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10 Reasons Why The Russian Language Isn’t That Difficult


Today I’m going to convince you that Russian is actually far easier to learn than you’ve been led to believe.

It’s not (or at least doesn’t have to be) a near-impossible undertaking.

A year or so ago I moved to a small town in Russia and lived immersed in the language having learned almost nothing before arriving.

I kept hearing about how difficult Russian is to learn up until that point but my experience there said something very different.

Within 5 months I was communicating comfortably in Russian, befriending many new people and lived for several more months in Italy with my new Russian girlfriend at the time (who could only speak Russian).

And just a few months ago I was able to use Russian extensively during my stay in Georgia.

Russian is no more challenging than any other language I’ve attempted.

The truth is:

Wrong learning approaches make easy tasks unnecessarily challenging.

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The Foreign Service Institute (FSI for short) places Russian into one its highest categories in terms of its relative difficulty for native English speakers (in other words one of the most challenging major languages).

But as I said regarding Arabic a while back, the FSI gets it wrong and the difficulty level primarily depends on the way the language is approached.

It’s also dependant upon your attitude!

Keep convincing yourself that Russian is insanely difficult and it will be insanely difficult.

So let’s get started on why Russian’s easier than you think.

NOTE: Before I go any further, make sure to sign up with your email at the bottom of this post and select Russian for more Russian content delivered straight to your inbox.

 

Reason 1: The alphabet is actually very easy to learn

Let’s start with the most obvious one.

The strange letters.

To the unititiated, Russian looks pretty intimidating yet also oddly familiar.

You see a bunch of letters that look just like regular old English letters (plus tweaked or inverted English letters) but in actual fact many of them represent something completely different.

H isn’t a H and P isn’t a P. 🙂

Cyrillic is very similar to (and mostly derived from) Greek which shares a common origin with our own alphabet. Just as I mentioned in my Semitic languages article, all these languages originally came from Phoenician, so even today you can see very close resemblances in many letters.

As a general rule, of all the letters in the Russian alphabet these are the ones that you should not have any trouble with:

Аа

Бб

Дд (almost looks like a capital ‘D’ with two feet)

Ее

Зз (looks like the cursive ‘Z’ in English (assuming you learned cursive in school that is))

Кк

Мм

Оо

Сс (‘S’ sound in Russian. Sometimes the letter ‘C’ is pronounced the same way in English)

Тт

These are the letters that you should be able to identify almost immediately and not have to worry about when learning Russian.

That leaves us with another 23 letters to learn.

If you studied math in high school (or Greek by chance), you won’t have too much trouble identifying these either:

Гг (the Greek letter gamma (‘G’ sound))

Пп (pi. Who doesn’t know pi? (‘P’ sound))

Фф (phi. (‘F’ sound)

Лл (very closely resembles the Greek ‘L’ lambda)

These symbols are universally recognizable.

So there are 19 unusual letters remaining for native English speakers.

Here’s where a bit of creativity with memory hooks and image association come in handy helping you to remember them.

These are some of the little hooks I used to remember these letters when I was learning. Associate sounds and text with your own images and hooks that help you remember:

Image association examples:

Чч looks like an upside down CHair (‘CH’ sound).

Жж looks like two top and two bottom teeth touching together just like they almost do when you pronounce it (‘ZH’ sound).

Memory hook examples:

Little b (Бб) = actually B.

Big b (Вв), actually V.

Ya, that R is backward.” (Яя)

Уу is a ‘U’ sound. The letter ‘U’ is pronounced ‘Yu’.

Be creative about it.

The trickiest two letters of all for English speakers learning Russian are technically not even real letters. They’re two signifiers/markers:

Ъъ – hard sign

Ьь – soft sign

They don’t make any sound on their own.

All they do is signify whether or not the consonant before them is pronounced soft or hard (palatalized or not).

The temptation at this point is to say ‘what the?’ and feel overwhelmed but I’m going to make a really important suggestion here (I’m sure a lot of Russian vets and teachers will argue with me here):

Ignore them until you’re past the beginner stage.

Just focus on listening and repeating.

As long as your learning material comes with clear audio so you can hear exactly how words are pronounced then that’s all you need to focus on. Trying to make sense of written explanations on pronunciation mechanics will confuse you and waste time better spent practicing what you hear.

Over time and with use, you’ll develop an ear for the differences and the hard and soft markers will make sense.

See my next point.

 

Reason 2: Russian pronunciation only becomes difficult when textbooks overcomplicate it

For goodness sake, learn pronunciation by imitation of what you hear (applies to every language).

Not by reading instructions!

When I first attempted (and failed) Russian many years ago, I made the common mistake of trying to learn pronunciation by following pronunciation guides.

Reading how to speak properly (eye roll).

You need to be able to hear (and imitate) language.

Most textbooks start with a lot of technical blather about things like ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’ consonants. For example:

мат is pronounced as you would expect it to in English (mat).

мать has a signifier on the end of it which means it’s a little different (more like matye).

But explaining the process behind this just overwhelms people and is utterly meaningless to the average learner.

Yes, when reading Russian you’ll need to be aware of them (because they’re used a lot) but unless you’re a linguist studying Russian phonetics then you simply do not need to try to get your head around phonetic technicalities.

Remember: Phonetic changes happen in every language including English.

They’re a natural phenomenon.

The only difference is that Russians actually point out certain phonetic changes by including ь or ъ in writing. Russian is no more difficult to pronounce than any other language.

I’m convinced that if people would spend more time just listening to native speaker dialogue and repeating what they hear, there’d be so much less confusion!

Other common areas of trouble for English speaking Russian learners are Ы (which is just basically a combination of U+I) and Р (rolled ‘R’).

I offer the same advice that I would to people who struggle with guttural sounds in Arabic:

The more you do it, the better you get at it (aka practice!).

By the way, if you get pronunciation wrong in the beginning then people aren’t going to crucify you for it.

For the first month or so in Russia, I was pronouncing вы as vee instead of vui.

People understood me just fine.

After lots of usage, it improved and now I say it the right way.

So keep at it.

 

Reason 3: Russians EXPECT you to speak Russian and rarely if ever resort to English in Russia

This is an amazingly good thing.

The problem with a lot of overseas language immersion these days is that so many people already speak English and will try to accommodate you as a visitor.

It’s good for tourists who aren’t learning the language but bad for language learners.

One thing I found out very quickly in Russia however is that their society generally expects you as an outsider to assimilate and learn Russian. Finding people outside of the tourist spots in Moscow who speak English by default is an almost impossible mission.

You need Russian to get by.

For this reason, when I first moved to a smaller town I had no choice but to learn Russian quickly to live there.

It was essential.

The few times I was out and asked people “Do you speak English?” actually got me some very unappreciative stares so I learned fast that if I needed things done, it was Russian or nothing.

This ‘deep end immersion’ factor makes learning Russian a heck of a lot easier than many other languages.

 

Reason 4: There’s an abundance of cognate words in Russian

Russian actually has more English cognates than most other languages outside Europe.

These are words that look/sound very similar and have the same meaning.

Here are just a few common examples:

центр (tsenter) – center

студент (student) – student

класс (klas) – class

иде́я (ideya) – idea

проект (prayekt) – project

но́мер (nomer) – number

фильм (film) – film

ю́мор (yumor) – humor

сестра́ (sestra) + брат (brat) – sister + brother

вода́ (voda) – water

Of course there are some false friends too (words that appear to be cognates but have different (or related) meanings).

For example:

костюм (kostyum) – suit

магазин (magazin) – shop

фабрика (fabrika) – factory

Cognates can give you a huge leg-up when learning another language and thankfully Russian has many of them.

 

Reason 5: Long words aren’t tough if you see them as just compounded words and syllables

This goes with my other pronunciation point.

Russian, like German, has some really long words (including compounds) that look impossible to pronounce at first glance.

But they’re simple if you just carve them up into smaller pieces. For example:

Здравствуйте = hello/greeting

Obviously this is the first word that most people learn since it’s the most common greeting. It also feels like a tongue twister to a newbie.

But if you break it into two halves like so:

вуйте

Здравст

It’s a lot easier to say the two smaller pieces.

Practice the smaller pieces over and over until you’ve got it and then say them together.

This is especially helpful when adjusting to the consonant clusters (words with 3 or 4 consonants all together – e.g. Здр+авствуйте).

 

Reason 6: There’s no shortage of excellent Russian learning material

Thankfully there’s plenty of great Russian material to learn from – both free and paid.

Free sites like Russian For Everyone, RussianLessons.net and Master Russian have been really helpful to me when I’ve needed clarity on certain points.

RT.com also has handy section for starting on Russian.

There are two YouTube channels I love – incidentally both called Easy Russian (here and here).

As always, italki is the place to go for Skype Russian lessons. It’s incredibly cheap and the closest thing to actually being in Russia.

Rocket Russian is the best paid online course for learning the language. The natural dialogues and speech recognition are its strongest features.

When I was in Russia, I used Glossika’s Russian course and Rapid Russian MP3’s every morning. I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful both of these paid resources were for helping me pick up Russian quickly.

There are plenty of great books on Russian out there but two I’ll mention that I’ve found helpful are Shaum’s Russian Grammar (as a clear reference book) and The Everything Learning Russian Book (a simple, not-too-dense course book).

If you’ve got other suggestions for resources you’ve used, please share them in the comment section below.

 

Reason 7: See noun cases as a blessing rather than a curse

Noun cases are probably the most-complained-about aspect of learning Russian.

They’re certainly not unique to Russian but among English speaking learners it seems to be the area that causes the most confusion.

This is because in English, we don’t clearly indicate noun cases by affixing anything to the noun. For example:

“This book is good.” – nominative

“I read the book.” – accusative

“The book’s cover.” – genitive

“On the book.” – prepositional

“With a book.” – instrumental

“I gave the book a review.” dative

In each one of these sentences, ‘book’ takes on a very different role. We write it exactly the same way in each instance even though it’s not the same.

In Russian, it’s different.

‘Book’ has different endings based on the role it plays in each sentence (and different again for plural forms):

книг-а

книг-у

книг-и

книг-е

книг-ой

книг-е

As I often say, if you approach this with a traditional, grammar-first learning style, it will be immensely challenging.

And tedious as hell.

But I’ll give you another way to look at it.

Firstly, if you look back at the English examples above you’ll see that in most of them the noun case is actually indicated by a word or ‘s’ suffix.

E.g. “The book’s cover/The cover of the book.”

We know that ‘book’ is genitive here because we see ‘s’ or the word ‘of’.

So start to think of it like this: bookof

Likewise for the other cases: bookis, bookwith, bookon, etc.

That’s basically what’s happening with Russian noun case suffixes. For English, we use a separate word altogether but in Russian it’s a suffix. You only think it’s completely foreign to English but it’s not.

Noun cases are also blessings in disguise.

I’ve had many different situations where I’m conversing with Russians and I don’t fully understand what’s being said but the noun case gives away the meaning and context.

Hearing the case ending helps me figure out what’s being said.

It’s also immensely helpful in this regard when the noun is the first word in the sentence which kind of preps you for what’s coming (e.g. if you hear книг-у first then you know that whatever’s coming next involves something being done to a book).

Most importantly:

Freely and unashamedly use the wrong cases.

If you shut up because you’re afraid or unable to use the correct noun cases then you’re doing yourself a huge disservice.

You need to make tonnes of mistakes and not be shy about it.

Even if you only know the nominative case then I advise you to use it in every possible context you can as often as you can.

I did this constantly in Russia and over time I began to adjust and use the correct cases naturally (either (a) because I was corrected often or (b) because I was exposed repeatedly to correct forms in conversation). I’m still far from perfect but so much better through frequent use.

But you won’t be exposed to correct forms in conversation if you don’t actually put yourself there to begin with!

 

Reason 8: Learn verbs of motion individually AND contextually and they’re easy

When I first started, I was pulling my hair out over Russian verbs of motion.

But that’s because I approached them the wrong way (and textbooks overcomplicated them).

Take the verb ‘to go’ for instance which technically doesn’t exist in Russian the same way we understand it in English.

Russian verbs of motion imply the ‘method’ or ‘kind’ of movement (e.g. going on foot, flying, going by some form of transport, climbing, etc.).

The two most confusing are (were for me) ‘to go on foot’ (Ходить/Идти) and ‘to go by transport’ (Ездить/Ехать).

There’s an indefinite/multidirectional form (Ходить/Ездить) and a definite/unidirectional form (Идти/Ехать) of both.

That means that for verbs of motion, there are 2 separate sets of conjugation rules you need to memorize just to be able to communicate correctly (since ‘to go’ is one of the most foundational verbs in any language).

Sounds confusing as hell, right?

Well it is if you try to learn it this way!

But let’s look at it the simple way:

Suppose instead that you’re dealing with two separate words and instead of memorizing two conjugation tables and struggling to remember which one to use, you learn the verbs in contextual chunks.

So instead of seeing Ходить and Идти as two forms of the same word, see them as two completely distinct words and only as they relate to real situations.

Practice and apply them in context so they stick and become real-world applicable.

For example:

Я иду в школу

I’m walking to (definitively) the school (i.e. right now).

Я хожу в школу

I walk to the school (e.g. often, every day).

Instead of trying to get your head around an entire set of conjugation rules and when to use them, take one or two simple real-world applications like this and use them constantly until they become habit.

One other note on verb prefixes:

Russian attaches prefixes to verbs to indicate direction of motion. For example:

выходить = вы+ходить (to go out)

приходить = при+ходить (to come/arrive)

This is actually incredibly easy if you treat prefixes as if they’re individual words just like we do in English.

For example, in English we say “go around”, “go out, “go across”, etc.

Just think of Russian like this: “aroundgo”, “outgo”, “acrossgo”.

Simple.

 

Reason 9: There are many features of Russian that are comparatively very easy compared to other languages

There are many other features of the Russian language that make life easy for new learners.

Here are just a few in no particular order:

  • Word order is flexible. Although sentences usually follow the S-V-O structure, they make perfect sense in other orders too.
  • You don’t have to worry about the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense. You are beautiful is simply you beautiful.
  • Questions are formed by simply changing the intonation of regular statements (e.g. Мы смотрим телевизор -> Мы смотрим телевизор?). Easy!
  • To make verbs, nouns and adjectives negative you simply say не before it.
  • There are no definite or indefinite articles in Russian! (a/an, the)

Instead of talking about all the ‘difficult‘ aspects of Russian grammar, focus on what’s actually easy compared to other languages.

This will positively affect your attitude and attitude is everything in language learning! 🙂

 

Reason 10: Russians are some of the most enthusiastic people when it comes to sharing their language and culture

Russians are fiercely proud of their culture and language.

love this about them.

I’ve found that the reception I’ve received from people when they see I’m trying to assimilate and learn their language is extremely positive and encouraging.

People want to help you succeed.

Getting back to one of my original points up top about Russians not resorting to English: my experience with Russian (which differed greatly in comparison to places like Korea and Egypt) showed me that for Russians, the world does not revolve around the Anglosphere.

In many parts of the non-English speaking world, people strive to learn English not just for career but so that they can adapt to us.

Being in Russia really feels like being in another world or dimension at times – one where English dominance never existed.

Granted, I’m sure that this is largely a result of politics and the Soviet Union being isolationist for so long but in terms of language immersion, it’s a really refreshing thing to experience.

Almost everywhere you go, you need to adapt to them.

As I’ve said before, ordinary Russian people are so warm and hospitable, especially when they see how much you respect and appreciate their language and culture.

 

Comments

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  1. “I bought a new bookmark for my book.” – dative

    I’ve been learning russian for years and I can’t see any dative.
    If you say “I bought you a book”, book would be dative. (тебе)

    1. NO!
      i bough you a book,
      you – тебе (dative) – to who? whom? i boought a book fro who?
      a book – книгУ – what did i buy – a book (object->accusative)
      there are 2 cases in this sentence

  2. And now, Mr. Everything-is-Easy, tell me the verb победить in future tense 1st person singular, and the verb пылесосить in 1st person singular present tense.
    (Tongue-in-cheek, of course)

    1. The two words you pointed are extremes. And пылесосить is somewhat artificial. It is possible to say ПОБЕДЮ, though it is not a common use. Usually when it comes to the verb ПОБЕДИТЬ for 1st person future, Russian people use more complex word combination or specified synonims like “I will beat him (я его побью), or I shall defeat him (я его разобью) or I shall win (я выиграю).
      “Пылесосить”-is a relatively new word, derived from the noun “пылесос” (a vacuum cleaner), which means “a dust in-sucker”. The verb in 1st person presnt & future is as “пылесошу” and “пропылесошу”.
      Yet, I agree, it sounds funny and almost as awkward, as “to vacuumeclean”.

  3. (this comment is made only to receive follow-up comments in the inbox. it can be disregarded, unlike the previous one)

  4. “E.g. “Tony’s book/The book of Tony’s.”

    We know that ‘book’ is genitive here because we see ‘s’ or the word ‘of’.”

    Did you make a deliberate mistake here :)? Tony should be in the genitive, and not the book.

    1. Oops not deliberate. Well spotted!

      Fixed it with a hopefully better example 🙂

    2. genetive is always used after the phrаse “not to have smth” (i, you,we. they don’t; he,she doesn’t have smth) – I don’t have a book – У меня нет книгИ (книги -genetive); I don’t have your book – У меня нет твоей книгИ (книги – genetive)

  5. It’s great that you could move to Russia and immerse yourself – that’s the best way to go. But many don’t have that luxury, and can’t get more than 3 to 5 hours a week in a traditional classroom. When your exposure is limited, I do think some grammar can be helpful as a shortcut.

    I love the idea of listening before worrying about spelling. When I started Irish a few years ago I was intimidated by the spelling, so I listened intensively for a month before I allowed myself to look at the book; so instead of asking “How on earth do you pronounce [impossibly long Irish word]?” it was “Ah, so that’s how you spell [word I was perfectly comfortable saying].” So it makes sense that would work with Russian too.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Curt. Looks like you have a handy YouTube channel too!

      You’re right that overseas immersion is a luxury that not everyone can afford but just so everyone knows, I was actually working in Russia too – long hours – so I still had to “find time” for language learning in a sense.

      Irish was/is the same for me. If you learn how to say something before actually learning to read it, learning to read it is actually much faster and easier later on. With the soft and hard letters in Russian, I started by skimming over them and just focusing on the audio until much later.

  6. This is such an interesting post because it shows how we think about Russian in such different ways. Honestly, I found a lot of your logic very different and even confusing from the way I think about it. You’re not wrong, of course, as I know you definitely speak Russian! I think we learn in completely different ways, though.

    Case in point: to learn the alphabet, I just brute-force memorized it. What I mean is that I went over it again and again until I knew it. Then I asked my professor to explain мягкий знак and твердый знак to me. Same with cases: I did a bunch of declension exercises until I developed an intuitive feel for it and then practiced speaking with people.

    These differences don’t matter, though, because I think we both can agree on one thing. Русский язык – самый лучший язык в мире!!! 😉

  7. Donovan,
    You make some excellent points as always. I am sure it is much easier to learn Russian than languages with insane writing systems that are completely foreign like Chinese or Japanese or languages without available materials.
    I take some issue with the Case system and other various endings being “easy ” but they are not un-learnable. I still find it a struggle to get the right ending all the time but since I started using it rather than reading about it is getting better.
    On the immersion aspect, when I met my wife she could hardly speak any English at all but had studied English quite a bit and could read. Within six months of living here she became nearly fluent. It wasn’t like we drilled all the time. That would seem to be difficult to duplicate without being in the country. Not that it can’t be done. When I ask her how she got so good so fast, while after four years of studying Russian hard she says there are two reasons: 1) She is here and must learn it and everything she sees is in English and 2) She practices speaking all the time.

  8. Best resource I’ve see other than Glossika which I am now using is Modern Russian which you can buy the books on Amazon cheaply. I got for a couple of bucks. It is like the FSI courses. Tons and tons of drills. What makes it good is the numerous hours of recordings which you can get free here:

    http://www.iu.edu/~celtie/russian_b09.html

    Extremely thorough.

  9. Just starting with learning the Russian language. I find this article very helpful, thank you!

  10. So…

    A guy lives in Russia then says its not as difficult as may seem. Did we all forget immersion is the #1 and will always be the #1 way to learn a language the fastest!?

    A guy also says in a tip that certain books over complicate things… How many tips or reasons did you list?
    What is the average number of things can a person can hold in there mind again…? What about NEW things…? Even lower!

    This is just a cleverly veiled advertisement in which the writer gets $$$ back from linkage.

    And you said Russian isn’t as difficult as think… Regardless of needing to put in more time and effort learning it than most other languages.

    For shame.

    1. Did you read some comments up? Donovan said that he was working full time while living in Russia, and from what I have understood is that he was not working in Russian per se so he still had to put in hours to learn the language.

      I live in Spain now, but learned Spanish despite living in Spain. In fact, at one point I was living in Spain for a year and decided to go back to the Netherlands to finish my degree and get a better focus on learning Spanish. In that year prior to moving back I had mostly learned bad grammar, bad pronunciation and my vocabulary was not impressive at all. When I was away from the “immersion” (if you want, you can always live in your own little bubble and get little exposure to your target language), I was forced to put in some serious work and only then really learned Spanish.

      Please stop promoting the immersion myth, someone can perfectly learn another language without living in the country where it’s spoken.

  11. Another way to approach cases (in combination with gender and number) is to remember that personal pronouns in English inflect for case, gender and number. (he, him, his) / she, her, her(s) / they, them, their, their. I know the number of cases in English is not extensive but it helps.

    It helped me (native Afrikaans speaker, similar vestigal cases as English) when I learned German (case wise, somewhat remiscient of Russian). Sadly I don’t know Russian yet, but I’m inspired. Great article.

  12. Thank you for writing this post. It is really encouraging 🙂 Your pronunciation advice has helped me a lot. I feel as though you simplified it. I really hope you will write more guides for Russian. It has given me hope 🙂 I hope you have a nice day.

  13. Spanish is well known to be the easiest language to learn in the world !

    You can compare learning Russian with Spanish !!!

  14. “The hardest language?” In my opinion whoever said that never tried to learn other languages like Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. The Cyrillic alphabet is one of the easiest to learn, there are many cognates, only three tenses to memorize (past, present and future), no articles whatsoever, and no present tense of the verb “to be”.

    Sure, it’s still hard to learn because of the cases, the verb aspects, and all those words that seem made up of way too many consonants, but it’s by no means the hardest.

  15. Absolutely fascinating! I loved my short exposure via Michel Thomas, and this article just encourages me further. Bring on that St Petersberg visit 🙂

  16. Man…. People are rude! A guy gives his insight into learning Russian and takes a beating. I mastered Spanish at home with at least 50 trips to South America. I must say that immersion is definitely overrated. It’s time, time and time studying. I’ve been studying Russian for about six months and I can’t think of many words I know! Lingvist says I know 600 and I’m about half way done with duolingo. I just ignore cases for now but both apps are feeding it to me.

  17. love this article. these are the things every beginner russian student (native english speaking) should be introduced to, to make the process easier…

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