Learning Russian? Whether you’re enrolled in a class or using a Russian learning software, this quick guide should give you a good primer about what to expect. Hopefully, it can help you begin your lessons just a little more prepared, cutting down on that learning hurdle you’ll face at the start.
The best way to get a jumpstart in learning a language is to understand how it compares and contrasts to your own. Since we’re assuming you’re a native (or fairly fluent) English speaker, then we’ll use that to detail the more notable qualities that differentiate Russian as a language.
How easy will it be to learn Russian? Well, English and Russian are very different in a lot of important language aspects. As such, it will help for native English speakers to let go of many preconceived notions before undertaking a course in it.
On a difficulty scale, many language learners rate Russian as being somewhere in the middle — not quite as easy for English speakers to learn as Spanish or French, but nowhere near as challenging as Chinese or Arabic. While my exposure to Russian is entry-level at best, I’ve found it an easy language to speak. By speak, though, I mean talk in malformed but somewhat audible sentences. The real challenge, I believe, is being able to form sentences — Russian grammar is a big departure from what you’re used to in English. In terms of sounds and pronunciations, though, it’s quite easy, so you can parrot speakers on YouTube quite capably if you want to get a good feel for the spoken language.
1. Language Family
Russian is part of the Slavonic branch of the Indo-European languages, while English is a Romanic language. While English share a lot in common with languages like Spanish and Italian, Russian is a lot closer to other Slav languages like Polish and Czech.
Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, some letters from which share similarities with the Latin alphabet used in English. Those new characters, though, will likely be the first hurdle when it comes to reading and writing in Russian for second-language learners, so spend ample time learning them.
The phonological systems of Russian and English are very different. It’s why you rarely see Russians (even those who lived in the States for a long time) talk like native English speakers. Why is that? Because Russian only has five vowel sounds, while English has 12. In Russian, there’s also no distinction between short and long vowels; in English, there are five long and seven short vowel sounds, along with eight diphthongs. As a result, native Russian speakers who speak English flawlessly isn’t that common.
The good news for English speakers is, the reverse is true for those of you learning Russian. Because you used to a wider pool of sounds, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to handle most any sound in the target language. The only challenge is resisting to use English sounds that aren’t quite used in Russian — something you’ll probably struggle with in the early stages.
Consonants in Russian and English are roughly the same amount. Their sounds, however, are not fully compatible, so you’ll have to practice on some sounds that aren’t the most familiar to lifelong English speakers.
Just like English, Russian has variable stress patterns, so vowel sounds can change depending on whether a letter is stressed or unstressed, while consonant sounds can change when a letter is either hard or soft. In Russian, you always accentuate one syllable in a word, as opposed to saying everything with the same strength. Also, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to stress, so you’ll have to learn it for each individual word you commit to memory. Look forward to learning and practicing when to make which sound — you’ll need that in order to earn a good grasp of skills in the vernacular.
The biggest grammar difference: Russian and English use the verb system in different ways. In Russian, usage is based on aspect, where actions are either completed or not completed. Aspect is shown by appending affixes to the root verb.
In English, we have progressive and perfect verb tenses, which help avoid the need for using affixes through the extensive use of auxiliary verbs. This is a major sticking point for a lot of language learners, as using the Russian verb system just doesn’t come all that naturally. Chances are, you’ll want to put in a lot of practice time forming sentences in order to master this area specifically.
This same tendency of changing the composition of words is present throughout most of Russian grammar, which makes things a lot more difficult compared to the English standard of merely adding new words to alter meaning. Such is the situation with “cases,” which doesn’t exist in English grammar. In Russian, however, the tail end of nouns and adjectives will always change depending on their function and position in the sentence. Be very wary of this difference (and the one with verbs above) — those two, in particular, lead to the most difficult time constructing proper sentences in Russian.
Gender is another potential sticking point. In Russian, all nouns are either one of three genders. You never refer to anything as an “it” the way we normally do in English. Chances are, you’ll mess this up a lot since there’s no real shortcut to figuring out gender — you’ll have to learn which is which for each noun you memorize individually.
The last big difference is the lack of articles in Russian. There’s a likelihood that you’ll feel very awkward forming sentences without articles in the beginning. You’ll get used to it the more exposure you have to the language, however.
Russian is a phonetic language, making it easy to figure out spelling from pronunciation and vice versa. As long as you have good fundamentals on the different sounds in the language, this should make memorizing vocabulary just a little easier — absolutely no tricks necessary.