How long does it take to learn the Russian language?

How Long does it Take to Learn the Russian Language as an English Speaking Self-Student?

The Russian language is the mother tongue of over 150 million people in Russia, but also in several other countries such as Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It’s the most populous language in the Slavic language family and an extremely important language in terms of politics, economy and much more.

You came here’s however, because you’re interested in learning the Russian language and you want to know how long it’ll take. The answer to the question isn’t easy. It depends on a ton of different factors, namely your linguistic background and your motivation. The complexity of the Russian language isn’t even the first thing to consider in this regard.

You want a number, though, so let’s assume that you’re an average English speaker who wants to learn Russian by yourself. I think that you could get pretty far in Russian in 2-3 years. And that’s if you study an hour a day, and you stick to it!

But to better reach a conclusion, we need to look a little closer at the challenge. So keep reading!

What level of Russian are you aiming for?

While most people would automatically say that their end goal is to speak Russian fluently like a native, you might want to make a goal that’s more in the lines of being “functional”.

Sure, we all want to speak like a native with zero accent and everything – but most people never archive this and the rare few who do spend decades on perfecting their Russian before getting there.

I suggest that you start by aiming for an upper intermediate or low-advanced level of Russian. This level will allow you to communicate perfectly well in Russian as well as read, write and get by. It’s a great foundation for improving, and it’s much quicker to get there.

To more clearly define what this actually means, let’s look at how the US Department of State distinguish between language levels.

The 5 levels of language proficiency according to the US Department of State

The scale goes from 0-5, where 0 is for complete beginners and 5 is for a level comparable to a native Russian speaker.

I suggest that you aim for what is called “minimum professional proficiency” on the list (number 3). Getting to this stage will be a lot faster, and it will allow you to function very well in Russian. And once you get there, you can always aim to improve.

Whereas “Bilingual Proficiency” (level 5) is almost impossible to archive, the level called “Full Professional Proficiency” is realistic if you put in a lot of time and effort. Aiming just a little lower will however enable you to reach your goals much faster.

Your background greatly influences how fast you will be able to learn Russian

Another thing to take into consideration when trying to estimate the time it’ll take to learn Russian is the background of you, the learner.

Have you got any experience with learning foreign languages before? Perhaps you speak Polish or Czech or another language related to Russian?

In fact, even if you have studied Chinese or French, it’ll be helpful when learning Russian. Not because of the languages themselves, but because learning languages also teaches you something about languages. Someone who’s already had to face a different way of communicating will have a much easier time wrapping their head around the things in Russian that might be very different from English.

Even a little experience with other languages than English is an advantage. Your high-school Spanish just might come in handy for learning Russian.

But does that mean that mono-lingual English speakers can’t learn Russian? Definitely not! It only means that you’ll have to face all of the unknown and bizarre aspects of Russian without really having a frame of reference. A beginner in language learning might find it strange to imagine that other languages deal with concepts differently.

You often hear people who learn their first second language exclaim things like “why do they have to say it that way” or “why can’t they just say it like we do in English”. If you’re completely new to foreign languages, Russian just has to be the language that opens your eyes to other ways of thinking.

Your educational background in general also plays a role. Even if you didn’t study languages in school, being used to taking notes and retaining new information will come in handy when studying Russian on your own. The discipline needed to learn calculus is also necessary for learning Russian, so if you’re already used to studying, you might be a little ahead of all those who aren’t.

How long does it take to learn the Russian, Cyrillic alphabet?

One of the first things you need to do when taking up Russian is learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

To a lot of people, learning another alphabet or writing system seems very intimidating and scary. There are even people who decide not to learn Russian because it uses another alphabet than English.

This is crazy!

The Cyrillic alphabet can be learned and mastered within hours. I usually recommend that people spread some writing exercises out during a week or so, in order to really get the alphabet under their skin, but that’ll be more than enough.

Think about it this way: The Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet consists of 33 letters. That’s 33 little drawings that you need to match to 33 sounds in order to be able to read and write in Russian. Is 33 a big number to you? How many words do you think you’ll need to know in order to become conversational in Russian? 2-3000 minimum.

You’ve decided to learn Russian and I congratulate you for that decision. (Yay!) But when you decided that, it meant that you were going to learn 3000 words by heart. And you didn’t shy away from that, then why would 33 little letters scare you?

OK, sorry, I realize that I’m rambling. But the Cyrillic alphabet doesn’t really represent a challenge when learning Russian. It’ll be the least of your worries, believe me!

So.. What about Russian pronunciation, then?

While learning the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s a good time to start working on the Russian pronunciation simultaneously.

While there are 33 letters, many of them have two pronunciations. A hard one and a soft one. Whether the letter should be pronounced in one way or another, depends on certain indicators (the presence of certain letters) in the word. A better illustration of the difference between hard and soft letters can be found in this video. But let’s first go through the video below and see which letters might represent a challenge for an English speaker.

After going through this video, you might notice that certain letters aren’t present in the English alphabet. Still, many of them are actually used in English, but since they don’t have their own letters in English, we’ll take a look at them anyway.

  • Ж = This sound is not hard to reproduce. It’s the same sound as the “sh” in the word “shall”
  • Р = A thrilled R. While this sound is common in many languages, it doesn’t exist in English and some English speakers do have difficulties with pronouncing it
  • Х = This sound is a little like the “ch” in “Lichtenstein” or in the Scottish word “Loch”. It’s generally pronounced softer and less raspy than for example the Dutch “G”.
  • Ц = A “ts” sound like when we say “it’s”
  • Ч =A “ch” sound like in “check” or “chat”
  • Ш = A “Sh” sound like in the word “sharp” – not to be confused with Ж which is a little softer.
  • Щ = Again, a “sh” sound like in “sheer”.
  • Ы = A vowel like the French U or the German “Ü”. To pronounce it, try saying “ee” but move your lips to a round like you would say “oo”.
  • Э = An “e” sound like in the word “met” or the French “è”.

Some of the most challenging aspects of Russian pronunciation (although not that bad) is obviously pronouncing hard and soft letters. Among other things, there’s the distinction between the letters Ш, Ж and Щ (I’ve found a video that illustrates the difference here). And then there’s the thrilled “R” sound, “Р” and the letter “Х”.

But even though some aspects of Russian pronunciation is difficult, it’s something that you can easily learn. It might take a while to perfect your pronunciation, but I don’t recommend that you dwell on it. Continue on with your Russian studies and the more material you cover, the easier pronunciation will become.

Russian grammar will take time

Russian Grammar is one of the reasons that the Russian language frequently comes up when discussing which languages are difficult.

In reality, I don’t consider these challenges “difficult”, but rather time consuming. Everyone can learn Russian, and the Russian grammar, although complicated can be mastered by both you and me. It’s not as much a question of memorizing rules and analyzing each and every sentence as it’s about getting used to the language.

In English, you don’t give grammar a second thought. You just speak, and you immediately notice when something’s off or incorrect. It comes down to instinct. This is what you should aim for with Russian as well. It doesn’t make learning Russian any faster, but it makes it less difficult.

The main challenge with Russian grammar is the case system. Russian has 6 cases, meaning that nouns change depending on their function in a sentence.

Cases can be a confusing concept to understand because it applies to a lot of types of sentences where there would be no difference in English. One way to look at it could be the genitive case. In English, when we speak of object that “belongs” to someone, we add “‘s” to that word. “The bee’s knees”.

In Russian the same kind of thing happens to sentences that deal with direction, “he’s giving a flower to the bee” , object “he’s fleeing the bee”, Instrument, “he’s threatening him with a bee” or prepositional “the flower’s nectar is in the bee”. In all of these cases, the “bee” would go though similar changes as when we deal with belongings in English, the “bee’s knees”.

There are obviously other aspects of Russian grammar that are either more complicated or less so than English. Generally, however, Russian grammar is sufficiently different from English to demand a lot more time to master than a language that’s more closely related to English, like Dutch, Norwegian or even Spanish.

Does it take a lot of time to learn Russian vocabulary?

Russian, being an East Slavic language is quite different from English in terms of vocabulary. While most West European languages borrow words from one another and even look alike in their way of forming words, Russian is pretty much its own thing.

While there are Russian words that sound a lot like their English counter-parts, there aren’t many.

This means that you need to take Russian for what it is. There aren’t really any shortcuts to Russian vocabulary and the words in Russian might even seem a little unfamiliar compared to the languages that are closer to English. Even though you (maybe) don’t speak French, chances are that the word “maison” (house) still sounds familiar to you. In Russian, the word for house is “дом” (dom).

What this all means is that you’ll have to spend more time learning Russian vocabulary. The words aren’t as easy to remember, and you’ll often need to review them or think of associations to better memorize them. (Here’s an article I wrote on the subject of remembering words).

So to better learn Russian words, you’ll need to often use various techniques to memorize them. There are many possibilities, but generally, just doing something with the word will get you a long way. It could be noting it down on a piece of paper, thinking of a synonym or writing an explanation in your own words. In some cases, looking up an image of the word can be helpful too.

How long does it take to learn Russian according to language experts?

The Foreign Service Institute, which is the American government institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to American diplomats and Emissaries have grouped the languages that they teach into different categories.

The categories, or groups, go from 1-4 and the division is made depending on the time that it takes an average English-speaking student to learn the language. FSI teaches languages in an intensive classroom setting. This means that the time they estimate that it takes to learn the Russian language might be different from the time it would take a self-student.

FSI’s course aims for a high degree of fluency, or “High Professional Working Proficiency”. If you aim for an intermediate level or to become merely conversational in Russian, this obviously will influence the time that it takes to acquire the language.

FSI’s language groups can still be a good estimate, however, but you’ll need to take their numbers with a grain of salt.

The first group is for languages stuch as French, Spanish and Dutch. These are estimated to take around 500-600 classroom hours to learn to a high level of fluency.

Group 2 is for languages that are either more exotic or which demand a little more attention grammar-wise. Here we find languages wuch as Swahili, German and Indonesian.

In group 3, which is where we find Russian, we also find languages such as Hindi, Thai, Hungarian and Finnish. These are considered complicated languages for English speakers, and take around 1100 classroom hours to learn to a level of high professional working proficiency.

In the fourth group we find the very exotic and complicated languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Arabic and Japanese. These take an impressive 2200 classroom hours to learn.

But let’s get back to Russian: 1100 hours! That’s about 3 years of studying one hour per day. It’s a lot, but it’s doable. But what if you were to aim for the upper intermediate stage or to simply become conversational or functional in Russian? I’d say that you could get really far in under two years.

A few scenarios for how long it would take an English speaker to reach a conversational level in Russian

It’s clear that there are many things that need to be taken into account when you want to figure out how long it takes to learn a language. With the above, it’s become clear that both your personal background, your goals and the Russian language itself plays a role – so in reality it’s not easy to estimate how long it’ll take to become fluent in Russian.

But let’s try anyway!

I’ll try setting up four scenarios for an average English speaker who doesn’t speak other languages than English.

  1. A highly disciplined individual who dedicates 1 hour a day and focuses on what works. I believe this to be the best case scenario. Someone who’s focused and who works towards a target without squinting along the way should be able to get to a high intermediate or low advanced level of Russian in just short of two years or a year and a half. If your goal is advanced fluency, you have a good chance of archiving this in three years. This situation could be comparable to FSI’s intensive classroom setting.
  2. Someone who works daily, but is a little unsure about the process and needs to try out different things. A lot of people may fit in this category. Even though they’re highly motivated and put in the time it takes to learn Russian, the lack of direction and experience in language learning holds them back a little. I think that an intermediate level could be archived in under three years. It’s quite possible that the experience gained along the way will help streamline the process and you’ll learn to better decide which direction to take in which case you could do it faster.
  3. Someone who has a hard time being consistent with his or her Russian studies and who’s not entirely sure what he or she is doing, but who keeps coming back. In this case, learning Russian to fluency will need to be a (very) long time goal. While the uncertainty of study methods and direction are problems that you can eventually correct with the experiences you gain, a lack of consistency slows down the process and can even mean setbacks. If you neglect your Russian studies for longer periods of time, chances are that you’ll need to redo things that you’ve already finished, and you’ll be blocked from moving forward. Depending on the situation, reaching a conversational level in Russian could take a long time. My bet is at least 5 years but probably more.
  4. Someone who’s neither sure of his or her goals nor of the direction taken. Inconsistent studies, hiatuses for long periods of time. Learning a foreign language demands a lot of effort and time. If you’re very inconsistent and you take long pauses in your studies, you’ll be severely limited in your progress. If you’re both unfocused and inconsistent, I think that the chances of you giving up is significantly higher than you eventually archiving your goals. But if you keep eventually returning to Russian, you might at some point get there, but the amount of time would depend entirely on the work you put in and the setbacks you see in your hiatuses. 10 years might fit the bill.

So how long does it take to learn to speak Russian.. Really?

As you might have guessed, the answer is “it depends”. It could be anywhere from 1,5 years to 10 years. Or more. Or less. There are many factors that come into play and a lot of things can happen in the time-period that you’re learning Russian.

I expect most of my readers to be at least reasonably focused and ambitious. I believe that most people would fit into the second category above, and that they could learn Russian to an upper intermediate level in a little under three years.

But it almost all comes down to you.

If you’re motivated, focused and persistent, there are almost no limits to what you can archive. Your study method and your educational background is less relevant here. The same goes for the difficulty level of the language.

Inconsistency is the worst. Even if you’ve got everything else right, not being consistent makes you forget before you come back to revise. It makes you loose progress and it means that you’ll be likely to also loose motivation. To learn a language, you need to just do it on both sunny and rainy days.

If you just studied Russian for 10 minutes per day, it would still be better than spending a whole day one time per month.

You don’t need the fanciest course, language talent, a Russian teacher, or experience with note-taking.

Not as much as consistency and motivation. If you have those, you’ll get there almost no matter your method!

If you’d like to read more about how I recommend that you go about studying Russian, go read my article entitled “How to learn Russian by yourself“.

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