When you mention learning Russian to the average person, no one says things like ‘easy to learn.’ Often people will describe the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy as complex and challenging. Those in the know will cite complications like noun cases, extensive prefixes, and verbs of motion.
But is Russian hard to learn?
That all depends on your frame of reference. If you speak English, then a language like Spanish or Dutch will take less time. But that’s an unfair comparison, isn’t it?
So let’s not sugar coat things. Russian is a challenge, but it’s by no means impossible. A lot of what might make Russian intimidating has more to do with a lack of familiarity than with any inherent difficulties.
So, to lay everything out for you this article will go over:
- The Cyrillic alphabet
- What seems hard but isn’t
- What about Russian is indeed a challenge
- What’s easy about Russian
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The Mystery Of The Russian Alphabet
One of the first things people notice when they encounter Russian is that it uses a different alphabet. Right from the start, this makes it seem hard since you have to (re)learn how to read. And make no mistake, mastering Cyrillic is absolutely essential to learning Russian.
But what most people don’t tell you is that Cyrillic is actually pretty easy to learn. It’s early origins go back to the same early alphabet as the Latin alphabets. Which means that you can read this sentence, then you already know half of the Cyrillic alphabet. So you can already read words like:
Some of the letters are completely new of course, but if you’re under pressure you can learn Cyrilllic in a day. And if you’re taking your time, you’ll have it down within a week.
What Only Seems Hard About Russian
A lot of things about Russian may seem challenging at first, but once you look closer, just take a bit of practice.
Lots Of New Words
Believe it or not, English and Russian actually belong to the same language family. However, the two went into separate families a few thousand years ago, so you’re going to find a lot fewer cognates between English and Russian than you would with some other languages.
That means that you’re going to have to learn a lot of new words at the beginning. If the learning curve doesn’t scare you off, you’ll find words easier to figure out as you go familiarize yourself with the most common Russian words, suffixes, and prefixes.
The Ease of Russian Compound Words
One of the strangest things about English, is the way words don’t connect. Why is ‘canine’ the adjective for ‘dog’? Is admit made of ‘ad’ and ‘mit’ ?
In this regard, Russian is a much more elegant and streamlined language than English. Most words are actually compounds. So after you learn the core vocabulary and some of the most common suffixes and prefixes, you can figure out a huge number of words.
Take the word подлокотник (podlokotnik) as an example. At first this work can seem strange, but after some basic russian it’s pretty transparent. So let’s break it down.
- Под локоть ник
- pod lokot’ nik
- ‘under’ ‘elbow’ ‘thing’
So we have the under-elbow-thing, which means ‘arm rest.’ Once you get the hang of it, you’ll pick up words with ease.
What About Russian Is Indeed A Challenge
When it comes to Russian grammar, there are a few big things that tend to scare people off. So let’s go over the big ones and see how hard they really are.
The Difficulties Of Russian Nouns
Like German and most other Slavic languages, Russian nouns have three genders – masculine, feminine, and neuter.
That may sound hard at first, but these genders are assigned to words at random. There are clear patterns that can tell you pretty quickly which gender a word is.
Most masculine nouns end in:
- A consonant, й(y)
Most feminine nouns end in:
- А (a) я (ya) ия (iya)
And most neuter nouns end in:
- Е(e) о(o)
There are exceptions of course, but knowing this will help you correctly identify the gender of about 95% of nouns.
The Challenge Of Russian Noun Cases
Noun case is probably the hardest part of Russian for English speakers to fully master. And this of course makes us ask:
What exactly is Russian noun case?
Simply put, the ending of a Russian noun tells you what it does/what role it has in a sentence. A different ending on a noun means that it has a different role.
It’s similar to how in English, we add ’s (e.g. John’s book) and know that this refers to possession. We know that the words John and John’s mean two different things based on the endings of the two words.
English has a lot of noun cases when we use pronouns.
- I saw her last week
- He asked them a question
Both of these sentences sound fine. However, if you say ‘Me saw she last week’ or ‘him asked they a question’ things sound weird. It’s the same in Russian. You have to use the right form to sound correct.
So how many cases are there?
Russian has six major noun cases
- Nominative (subject) Dave is tall
- Genitive (possession) Dave’s book
- Dative (indirect object) I gave it to Dave
- Accusative (direct object) I saw Dave
- Instrumental (instrument and company) I went with Dave
- Prepositional (with certain prepositions) I was at Dave’s house
This is probably one of the greatest hurdles to learning Russian, but there’s good news to be had!
Russian noun endings are very consistent. So once you know the rules, you can figure out any nouns role with ease.
The Effort of Doing Things – The Russian Verb
Nouns aren’t the only part of the Russian language that give people trouble. Russian verbs can almost seem a lot more intimidating than they are.
Russian conjugation can be a hurdle, at first. But since the pattern stays the same, you can pick it up quickly with a bit of practice.
You will have to get used to conjugating a verb according to it’s gender though. In the past tense, Russian verbs change according to the gender of the actor.
Take the word бегать (begat’) run. Depending on who ran, the ending will change.
- Кот бегал kot begal (the cat (male) ran)
- Кошка бегала koshka begala (the cat (female) ran)
- Животное бегало zhivotnoye begalo (the animal (neuter) ran)
- Кошки бегали koshki begali (the cats (female.pl.) ran)
- Коты бегали koty begali (the cats (male.pl.) ran)
This may seem weird at first, but it’s only four endings for all the tense. And all plural actors in the past have the same ending, which makes things even easier.
What About Moving?
Aside from noun conjugations, the other great effort in learning Russian are the verbs of motions.
A verb of motion is something like ‘run’ ‘swim’ ‘go’ or ‘fly’.
The big difference with Russian verbs of motion is that you have to describe the entire action. That means if you walk somewhere and if you walk somewhere and come back, you have two different verbs.
As a result, Russian has no word for ‘go.’ Instead, you have to specify whether it’s going one time or going and coming back.
- Я иду в школу ‘I’m going to school’ (singular action/right now)
- ya idu v shkolu
- Я хожу в школу ‘I go to school’ (regularly/going and coming back)
- Ya khozhu v shkolu
To be honest, Russian verbs of motion can be really tough. They’re just not as hard as they look at first glance.
As with most of Russian grammar, the best way to learn verbs of motion is through context. It’s easier to learn the phrase идёт дождь (idyot dozhd’) “it’s raining” then to think about the fact that rain can only go one way.
What’s Easy About Russian
Now that you’ve learned what’s so hard about Russian, it’s time to go over what’s actually pretty easy. People don’t often mention the simpler aspects of the language, but we’ll explain some of them here.
You Already Know Plenty Of Russian Words
The language definitely creates a lot of it’s vocabulary from Slavic roots, but Russian also borrows a lot of words.
In particular Russian borrows a lot of words from French, Latin and Greek. The thing is English borrows a lot of these same words from those same source languages.
The good news here is that when you get to more specific and technical vocabulary, you already know a huge swath of Russian vocabulary.
This list of Russian cognates is very, very long, but here are just a few examples.
- Авиация aviatsiya (aviation)
- Биология biologiya (biology)
- Журналист zhurnalíst (journalist)
- Музыка múzyka (music)
- Океан okeán (ocean)
- Парашют parashút (parachute)
- Студент studént (student)
- Фильм fíl’m (film)
- Центр tséntr (centre)
- Шоколад shokolád (chocolate)
We’ve covered a lot of ground here and you might still be thinking that Russian is too tough to take on. So let’s talk about what’s easy about the language.
The Russian Tense System Is Slim
You may not realize it, but English has a lot of tenses. In school, we’re often taught there is only past, present, and future, but there’s a lot of different between
- FUT I will dance – I’m going to dance
- PRE I’m dancing – I dance
- PAST I danced – I had danced – I’ve danced
In Russian on the other hand, there really are only three tenses – Past, Present, and Future. That means you only have to learn three ways to use a verb! And as we saw, past tense isn’t that tough.
And while tense may be easy, some grammar is even simpler. In English, we use articles like a/an and the to make a distinction.
- I saw a cat
- I saw the cat
In Russian, however, you don’t have to worry about articles at all since it doesn’t have any!
The Joys of Consistent Grammar
Overall, Russian grammar is pretty consistent. Once you know how to use one noun case or verb form, you know how to use it for most others.
Russian verb conjugations are really predictable. If you see a verb that ends with -шь (-sh’) then you know immediately that it’s the second person singular. And as we saw before, once you see -ла (la) you know that it’s the past tense. So if you can learn a few verb endings, you can conjugate in no time!
Is Russian Hard To Learn? Taking the First Steps to Learn Russian
So is Russian hard to learn? Well, no language is ‘easy to learn.’ Each one comes with its own difficulties and challenges. And actually learning any language is a commitment and you won’t gain fluency in a month.
Now you have a clearer idea of what learning Russian really entails. You’ll have to learn a pretty easy alphabet and learn a lot of new words. At the same time, you’ll be able to put words together rather quickly
However, if you’re read all this and found yourself more interested in starting the process of learning one of the world’s richest and most expressive languages.
So if you’re ready to start learning Russian for really, then I’ll just say:
Удача из удач (udacha iz udach)
which means ‘best of luck.’