The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

3 Challenging Features Of The Russian Language And How To Overcome Them


Today’s guest post comes from Toni, who’s a 21 year old language lover and student.

She speaks varying levels of Spanish, French, Russian, and Arabic. Toni loves to travel and share her language learning tips and experiences over at the blog Live Fluent.

Over to you, Toni. 🙂


In my experience, Russian speakers think their language is one of the hardest on Earth and many non-Russian speakers agree.

In reality, it’s a mixed bag.

Learning Russian isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s also not impossible.

There are aspects of Russian that are difficult, especially for English speakers, but there are also others languages with even harder ones. For example, Russian has six cases but Finnish and Hungarian have 15 and 18 respectively.

Russian at least uses letters that are for the most part familiar to English speakers. Other languages like Arabic and Hebrew have totally different alphabet systems.

Some Asian languages don’t even have letters!

They use thousands of characters that can be difficult to memorize.

What I’m trying to get at is that everything is relative. There are some people that consider Russian a piece of cake, and in some ways it is compared to other languages.

This article will identify three tough features of the Russian language and give you tips for mastering them.

If you’re not discouraged, read on!

 

1) How to learn the Russian case system

The case system is a grammatical feature of certain languages that tells us what role a noun plays in a sentence.

In Russian, case endings are single or multiple letter combinations added to the end of word that change the word’s function.

Some languages (including English and Romance languages) require words to be in a certain sequence in order for sentences to make sense.

With the case system, however, the order in which words appear doesn’t matter as much.

The case endings give meaning to the sentence.

Fun fact: English actually used to a have a case system, but it has mostly disappeared over the centuries. There are a few remnants, however.

When you say: I called him instead of I called he, that’s a leftover from when English had cases.

Without going into too much detail, here’s a quick rundown of the cases:

Nominative – this is how nouns appear in the dictionary; subject of the sentence

Genitive – Used to show possession or negation

Dative – Used for indirect objects

Accusative – Used for direct objects

Prepositional – Tells you where an action took place

Instrumental – Tells you the means by which an action takes place

What makes learning Russian cases a challenge is that there are six of them.

Each case ending is affected by the noun’s gender and number (plus various spelling rules). This means that every noun has a variety of possible endings.

Learning the cases is crucial because without them, your sentences will be incomprehensible. Using the wrong cases in Russian is like throwing English words in a random order.

Focus on one case at a time

Choose one case (many people like to start with nominative) and practice writing out sentences that that use it.

Studies have shown that reading aloud improves your retention for new material. Make the most out of your study time by practicing your speaking and reading skills at the same time.

You can make your own physical flashcards or use a spaced-repetition system like Anki.

Spaced-repetition is a more efficient way to memorize concepts long-term.

For an extra challenge, try having a conversation with a native speaker only using one case at a time.

Learn phrases instead of rules

One thing that discourages people from getting far in a new language is having to memorize a bunch of rules.

It’s not fun and it’s often inefficient.

You’ll get more out of learning whole phrases that are useful to you. You need to strike your own balance. If you hope to one day read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in the original Russian, phrases like “Can I have coffee please?” aren’t going to help you.

Conversely, if you’re learning Russian to one day visit Moscow and St. Petersburg, learning how to order food/drinks in restaurants is very important.

Tailor your learning to what you think is necessary.

Another upside to learning phrases is that by working in reverse, you’ll be able to pick up on patterns and figure out the rules for yourself.

It’s like starting with a set of answers and arriving at the equations.

 

2) How to remember Russian grammatical gender

I know you’ve heard of gender in everyday life, but what about grammatical gender?

Chances are that if you’re a native English speaker who’s never tried learning a new language, you’ve haven’t considered the fact that words can have gender.

Many languages assign a gender (male or female) to every noun.

Russian nouns can be male, female, or neuter (think of the pronoun “it”). So right off the bat, this offers an additional challenge that learners of French or Spanish for example don’t have to face.

Sometimes grammatical genders make sense and sometimes they don’t.

Of course the word “girl” is a feminine one and the word “boy” is a masculine one, but what about “chair”? Or “tree”? Or “school”?

In English, we would never assign these things a gender, but Russian is very clear: Chairs are male, trees are neuter, and schools are feminine. This might seem silly, but learning the gender of each noun you encounter is crucial.

Remember the first point I made about cases? (Scroll up if you need to.)

Gender affects a word’s ending when you change the case.

If you don’t know a word’s gender, you won’t be able to decline it (aka change the ending so the word makes sense in the context of a sentence.)

Another thing about grammatical gender is that adjectives have to agree with the gender of the noun too. Adjectives can have all three genders (masculine, feminine, or neuter) but once you pair them with a noun, the gender has to match.

The good news is that the rules for determining the gender of nouns in Russian are pretty straightforward.

With a few exceptions, it’s relatively easy to tell the gender of a word by looking at it.

Here are some ways to master this concept.

(Perfect) Practice

One of my coaches used to say: Perfect practice makes perfect.

It’s very common for new language learners to keep on making a basic mistake because no one corrected them on time.

Combat this by practicing with someone who can give you feedback and gently correct your mistakes.

Whether you’re writing or speaking, make sure you’re using a word’s correct gender. Whenever you learn a new word, write down its gender as well.

Spice it Up

Associating each of the three genders with an action word can help cement them in your mind.

For example:

Masculine nouns explode like fireworks

Feminine nouns melt like ice

Neuter nouns shatter like glass

For some people, remembering that a дом/dohm/”house” explodes and that a машина/mashina/”car” melts and that a дерево/dyereva/”tree” shatters is easier than remembering that houses are masculine, cars are feminine, and trees are neuter.

This technique is more helpful with concrete nouns (house, car, tree, etc.) than abstract ones (love, attention, curiosity, etc.)

It might seem silly at first, but assigning an action for each gender can trigger something in your memory (I don’t really know the science behind it) and help you correctly identify a word’s gender.

Every time you learn a new word, try associating it with an action instead of a gender.

You can customize your learning by coming up with your own action words, but if that doesn’t work you can always:

Use Flashcards

When it comes to flashcards, I recommend making and using your own physical ones.

Writing information out by hand has been proven to improve retention. (Bonus points if you color code them!)

When it comes to learning long vocabulary lists, it’s not environmentally responsible to use hundreds of paper cards. Plus, the more cards you make, the harder it is to carry them around and study on the go.

In this case, digital flashcards might be your best bet.

Apps like Quizlet and Memrise make it very easy to find ready-made flashcards, but I still recommend typing up your own, especially if you’re going to use them in conjunction with a spaced-repetition system where you use cues and hints that mean something to you.

Personalizing your own cards can help you internalize material better, but if you’re pressed for time or just don’t feel like typing out your own, then use pre-made ones.

The important part is that you accurately learn the concepts.

 

3) Tips for Russian language pronunciation

So you’ve learned all six cases and can probably identify the gender of each noun you say.

None of that matters if your pronunciation is way off because no one will be able to understand what you’re saying.

There are a few characteristics of Russian that make pronouncing things correctly a bit of a challenge: Sounds, consonant clusters, and the distinction between hard and soft consonants.

Sounds

Russian has some sounds that are very similar to English and others that have no English equivalent.

Russian “r’s” are rolled like in Spanish, so if that’s a sound that’s given you trouble in the past, you might want to brush up by watching a few YouTube tutorials:

 

The Russian letter ы is basically impossible to transliterate and even harder to describe.

The best way I can explain it is as the sound you might make if the wind were lightly knocked out of you. It took me many hours of practice to nail this strange sound.

Here’s a helpful video that breaks down the mechanics behind it:

 

Consonants For Days

Russian also has a tendency to throw a bunch of consonants together with no vowels in sight.

For example, the word вздрогнуть (vzdrognut’) which means to shutter has four consonants in a row before we even get to the first vowel.

This can pose a real challenge for English speakers as our words don’t tend to be a more balanced mix of consonants and vowels.

Fun fact: the longest word in the English language with only one vowel is the word strength.

Hard vs. Soft Letters

The last feature that makes Russian pronunciation more… exciting (if you want to put a positive spin on it) is the distinction between hard and soft sounds.

The most important thing to know about this concept is that the meaning of a word will change depending on how you pronounce hard and soft letters.

For example: the words брат/brat/”brother” and брать/brat’/”to take” look almost identical except the second word has a ь (soft sign) at the end.

In this case, the soft sign at the end tells us that we need to change the position of our tongue in our mouth to soften the letter T.

Find recordings of the Russian alphabet and take note of the ones that you find the most difficult.

There are some solid Youtube channels and websites that walk you through the basics of pronunciation and phonetics in Russian.

Try to study with native speakers as much as possible so you can get feedback on your accent and pronunciation.

You can do this in person through face to face conversations, over Skype, or by recording yourself and sending a native the files.

 

In Short

If you’ve read this far: congratulations on making an informed decision to start learning a new language!

Good for you for seeking some background info before jumping in!

Like my grandma always said: “Work smarter, not harder.”

You can master cases, grammatical gender, and pronunciation by breaking the lessons into manageable portions, figuring out which study methods work for you, and finding support from native speakers.

Let me know if you have any questions or concerns about starting Russian for the first time.

It’s going to be tough, but with the right tools and the right attitude, you’ll get the hang of it!

 

Comments

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  1. I learnt Russian around 10 years ago and use it everyday at my work. In a long run the most difficult task is an accent (udarenie), which falls on different syllabes in the words and sometimes there are more exceptions then rules. Memorizing can be done practically only through intensive practice.

  2. The Russian characters is unusual thing for me, but it is interesting. Though I don’t know where I could use Russian. If you don’t live in Russia, why to learn?

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