Most people think Russian is hard to learn.
Maybe it’s because of the weird cyrillic alphabet? Or the Russian pronunciation? Or maybe just because it’s such a mysterious country.
Since I’ve spent the last 5 years learning Russian, I want to show you today that Russian is actually not that hard to learn.
If you believe it’s difficult, it will be difficult.
So let’s find out why Russian isn’t actually that hard to learn.
So is Russian hard to learn?
No, if you’ve got the right resources, and take a good approach, you’ll find that there are plenty of reasons why Russian is actually quite easy to learn.
Let’s start with the first reason.
1) Russian people are happy you’re learning Russian, so it’s easy to stay motivated
When I was in Crimea having lunch, a guy came up to me and said: “Хорошо что ты учишь Русский.” (It’s good that you’re learning Russian).
I smiled and asked “Ага, почему?” (Aha, why?)
Then he replied “Потому, что скоро вся Европа говорит по-русски!” (Because soon whole Europe speaks Russian)
It’s an extreme example of Russian patriotism with a bit of humor.
But it shows a part of a reaction I’ve gotten everywhere.
Russians are genuinely happy when a foreigner is learning their language.
It’s likely because relatively few foreigners are learning Russian. Especially when comparing it to the more popular languages, such as French, German and Spanish.
Why does this help you learn Russian?
When you get a positive reaction to something you’re doing, you want to do it more often. So if you say a couple of words in Russian to a native speaker, and this person talks back, smiles and encourages you to continue, you’ll want to speak more often.
This causes a positive feedback loop where you speak more, and thus practice more. Then you get more positive feedback in conversations, and you’ll want to speak more.
My girlfriend has the opposite problem here in the Netherlands. She wants to speak Dutch with Dutch people.
But our level of English is good, and everyone tends to be in a hurry. So whenever she tries to speak Dutch with someone, they tend to quickly switch to English. It’s easier, right?
So she doesn’t have this positive feedback loop. This makes it difficult for her to practice and be truly motivated to learn Dutch. After all, 7 out of 10 times she starts speaking, people switch to English.
In Russia, you’ll be greeted with enthusiasm 7 out of 10 times when you try to have a conversation in Russian. And likely even more often.
2) The flexible word order in Russian makes it easier to speak fluently
In English, you would get a weird look if you said “To my mother for her birthday I gave flowers”
In Russian this word order would be completely fine:
Моей маме на её день рождения я подарил цветы
The Russian language has a flexible word order. That means that you can generally place words at random places in the sentence, and still have everything make sense.
There are some exceptions to this randomness, but they’re not that hard to learn.
The reason why Russian can have this randomness is because they use cases.
With cases you change the ending of a word to indicate its function in the sentence.
While cases are difficult to learn (we’ll talk about this later in the article), it does give you the freedom of creating sentences much more freely.
Why does this make Russian easy to learn?
Because you do not have to create the entire sentence in your mind first, before you start speaking.
If you have a general idea of what you want to say, you can simply say the first word.
Then, while pronouncing the first word, you can add another word. And while saying that word, you can think what word will follow next.
The flexible order in Russian frees up a lot of ‘mental RAM’ in your brain.
The main benefit of this is that you can speak faster. Your sentences will sound ‘fluent’ a lot faster, since you almost cannot make mistakes with putting words in the wrong spot.
In the end, this allows you to become fluent faster, than if you were to learn a fixed word order language, such as German. Those languages tend to have many little word order rules that are difficult to grasp.
Not with Russian. Once you understand cases a bit, you can simply forget about the word order part.
There are a couple of things that you need to take into account though:
- Prepositions are always before the word they are attached to. На работу (to work). Возле дома (around the house). К врачу (to the doctor).
- In general the last word in the sentence is emphasized. Я купил цветы маму (I bought flowers for my mom), has the implicit meaning that you bought them for your mother, not your grandma. This isn’t a hard rule, as you can emphasize any word by stressing it in your pronunciation.
- If you connect two sentences with a word like “and” (и), “but” (но), “or” (или), the words need to stay in their own sentence.
- If there are multiple verbs that require a specific case, the noun tends to stay close to that verb. “I like to eat pizza” (Мне нравится есть пиццу)
- If you want some more structure, you can simply use the English word order: Noun + verb + object + indirect object. “I gave flowers to my mother”.
3) The Russian language does not have articles, so you cannot make mistakes there
If you have ever heard a Russian person speak English, you might have spotted this mistake:
“I put the pizza in oven”.
We would say “I put the pizza in THE oven”.
This is one of the giveaways that a person’s native language is Slavic.
“the”, “an”, and “a” simply do not exist in Russian.
That means that you can also not make any mistakes here.
And once you think about it, these words are actually kind of useless in English as well.
The only thing they indicate is specificity:
- Can you give me the cup?
- Can you give me a cup?
In the first phrase you want a specific cup. In the second example you just want a random cup to pour your drink in.
In Russian you can easily solve this specificity problem by adding a form of “это” or “то” before the noun.
- Вы можете мне давать ту чашку? (Can you give me that cup?)
- Вы можете мне давать чашку? (Can you give me a cup?)
So the lack of articles does not make communication any more difficult.
How does this help you speak better Russian?
Because it simply eliminates an opportunity for mistakes. In almost every other European language, you need to think about the following things all the time:
- Should I say an article in front of this noun?
- Should I say a specific or nonspecific article?
- (For languages such as German, Spanish, French, Dutch and more): Which gender is this noun?
The last one is the worst. Languages such as French and Dutch have seemingly random rules that dictate whether a noun is feminine, masculine, or neuter. And this affects whether you say “le” or “le”. Or “de” or “het”.
In the Netherlands we have plenty of immigrants, and a lot of them have been living in the Netherlands for decades. If it weren’t’ for the mistakes in articles, you wouldn’t even guess that Dutch isn’t their native language.
Eliminating this gets rid of an enormous headache.
And since fluency in Russian is mostly a matter of getting rid of potential mistakes, the lack of articles makes it easier to achieve a high level of fluency.
4) There are so much Russian learning resources, it’s impossible to run out
The Russian language is at place number 7 in the list of top spoken languages in the world.
153 million people speak it as their native language. And 258 million in total.
In general, the more people speak a language, the more people will want to learn that language.
More people in the world want to learn Russian than Hungarian.
The natural result of this is that there is a magnitude more Russian learning material available for Russian, than for many other languages.
With material I mean resources you can consume to improve your Russian level:
- Online courses
- Video games
- TV shows
- Real life classes or tutors
- And much more…
That means that however you learn best, you can find resources for that.
If you learn the most effectively by hearing and seeing words, you can watch Russian TV shows or movies with Russian subtitles.
Or read a book while listening to the audiobook at the same time.
If you learn best by talking with someone, then you can sign up for real life classes. Or have weekly sessions at one the online language learning platforms.
The Russian language is large enough that you can find almost too much material to learn language..
You can be specific and find a course that works best for you.
Because I’m a Dutch guy and have a YouTube channel in Russian, I tend to get a lot of questions from Russians about how to learn Dutch.
When I tell them I spent a large amount of time watching Russian TV shows with English subtitles in the beginning, they ask me where to find Dutch TV shows with Russian subtitles.
There is just a small problem.
These do not exist.
Just the fact that they do not yet exist (since Dutch is only spoken by about 30 million people in the world), means that students miss a large opportunity to practice.
With Russian, you do not have this problem. You’re in a luxury position. You even get to choose which types of movies or TV series you prefer. You can find plenty of shows to watch with English subtitles.
5) The verbs of motion are not that difficult, once you realize how they work
One of the things that Russian students tend to complain about are the Russian verbs of motion.
Instead of just 1 word for “to go”, Russian has 4:
They all mean “to go”.
So how do they differ from each other?
There are 2 distinctions:
- To go on foot (идти/ходить) or by transport (ехать/ездить)
- To go in one direction (идти/ехать) or in multiple directions (ходить/ездить)
Now this can be difficult to grasp when you’re learning Russian. But it’s actually easier than you think.
If you’re walking somewhere, you say идти or ходить.
If you’re going somewhere by car, you say ехать or ездить.
If you’re talking about how you’re going somewhere now, or you’re not planning on going back, you say идти or ехать.
If you’re talking about how you go on a specific route often (more than once), or you’re just going in random directions, you say ходить or ездить.
- я иду в магазин – I’m going to the supermarket (meaning: walking, right now)
- я хожу в школу – I’m going to school (meaning: by foot, and every day)
- я еду в Москву – I’m going to Moscow (meaning: by plane or car, right now)
- Я часто езжу в москву – I often travel to Moscow (meaning: by plane of car, and going there regularly)
There are some nuances, but if you get this, you know 80% there is to the verbs of motion.
The rest will come with time, practice and interaction.
And the best thing? Even though it’s a difficult part of Russian, you can make mistakes and still be perfectly able to communicate.
The first time I went to Russia, I told my girlfriend: “я иду в Москву!” (I’m going to Moscow on foot!) She replied “Ты правда идёшь в Москву?”(Are you really walking to Moscow?).
I then remembered about the verbs of motion and said “А, я еду в Москву!”
So even though you technically say something incorrectly, it doesn’t matter much. As people will understand what you mean in 95% of cases.
6) Once you cut large words into small words, you’ll be better able to say and remember them
Russian is known for its long words, and multiple consonants following each other.
Let’s take the word for hello: Здравствуйте.
That’s a long difficult word for such a simple greeting.
Instead of trying to learn the full word at once, it’s better to split it up:
Здравст + вуйте.
Try pronouncing the first part several times. And then repeat the second part. Now try saying them after each other.
Doesn’t that make the process much easier, than if you would be trying to say the complete word at once?
Whenever you encounter long words, just take out a sheet of paper. Or write it in a note app on your phone. Split up the words.
You’ll find that it makes long difficult Russian words easier to pronounce and remember.
7) The Russian alphabet is easier than you think, because it shares a common ancestor of our alphabet
Whenever I tell someone that I can speak Russian, they tend to say the following:
- Wow, that’s so cool.
- But isn’t the Russian alphabet super difficult to learn?
And I get where they come from. If you’ve never learned a different alphabet, then the Cyryillic alphabet looks super intimidating.
Because if you’ve never learned it, it’s impossible to distinguish any word.
But in reality, the alphabet is one of the easiest parts of learning Russian.
All you need to do is sit down, and spend an hour focusing on the letters.
If you take the time to slowly read the letters, listen to how they’re pronounced, and how they’re used in a couple of example words, you’ll find that it’s actually quite easy to learn.
After all, the cyrillic alphabet only has 33 characters.
Of those 33 characters:
- Basically the same as in English: к о т а м
- A little different: д б
- Familiar sound, different letter: й е н г з х ю и с ф в п р л э у
- New letters: ц ш щ ъ ж ь ч я ы ё
That’s it. The first 3 categories are not hard to learn. You either already know them, or they are familiar letters in a different form.
Only the last category takes some time to get used to. But those letters also tend to be less common than the first 3 categories.
Also, learning a couple new letters is a piece of cake, compared to learning a new alphabet like the Japanese Kanji or Chinese characters.
The Russian alphabet and our Latin alphabet both come from the Greek alphabet, so they’re more similar than different.
8) Pronunciation becomes better with time, even if you don’t focus on it
A Dutch friend married his Russian girlfriend 2 years ago. A couple months before the wedding he decided he wanted to learn at least some basic Russian.
So he signed up for classes in the neighbourhood and started going there a couple times per week.
When I asked him about his experience, he said that he didn’t really like it.
I asked why, and he said that the teacher put a lot of focus on perfect pronunciation.
So whenever they’d learn a new word, they needed to repeat it often, and make sure to pronounce it correctly from the start.
Then when they would be practicing a conversation, she would stop people and tell them to repeat the word, but with a better pronunciation.
After a couple of weeks, this friend quit the course. Even though he’s a smart guy, and would’ve been able to learn the language well, if he’d follow through.
So while I understand the viewpoint of the teacher, I disagree with her methods. Yes, it’s good to aim to pronounce words well. But it’s also a process that comes with time.
No one that starts learning Russian has perfect pronunciation. It’s something that comes with time.
Now, I often get compliments that my Russian sounds like a native speaker. While that’s cool, it wasn’t always like that.
When I listened to myself speaking several years ago, my accent was much thicker than it is now.
It’s something that became better with time.
If you consistently practice speaking Russian, and aim to listen to correctly spoken Russian every day, your accent will improve.
It’s the same principle many people experience when they move to a different part of their country to study. If you surround yourself with people speaking in a specific way, you tend to unconsciously copy that.
So aim to speak correctly, but don’t let your imperfect pronunciation stop you.
It will get better with time.
9) It’s impossible NOT to speak Russian in Russia
Necessity is the mother of learning.
No one knows where that quote came from, but the Greek philosopher Plato said in one of his fables “our need will be the real creator”.
Since the level of English in Russia is low, you simply must know Russian when you’re in Russia.
So there’s nothing to fall back on. While in many countries, you find that there are quite some English speakers, that is not the case in Russia.
If you have planned a trip to Russia, and you want to have a good time, you simply must spend time learning the language.
While this is annoying if you just want to go to Russia once as a tourist, it’s also a blessing in disguise.
It brings us back to what we discussed earlier about people struggling to learn Dutch in the Netherlands. Everyone speaks English so well that there’s no need to learn Dutch.
In Russia, we have the opposite situation. This means that when you’re in Russia, there is nothing to fall back on. And you have to learn the language.
This is great, as it means your motivation and discipline will increase. After all, if you’re not going to learn, it will be impossible to communicate in Russia.
10) You can make mistakes with cases, and no one will care
As we’ve seen before, Russian words change their ending depending on their function in the sentence.
This is difficult.
Arguably it’s the most difficult part of learning Russian.
You will need to learn:
- 6 different endings each, for masculine, feminine, neuter and plural nouns.
- 24 endings for each adjective
- 6 forms of each pronoun
While this may seem like a lot, there’s a lot of overlap between the cases. Feminine adjectives are the same in the prepositional, genitive, instrumental and dative case.
But it’s still a lot of work to learn all these cases.
However, there’s one thing many complaining Russian students tend to overlook:
You don’t need to speak with perfect grammar if you want to be understood.
In fact, if you would not use cases at all, you would likely still be understood in most day to day conversations.
You wouldn’t sound too smart, but hey, you’re a foreigner who’s learning a difficult foreign language. Russians won’t judge you for making some mistakes.
They make mistakes themselves sometimes with the cases.
And if you observe Russian people speak, you might also notice that they often tend to swallow the endings.
They often don’t emphasize the ending of the word, and quickly move on to the next word.
That means that it’s difficult to exactly pinpoint what case the noun had.
Example: Marina likes to go to restaurants.
- Correct case: Марине нравится ходить в рестораны
- Wrong case: Марины нравится ходить в рестораны
If you say the wrong case, but quickly move on to нравиться, few people will even hear that you said the wrong case.
And even if they heard the wrong case, it’s obvious what you mean.
So don’t take this as an excuse to completely forget about the cases. They’re an important part of Russian grammar. But people tend to overvalue perfect grammar, and undervalue normal communication. It’s better to communicate normally with mistakes, then to try to speak perfectly, but bore your conversation partner.
11) There are barely any dialects, so you only need to learn one pronunciation
It’s fascinating that Russia is the largest country in the world, but they barely have any dialects.
Sure, there is a difference between Moscow pronunciation, and how people speak in the south.
But it’s mainly in how they say the “о” and “г”. The rest is largely the same.
Compare that to English speakers: even in a country like Britain people in the south speak completely different than a couple 100 kilometers more north.
And in a country like the Netherlands it’s even worse. I’m a native speaker, but I can barely understand how people speak in the north, even though they’re only 200 kilometers away.
Russian spans 9000 kilometers, and people speak almost the same in the most western part, as in the most eastern part.
Why is this great for you as a Russian student?
It means that you can just learn one accent, and you will understand all Russian speakers equally well.
Whenever you meet a Russian speaker, you can rest assured that you’ll be able to understand their accent.
You don’t need to spend extra time listening to a specific accent. In many other languages, you need to spend much more time listening, as you’ll need to be able to understand different accents.
12) Russian words are pronounced as they are written
Another benefit of the Russian language is that all words are basically pronounced as written.
That means that you don’t have to guess how to say a way.
Once you’ve spent a couple of months learning Russian, you’ll have plenty of experience to say the word correctly.
There are few ambiguous letters, like in English that can have multiple sounds.
The only Russian letter that tends to give problems is the “о”. That’s because in the Moscow accent (the one everyone learns), an unstressed “о” becomes an “а”.
But for the rest, you can simply read words as they are written.
There is one downside though: Russian words have their stresses in random places. So you need to learn this by heart. Here are my 2 tips:
- Use audio when learning, so you hear right away what the correct pronunciation is.
- Spend a lot of time watching Russian movies and TV shows.
- When you read Russian texts, try to find a resource that has the stressed part underscored.
13) Russians are everywhere, so you can practice anywhere in the world
Another reason why Russian is easy to learn, is because you can find Russian people everywhere.
That means that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.
I live in Amsterdam and I hear Russian virtually every day on the street.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union (and already during), many Russian people emigrated to other countries.
And since they still love their country, despite their reasons for emigrating, most emigrants still taught their children Russian.
Now I don’t encourage randomly hitting up Russian people on the street, and using them as practice dummies. That can be rude. There’s a fine line between having interest in people and their culture, and annoying them.
But there’s a big chance you’ll have a Russian colleague, or someone in your sports team that speaks Russian.
So in those cases, it will be quite easy to regularly see this person and practice some Russian with them.
In the end, your ‘fluency’ in Russian largely depends on how many hours you’ve practiced speaking.
So the more opportunities you have, the better your Russian will become.
14) You either love or hate Russia anyway
Let’s face it. If you’re reading this article you have a borderline obsession with Russia.
Or at least a healthy fascination with the largest country in the world.
Maybe it’s the people. Maybe the mysteriousness of the country. Or maybe it’s the famous Russian literature.
Almost everyone I meet either loves or hates Russia.
People either seem to be fascinated by her, or they seem to be a little afraid of Russia.
A large factor in how well you can learn a foreign language is your intrinsic motivation.
And for some reason, Russia seems to hit that sweet spot of intrinsic motivation incredibly well.
So it’s not a matter of how hard it is to learn Russian, but a matter of when you will speak Russian.
What is your experience? Let everyone know in the comments what parts of Russian you found easy!
P.S. If you want to improve your Russian on 'autopilot', my best recommendation is to just listen to 1 single Russianpod101 podcast per day (about 15 minutes). Ideally you do this when commuting to work to create a lasting habit. You can also take a daily walk. I did this for about 6 months, and it's the reason my Russian improved so quickly. There's a free 7 day trial with just an email address, so you're not risking anything. Give it a try and see how fast your Russian skills improve.