How To Learn A Language That Has Really ‘Hard’ Grammar Easily

Learn Russian

Happy Spring time, all :)

It’s been about 8 weeks now since I moved to Russia and started immersing myself in the Russian language.

Despite all the bad news coming out about the whole Russia/Ukraine thing, everything’s fine.

I was actually supposed to go to the Ukraine for my visa renewal this week but obviously that’s not going to happen now. :)

I’m now in Dubai again with my Russian host family for their holiday and after this I’ll probably have to spend some time in Estonia or Latvia for the visa renewal (Russia’s quite strict on visas so it’s a giant hassle!).

Time outside Russia is not ideal for me at all of course because I really don’t want any setbacks on my Russian progress, and being in another country is unfortunately time wasted in my opinion. I’m a little concerned that the current political climate might place delays on me getting my next visa so fingers crossed.

I have some unique language projects planned this year – some of which will work out a lot better if I’m conversationally fluent in Russian so the pressure is on to improve. :)

The good thing is I’ve got plenty of italki credits so it’ll give me a chance to use them all up with Skype lessons while I’m waiting.


Jump in and start to speak without getting bogged down in grammar study

When I first arrived in Russia I couldn’t really communicate in Russian at all.

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been confronted by the need to speak Russian every single day since I arrived here. Even though I could barely communicate when I first got here, I was forced to learn as quickly as possible as pretty much nobody around me speaks any English.

Russian immersionI’ve started making some really special friendships with people entirely through Russian which has also been a great motivator to pick up the pace.

Now… Russian’s one of these languages that has a reputation for having painfully tough grammar.

Ask any experienced learner of the language why people think it’s hard and you’ll no doubt hear about things like verbs of motion, aspects and cases. These things would indeed be very challenging to memorize if you were taking the traditional ‘study grammar first’ approach.

I however do not and my experience and research have proven time and time again that it’s a mistake to start out like this.

As I wrote a while back in my popular and controversial post called ‘You Don’t Need To Study Grammar To Learn To Speak A Foreign Language’, this is absolutely the worst way to tackle any living language.

It’s unnatural, robotic and a real motivation killer for most people.

The problem with most language instruction is the idea that in order to become a fluent speaker of a language, one has to memorise all the rules and exceptions of its grammar first.

We learn languages backwards.

Speaking and using the language takes a back seat until you feel ‘ready’ (which for a lot of people never ends up happening).

It’s then no surprise that many of us studied grammar for years and still can’t speak the language properly or at all.

Learning a language by studying grammar first is like trying to learn how to ride a bike by analysing the mechanics of the cogs, pedals and chain instead of just hopping on the bike and falling off dozens of times until you can ride.

Eventually you’re going to have to fall off the bike anyway so you might as well start early and fail often because it’s the only way you’re going to improve as a speaker.

Being a social risk-taker then is key.


Listen, repeat and use whole phrases and expressions even if you have no clue how they work grammatically.

Use them hundreds – even thousands – of times until they become natural to you.

Take a simple sentence in Russian for example: Ты читaла эту книгу? Did you read this book?

In this tiny sentence there are loads of different grammar points that you could spend weeks or even months trying to learn through traditional study and memorization.

Just for this sentence alone, you’d be studying personal pronouns, verb tenses, gender, demonstratives, number, and cases as well as the vocabulary.

It’s a small but heavily loaded sentence and for most people the grammar study would be an instant motivation killer.

But suppose you just acquire and practise the whole sentence as it is, using it over and over and over again until it becomes habit and sticks.

The key word here is HABIT.

Make that sentence a HABIT that rolls off your tongue automatically.

You might think that by doing so you’ve only learned one sentence and a few words.

You’d be wrong.

By turning that one sentence into an acquired HABIT, you’ve learned an infinite number of sentences of the same structure and as your vocabulary grows you’ll start to naturally and automatically produce new sentences using the same structure without ever thinking about it.

Read what I wrote here and here if you haven’t already where I explained how the Lexical Approach works in more detail.


Rely on natural dialogues

It’s crucial to have good, natural dialogue material.

I’m finding the Assimil book series extremely useful but any good book with quality audio will work.

Another great resource that I’ve recently had the chance to try out is Glossika Spaced Repetition Training. I can only vouch for the Russian version at this stage but I’m truly impressed by what I’ve seen and it’s an excellent resource that I’ve found very useful over the last few weeks.

I’ll share more about my thoughts on this product soon.

Just make sure the sentences you use are spoken at natural speed and don’t use archaic, outdated expressions or overt politeness that you wouldn’t often hear in the real world.

Listen to dialogues in the same way you’d put your favourite song on repeat (again, the Glossika audio files are great for this). Go over it constantly, speak it and find every opportunity to use it.


Even if you only know one conjugated form of a verb or one noun form, use it as often as possible even if you know you’re using it incorrectly.

Some people will crucify me for saying this but…

Intentionally use wrong forms of nouns and verbs.

Deliberately making mistakes is better than not speaking at all.

When we don’t know how to say something correctly, a lot of the time our first instinct is to shy away from using it altogether until we’ve ‘studied it enough’.

My advice is to not be afraid to use the wrong forms of words or to say things incorrectly from the get-go.

If a learner of English said to me, “I to go the shop at tomorrow”, it would make perfect sense to me as a native speaker. Even though it’s grammatically very wrong I understand it and I can then correct the person.

I’ve been doing the same with Russian since I arrived.

There are a lot of Russian verbs for example at the moment that I only know one form of. Saying sentences like, “I to eat now” or “I to call you tomorrow” are grammatically incorrect but speaking like this is far better than shying away from speaking at all and it also means that I’m constantly learning from the corrections of my native speaker friends.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly you improve by not being afraid to make mistakes openly like this.

The feedback I get from native speakers when I do this helps me far more than trying to memorize lists and tables in a book ever would.

You’re also giving yourself a chance to get used to producing the language early on. If you wait until you’re ready to speak (which could take forever), you’re missing out on all that time to get used to producing the sounds of the language.


There’s really no difference between a language with ‘easy’ grammar and a language with ‘hard’ grammar

The reason why I titled this post How To Learn A Language That Has Really ‘Hard’ Grammar Easily is because by taking this approach, the difficulty level of a language’s grammar becomes irrelevant to you.

I’m learning Russian the same way I learned Korean for example which has a much simpler grammar in comparison.

Get to work on acquiring whole lexical chunks, listen to and repeat them constantly, and of course find every opportunity to use them.

Turn real language that you read and listen to into habit and save the grammar study for later on.


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Language Immersion In Russia – First Impressions After 1 Month

Tatarstan Kremlin

Behind me and my new friend there is the Qolşärif mosque at the Kremlin in Kazan. It’s a nice place to visit even when it’s freezing cold. :)


G’day all!

I’ve already been living in Russia for about a month, learning and using Russian every day.

I’m loving it here. :)

I have to say that of all the places I’ve been to and lived around the world, the people I’ve met here so far have been some of the most hospitable and helpful people I’ve ever met.

Russia is already proving to be one of the most rewarding language immersions I’ve ever done.

For all the negative press that Russia often gets (nearly all of which I think is bullshit and undeserved), the reality is that it’s a great place to be with some of the warmest, friendliest people you could possibly meet. Of course, since Russia is a such big place it’s hard to say for sure if what I’ve experienced is true for the whole country or just the region I’m in but I’m sure I’ll find out later when I head north.

It’s been really fascinating getting to know more about the local Turkic people, culture and cuisine here too. You can really see how closely related it is to Turkey with the traditional food and costumes, and I’m noticing the connection in a lot of local words and names to the Turkish language (e.g. the Tatar word for a convenience store is ашамлыклар – лар (-lar) being a plural suffix in Turkish).

I’ve been completely focused on Russian though and as much I’d like to explore the Tatar language, I really want to stay focused on Russian for the time being.


Sink or swim

Some parts of the world really are sink or swim when it comes to learning the local language.

In Korea where I just spent the last year learning the language, you can live very easily without learning much or any Korean at all. Local people will for the most part adjust for and accommodate you as an outsider (I think it’s shameful that English-speaking expats expect this though but it’s true).

I always found that to be a big challenge in Korea because so many people would insist on speaking English even when it was clear that I was trying to learn Korean.

Here you really have no choice but to try your best to communicate in Russian from day one. I’m forced out of my comfort zone every day. The few times I’ve asked people “Вы говорите по-английски?” (“Do you speak English?”) and received that same facial expression of “No and why should I?” have been a welcome challenge to say the least.

As a result, I’ve spoken a heck of a lot more Russian in my first month here than I did in my first month in Korea.


Survival and necessity push us beyond our limits

If you only want to learn a language then you might succeed.

If you need to learn a language then you will succeed.

Over the last 4 weeks I have genuinely needed to use Russian every day.

I work with people who don’t speak English. The friends I hang out with on weekends here don’t speak a word of English (including the one in the picture above). I’ve had to join a gym, get a haircut, buy my first pair of ‘Russian’ Winter boots (it’s a miracle I still have toes), as well as see a doctor (not related to my toes) – all without the luxury of any English.

It’s forced me to learn vocabulary and expressions that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned (at least not for some time).

As an added bonus, working for one of the wealthiest families in Russia means that I’m also constantly surrounded by and interacting with Russian staff – maids, nannies, bodyguards, security, drivers and so on. I’ve had to learn a lot of work-related vocab quickly because none of them speak English and it’s important that we can communicate.

Many times it’s about voluntarily putting yourself in situations that stretch you too.

For example even though there’s a nice, flashy gym down the road that I was initially going to join, I instead decided to join a small, ‘basement-type’ gym where the equipment looks more like something Fred Flintstone would use. I did this primarily because I thought it’d be a better place to meet people.

The Flintstones’ gym has much older equipment (still does what I need it for!) but so far it’s been a great place to meet people because it has a small and cosy atmosphere. :)

Likewise, I could continue doing my job without communicating with my co-workers but it would make my job tougher than it already is not to mention boring so I’ve made it a necessity to be able to speak with them as quickly as possible.


Create need where this is none

I know that many of you who are reading this aren’t doing language immersion abroad so of course you won’t have survival needs but the point of need over want is always applicable even if you’re at home.

Necessity for something is a much stronger motivator to push through than simply having an interest or desire to do it (though this is important too of course).

You can create need by setting yourself short and long term deadlines that require you to reach a certain level in your target language by a certain time (e.g. travel dates, exams, regular meet-ups, etc.).

I find that having weekly private lessons is a great need creator because each week your teacher will expect you to have completed homework and will challenge you on previously learned material (if he or she is a good teacher that is).

You could also create a blog like this one and let your readers keep you accountable which in turn creates a need to keep constantly improving.

Even finding a course that costs quite a bit of money can be a good need creator because nobody likes to fork out lots of money for something and not get their money’s worth – I need to do well at this because it cost me fortune.


No progress update video on my Russian this week

I had a beautiful woman in my bed yesterday.

She was actually a doctor giving me a shot (needle in the backside!) for a really nasty stomach virus I picked up this week.

I was going to put a video together for this post but I’m still bedridden and certainly not camera material at the moment so that will have to wait at least a few more days.

Over the coming weeks I’ll share some great resources with you that I’ve recently sampled for Russian too so keep checking back for that (still open to your suggestions as well).


Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you haven’t already (here).

Do you use Instagram too? Let’s connect there as well (click here).


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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