however, it's got some foreign sounds that you need to get used to. Namely the " Р" which is a rolled R and the "Ы" which is much like the French "U" or the German "Ü".
When speaking Russian, you also need to learn which syllable in a word you need to stress when speaking. There aren't really any rules for this, and it's just something that you need to learn while first learning the word.
This does represent a difficulty. You need to hear how the word is pronounced, or you simply can't know which syllable to stress. But don't worry about this. It's simply a question of learning the syllable stress along with a new word, like you would learn English spelling along with learning a new English vocabulary.
And then finally, Russian has "hard" and "soft" versions of their consonants. There are certain letters that indicate which to use, so this, you'll always be able to figure out from a word.
Pronouncing the consonants in their hard an soft versions is not very difficult. I like to think of it as the way the consonant treats the following vowel.
Hard consonants make the vowels short and sharp. While pronouncing the soft vowels, you open your mouth a little more, and the vowel sound is less constrained. Watch the video below for a walk-though of the Russian alphabet and how each letter is pronounced in its hard and soft version. Or you can click here for another video that's a little more detailed on the hard and soft consonants.
What's easy about Russian then?
All the things I've written above about how hard Russian is might seem a little scary. In reality, however, I could write as much about any language. All languages have aspects that make them more complicated than others. They also have some things that actually make them more approachable.
So what's easy about Russian?
Well, for one thing, when you've learned the Cyrillic alphabet, you pretty much know how to pronounce Russian. The language is phonetic, which means that everything is pronounced exactly the way it's spelled, unlike English.
The only exception is syllable stress - and that might be a biggie. But even if you don't put the stress right on all syllables, you'll be understood. You probably won't get very far in England asking which route to take to go to "Leicester" if you pronounce the name of the town as it's written.
Then there's sentence structure. The long, scary, description about Russian cases above can make Russian seem complicated. Yet it really simplifies things because it puts a lot of information into the suffixes in the words themselves.
This means that there are fewer words in Russian sentences. It also means that word order is less necessary. In English "the dog bit the man" and "the man bit the dog" means two different things. In Russian, you can switch the words around and still convey the same meaning.
In Russian, you don't have to deal with articles. (Like "A" or "the") - they're simply not used. And you can get by with less grammatical tenses than in English. "Has been" is just "was". No need to over-complicate the past! (Or the future for that matter).
Russian has gender. Like most languages in the world. But for Russian, you can easily figure out whether a word is masculine, feminine or neuter based on the last letter in the word. Why can't French be like that?
And then finally, there are the Russians themselves.
The Russian people are known to be extremely patient, encouraging and enthusiastic about you learning Russian!
There aren't that many foreigners who take the time to learn the Russian language, and if you do, you'll be welcomed with open arms. While this has nothing to do with the language in itself, it's one of the more important factors when learning a language. If the native speakers of a language aren't helpful, it's very difficult to learn anything from them. In Russian, it's hard not to get a motivational boost out of each interaction!
Linguists say that Russian is hard
So what is it. Is Russian hard or easy to learn?
Here's what the linguists say:
The Foreign Service Institute, which is the US government institution in charge of teaching American diplomats foreign languages, have been known to grouping the languages they teach into different categories.
They range from 1-4. The easiest languages in group one take some 5-600 classroom hours of study for the average student. After having finished FSI's program, a language student is supposed to having acquired a high "professional working proficiency" in the language. Category 1 languages include languages like French, Dutch, Danish and other languages that are relatively close to English.
On the other end of the scale, in category 4, we find languages like Chinese, Korean and Arabic. These take 2200 classroom hours. Wow!
Russian is on category 3. FSI judges that an average English-speaking person needs around 1100 class-room hours to learn the language to a high level.
While these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, they can be used as an indicator. You might not be aiming for the same skills as FSI teaches, and "professional working proficiency" might not be your end goal. So perhaps 1100 hours of study is not correct for you.
But still, it tells us that Russian is double as hard as French. And half as hard as Korean.
In other words, Russian isn't the most difficult language in the world, but it's definitely not one of the easier ones either!
This is what it comes down to
As you might have been able to gather from the above, there's no easy answer to the question of Russian being hard or easy. It can be both depending on how you look at the language.
Like any language, it needs a lot of attention, however. If you don't stick with your learning schedule, you won't get very far.
When learning Russian, you need to be consistent with your studies. Study every day. Be dilligent and diciplined about it. And be patient. You need to keep it up for a long while - possibly two or three years before you really start to get close to fluency. But if you keep it up - you will get there!
If you would like to learn Russian, I recommend that you go read my article called "How to learn Russian by yourself". It's a rather long and quite extensive article that walks you through all the steps you need to take from the beginner's stage until you reach fluency. (Or at least how I'd recommend that you do it!)
If you've found this article helpful, have anything to add, or anything to say, please write a comment below!