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January 1, 2018

Is Russian Hard to Learn? Overview of What Makes Russian Difficult

is russian hard to learnAt least once per month somebody asks me the question “Is Russian hard to learn?”. And even though the answer is always a ‘yes, sort of’ answer – I think it’s a good idea to quickly lay out the answer here. This is the quick answer:

Yes, Russian is a tough language to learn. You won’t pick up some textbooks, listen to some music, go to Russia for a week and you’ll speak Russian fluently. But it’s also not crazy difficult. And if you take your learning day by day, you’ll surprise yourself with the progress you can make in a couple of weeks/months.

Is Russian hard to learn?

As you read above, Russian is a difficult language to learn. This is because it differs a lot from English (and I assume you’ll speak English. Otherwise, what are you doing here? ;)). Here are some of the reasons why Russian is difficult:

  • Complete new alphabet – before you can learn Russian, you have to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.
  • New sounds – even though every language has a couple of different sounds (or pronounce a letter differently), to learn Russian you have to master 10-15 complete new vowel sounds.
  • Barely any cognates – a cognates is a word that is the same in 2 languages. For example ‘situation’ and ‘ситуация’ (situation). Unfortunately this is where it ends for Russian- English. Although there are a couple 100 more words, you will have to learn virtually every new word by heart.
  • Case system – Russian word order is very flexible. That’s a great thing. But it comes at a cost. Each noun changes its ending based on its function in the sentence. This is by far one of the most difficult aspects of learning Russian.

These are the 4 things that will most likely be the most difficult for you. (they were/are for me). Luckily, there are also a couple of easy things about the Russian language.

Easy things in Russian

  • No articles – that’s right. Forget about ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’. Russians simply don’t have them in their language. Compare that to a language like French, where every word has a random assigned ‘le’ or ‘la’.
  • Only 3 tenses – the Russian has past, present and future. The past is extremely easy to use (drop the ending and add an ‘L’ sound + gender ending). And the future and present are virtually the same. Although you have to learn a different verb for each. This is a lot easier than trying to learn the past continuous and past perfect etc.
  • Word order is extremely flexible – it basically doesn’t matter which word is where. This is because the noun endings (cases) indicate the function of the word. For you as a learner it means you have one less thing to worry about as you’re speaking, since you can just add words at the end of your sentence.

Russian vs Spanish (and other Romance languages)

One of the most learned languages for English speakers is Spanish (or French). I’ve learned some Spanish too, so I’ll make a short comparison between these 2 languages from the perspective of an English speaker. I’m Dutch from origin, but English and Dutch are from the same language family, so the experience is the same.

Spanish is an easy language for English speakers. That is because all the difficult Spanish words are basically the same in both languages. That is because English is a mix of germanic languages and romance languages. A couple of centuries ago the Brits took a lot of French words in their vocabulary and many of these words remain there these day. Those are cognates.

But if you’re learning Russian you don’t have this luxury. You have to learn every word by heart. And this can take a long time. I’d say that learning the grammar for both languages is a the same difficulty. But the main thing that takes a long time is getting your vocabulary up to a couple thousand words.

is russian difficult
Millions of people all over the world speak Russian as their first or second language. So why shouldn’t you?

It all depends where you come from

One thing we didn’t touch upon is that the question ‘is Russian hard to learn?’ has a different answer for each person. If you’re from Poland and speak Polish, Russian will be easier for you than for an English speaker. But on the other hand, if you’re a native Spanish speaker, but you’ve already learned Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Bulgarina – Russian will be a piece of cake for you.

There are 2 components to the answer. Do you already know any other Slavic languages? (and if so, at what level?). And how fast can you learn a new language? If Russian is the first language (after you native) that you’re trying to learn. Then it will be difficult. But so would any other language be.

Difficulty of Russian for native English speakers

I haven’t learned any languages such as Japanese, Chinese or Thai, so this is all information I got from other people who do. But Russian is considered to be a medium difficulty language for English speakers.

Yes, it’s difficult. But not as tough as learning the Asian languages – or Arabic. But it’s more difficult than learning a language that is related in some way to English (Dutch, German, Swedish, Romance languages).

Expect to put in around 1000 hours to become fluent in Russian. Sounds like a long time? It is. But you’ll see a lot of progress along the way. And with the right program, you’ll be able to start having conversations right from the bat.

Conclusion: Is Russian hard to learn?

We’ve covered quite some subjects in order to answer the question “is Russian hard to learn?”. It is a tough language to learn, but it’s also not an impossible mission that you’re about to undertake. If you’ve got some experience with learning a second (or third) language and you have an interest in the Russian language and culture – then you’ll do just fine. 

Don’t expect to be perfectly fluent in a couple of months. But see it as work in progress and put in the daily lessons. And before you’ll know it, you’ll be surprising yourself (and everyone around you) with how well you’re speaking Russian!



P.S. Want to know which program helped me the most to become fluent in Russian? Find out here which resource I used to learn Russian.

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Author: Ari Helderman

I started learning Russian seriously in January 2016, and haven't stopped since. I created this site to help other foreigners speak Russian. You can follow my progress in Russian on my YouTube channel Ари Говорит по-русски.

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