You’ve probably heard the news that Russian is a hard language for native English speakers to learn.
Certainly, with Russia having a culture somewhat isolated from (and sadly, often perceived as the enemy of) North American/Western European culture, it’s easy to feel like this slavic language is a world apart from ours.
My philosophy about languages has always included 2 key points: That the hardest language we’re ever going to learn was our first language; And that it makes far more sense – as a language enthusiast, aspiring polyglot, or fan of a particular culture/region, to look for the things that make a language easy to learn!
So let’s take a little closer at Russian, and see what all the fuss is about.
Russian is the 2nd foreign language in my Polyglot Challenge (after French). Spoken by around 260 million people worldwide, this often-overlooked language choice is a great way to open up a wealth of understanding of historical, cultural, and modern-geopolitical events.
Furthermore, it is closely related to many other languages, including Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Czech.
Having Russian under your belt is close to a must for any serious long term traveler, as it opens up basically all the territory of the old Soviet Union, which generally either use Russian as an official language or as a common means of conducting personal and professional affairs.
If you’ve been interested in learning Russian, you’ve probably encountered the opinion that it’s a really difficult language to learn.
At first glance this seems to be the case, as the Russian language includes:
But having actually taken the time to make the Russian language and many of its speakers my friends, I’ve come to realize that, despite all the hype, Russian isn’t nearly as hard or as scary as the naysayers think. And I’ve compiled this list of 6 reasons to show you why:
That is, there are a small handful of exceptions to normal pronunciation rules, but they’re relatively few and easy to pick up. Compare this to the rampant non-logic of the spelling systems used by English or French. Other than that, words are pronounced exactly as they’re written.
It only takes half an hour or so to learn the alphabet, an hour and you can probably understand the pronunciation rules for any word. It’ll take longer to train your muscles to make some of the sounds, but this daunting-looking alphabet is extremely user friendly!
Also, consider this, the English alphabet of 26 letters has to represent over 40 distinct sounds used to form English words (the exact number depends on dialect), with Russian, we’re much closer to a 1 sound – 1 letter relationship.
There are a warehouse full of Latin/Greek/English/German cognates just waiting to be used. This also makes the alphabet that much easier to absorb. Just take a look at these examples:
Modern Russian also uses a lot of verbs taken from English:
I bet you never thought you’d be understanding Russian so fast, right?
Like in English and the Romance languages (as well as may others), any time you have a sequence of verbs, the second and third verbs are always in the infinitive. For those who hate grammar, some examples:
This means that by using the verbs: to want, to go, to need – and occasionally others – at the start of our sentences, we can immediately get new verbs into action without having to memorize their conjugations. (Of course, we should do this eventually, but a fast start breeds confidence and desire to continue!)
This isn’t so much as a trick, but a feature. Russian only has 3 real tenses – past, present, and future – and they’re ridiculously easy to form. The past tense forms are essentially the same for every verb with a small minority of irregular forms (that are also easy to predict/learn).
The future tense is also a cakewalk, by adding the helping verb “will be” a beginner can easily form future constucts.
This is a byproduct of something called “verb aspect” in Russian grammar, which has to do with the state of completion of a given action. Makes for some initial confusion because it’s unfamiliar, but once we get familiar, it’s far less “stuff” than say, Spanish, with a crazy number of tenses and moods that need to be leaned.
All the insane looking grammar tables that most people try to memorize a bunch of rules to, are mostly just sound patterns – with lots of similarities to English. Say the following words out loud:
Russian does the same thing, and the patterns, one again, become predictable once they gain a bit of familiarity. For instance, take the Russian word for “rare” and “more rare” (“rarer”):
редко (red-ko)– реже (re-zhe)
or “to lead” and “I lead”
Водить (Vodit) – Вожу (Vo-zhoo)
One of the reasons I consider language to be a sport of sorts is that body mechanics are just as important as mental gymnastics.
Most people try to learn a language by memorizing rules as if their brains are built for linear computation. I prefer Benny the Irish Polyglot’s approach, which starts from speaking.
By training our speech organs, we will end up making the right sound changes because just like in English, they make things easier to say.
Our words worlda, coulda, gonna, hafta and so on are more examples of this.
If we look at the language as a library of sounds and not a library of mathematical formulae, we’ll find that Russian, and especially the fearsome “case system,” is actually not all that tough, and quite beautiful.
Unlike English, where you can’t change the order of words unless you want to:
In Russian, word order is much more flexible. While we can’t throw any random pile of words together and expect to be understood, we can forget about obligatory abiding to the strict word order of languages like French and English in order to be understood.
This is thanks to the “case system” – which shows us what role each part of a sentence is playing. So the bane of many a Russian-learner make the language easier in another sense, and also allows us to craft our speech with a different (I’d argue) degree of artistry, depending on what we would like to emphasize.
It’s hard to express how useful this really is without getting in there and doing it. But when your brain is searching wildly for vocabulary as you’re trying to explain to your cab driver where you want to go, you’ll be glad he’ll understand you even if the order of the words is – by our standards – “wrong.”
Most Russian learners expect Russian to be difficult. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because when we have this attitude, we will inevitably find reasons for it to be difficult.
Chinese and Arbic have different and unfamiliar writing systems, Thai and Swahili have some incredible sound combinations, Finnish and Polish have noun-cases, Japanese and Hungarian have a Subject-Object-Verb word order.
Each of these languages has millions of speakers, and amazingly, competent native speakers of any language develop at about the same rate – anywhere in the world.
There’s something that is going to be unfamiliar about any foreign language – that doesn’t mean it’s hard or impossible.
If we really want to learn a language, we can’t fight with it. We can’t make it an enemy to overcome.
Instead, it makes much more sense to focus on reasons why we love the language, reasons to continue learning, and reasons that this learning can be easy.
We have to take the pecularities of a given language and learn to love them, to learn to love the way we can express ourselves in a totally new and unforseen way by mastering this aspect of the language.
Russian is no different. It has it’s sticky points, but exactly those things that give Russian it’s flavor – delightful, exotic, enticing. After 3 months of dedicated study, I know Russian well enough to feel confident on my own, communicating out there in the world without a dictionary or translator to help, and my abilities will only continue to improve.
You can do the same. And it all starts with believing you can do it.
And you can. The proof is in the word the words you just read.
That is – the fact that you read them. You already learned the most difficult language you could ever learn: Your first.
Compared to that, Russian will be easy.