The dreaded Russian language, with its complicated alphabet and impossible-sounding pronunciation, has long had a reputation of being an incredibly complex language to learn. Yet, over 250 million manage to learn it as babies and speak it as a native language. So, what’s their secret? Is Russian somehow in their blood? Or is it still possible to wrap your head around this mystical language and become fluent even as an adult?
In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at how easy or difficult it might be to become more-or-less fluent in Russian.
Let’s start by taking a look at the bare basics of Russian.
A Quick Introduction to Russian
Russian is one of the three members of East Slavic languages (the others being Belarusian and Ukrainian). It’s spoken as an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and is also common throughout the former Eastern Bloc. With over 140 million native speakers, it’s also the biggest language in Europe.
What most obviously sets it apart from other European languages, is the fact that Russian does not use the Latin alphabet. Instead, the Russian alphabet in the Cyrillic script is used. This, combined with the existence of “soft” and “hard” sounds has given Russian the infamy as being a very difficult language. Indeed, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) classifies Russian as a Category IV language and estimates it would take an English-speaker around 1,100 hours to learn.
But, before we give up even before trying, let’s see if this reputation is earned.
Don’t Believe in Estimates, Focus on Your Goals
Let’s start by disagreeing with the FSI. They get it wrong on so many levels. Yes, Russian might have a different alphabet and, as they put it, “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” but that’s not necessarily what makes a language difficult. What makes a language difficult is a wrong approach to learning it and a lack of motivation.
Don’t get me wrong – obviously, it will be easier for a German speaker to learn Dutch, or a Portuguese speaker to learn Spanish since these languages already have quite a few aspects in common. But don’t let that deter you. In the right environment and with the right technique, anybody can learn any language.
And Russian is no different. Despite the complicated-looking alphabet, there are aspects of the language that can be a lot easier to grasp than English. Let’s focus on a few factors that make Russian simple.
The Russian Alphabet Is Phonetic
Unlike English, which can have near-impossible pronunciation rules (or lack thereof), Russian is pronounced exactly how it is written. Even if the writing happens in a different script. So, the dreaded Russian alphabet is not as complicated as it first looks.
You can first take a calming breath, and then see that the Russian alphabet already has quite a few letters that you are familiar with. О, К, and А, to name a few, will be exactly the same as they are in English. There are other letters that look the same as English ones but have different sounds – for example, В, Н, and У. In all honesty, that does still leave you quite a bit to learn. But it’s still an alphabet. And, even better, it’s a phonetic alphabet – once you’ve learned the new letters, you will know exactly how each is pronounced in every word they appear in.
There are still, of course, foreign looking letters in the alphabet and sounds that English-speakers need to get used to (Ж, Ц, Ч, Ш, and Щ) but all of that is not nearly as scary as it first looks.
Clear Rules Make Learning Russian Easy
Additionally, Russian has a refreshingly simple and rigid system of rules. Once you get your head around them, Russian rules apply to almost all instances. Compare that to German, for example, where every rule can have almost as many exceptions.
Let’s take the example of genders in Russian words. Like in French, Spanish, and German, each noun has a gender – either feminine, masculine, or neutral, in this case. But, unlike in the other languages, in Russian it is very simple to determine the right gender for most given words – you just have to look at the last letter of any word. Creating plurals is also very rule-based and simple to learn.
Again, this doesn’t mean that learning all of these different grammar rules will be a walk in the park but, at least once you’ve learned them, they will actually help you (unlike some “helpful” rules in English, for example).
Grammatical Cases Can Be Confusing but Helpful
Another reason why Russian is often described as very difficult is the existence of grammatical cases in the language. This usually frightens a lot of English-speakers simply because English has mostly lost its cases. And sure, if you’ve never had contact with grammatical cases before, they can be a bit daunting. But luckily Russian doesn’t even use that many cases – there’s only six, compared to 15 in Finnish and 18 in Hungarian.
While English mostly uses prepositions to fill the role of a grammatical case, in Russian you would change the end of the noun depending on its role in the sentence.
Although this can be confusing at first, once you’ve learned how to use cases, you will realise it’s actually a great way to quickly grasp what is being said. Cases quickly reveal what the relationship between the noun and the verb is. Much unlike prepositions which can, in longer sentences, become rather clumsy and awkward to use.
The Verdict – Russian Is Challenging but Learnable
Although there are quite a few aspects to learning Russian that English speakers are simply not accustomed to – like the new alphabet, grammatical cases, and gendered words – with the right attitude and motivation, it is as simple of a language as any other to learn.
While Russian might not be so closely related to English as German or Dutch, meaning there are a few more challenges to get over, it is not what you’re learning, but how you’re learning it, that’s important. The cold, hard fact is that your approach to learning will almost definitely be the biggest determinator of your success or failure. You can choose to focus on the difficulties that Russian presents (let’s be honest, there are a couple) or, alternatively, break the task down into smaller bite-size chunks and make learning fun and easy for yourself.