Most people think Russian is hard to learn.
Is it because of the unusual Cyrillic alphabet? Or because Russian pronunciation differs so much from English? Or is it because Russia itself is such a mysterious country?
I’ve spent the last 5 years learning Russian. And during that time I’ve learned that Russian is actually not that hard to learn.
You can watch this interview I did a while ago with Steve Kaufmann to hear how my Russian is now after 6 years of practicing:
But: if you believe it’s difficult, it will be difficult for you.
So let’s discuss the 14 reasons why the Russian language 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.
Here’s a short summary of the article:
Is Russian hard to learn?
The Foreign Service Institute says it takes around 1100 hours to learn Russian for native English speakers. Many learners struggle with pronunciation, cases, and verb conjugation. However, other aspects of the Russian language are easy, such as articles, word order, and the lack of strong dialects.
Let’s go a little deeper and discuss one of the most important reasons:
If you prefer to watch a video where I answer the question “is Russian hard to learn for English speakers?”, check out the video below. If you prefer to read, continue after the video.
1) Russian people are happy you want to learn Russian, so it’s easy to stay motivated
When I was in the South of Russia having lunch on my first trip to Russia, 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 Russian.
It’s likely because few foreigners are learning the Russian language. 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
With English speakers, you would get a weird look if you said “To my mother for her birthday I gave flowers”
In the Russian language 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 that 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?
This makes Russian an easy language 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 about 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 by putting words in the wrong spot.
In the end, this allows you to sound fluent faster, than if you were to learn a fixed word order language, such as German French, or Spanish. Those languages tend to have many word order rules that are difficult to grasp.
Not with the Russian language. 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 маме (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 subsentence.
- If there are multiple Russian 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 feel like you need more structure, you can always just 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 the Russian language.
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 learn Russian?
This makes Russian one of the easier languages to learn in the world 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 “la”. 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. But since they do make these mistakes, it’s easy to spot them as non-native speakers.
Eliminating this in the Russian language gets rid of an enormous headache for you.
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 many 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 to learn Russian, than for many other languages.
By Russian language learning material I mean resources you can consume to improve your Russian level:
- Online Russian 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. Or listen to an audiobook. Or listen to an audiobook while reading the book at the same time for more engaged learning 🙂
If you learn best by talking with someone, then you can sign up for real-life classes. Or have weekly sessions at one of the online language learning platforms that people use to learn a new language.
The Russian language is large enough that you can find almost too much material to learn the 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.
If you want to learn 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 is 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. Especially since you also need to learn them in the past, present, and future tenses. 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 or 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 learning 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 the Russian 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 with our alphabet
Whenever I tell someone that I know how to 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 Cyrillic alphabet looks intimidating.
The name ‘Cyrillic alphabet’ means the same as the Russian alphabet by the way. It’s just a different name.
Because if you’ve never learned the Russian alphabet, it’s impossible to distinguish any word.
But in reality, the Cyrillic 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 Russian 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 letters.
Of those 33 letters:
- 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 of the Cyrillic alphabet 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 of 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. Keep that in mind when learning Russian.
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 of months before the wedding he decided he wanted to learn the Russian language.
So he signed up for classes in the neighborhood and started going there a couple of 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 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 be successful in language learning if he’d followed 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 skill that comes with time.
No one that starts learning Russian has perfect pronunciation. You develop it over time.
Now, I often get compliments that my Russian sounds like a native speaker. Some people assume that my pronunciation was good from the beginning, but 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 the more I spoke Russian
If you consistently practice speaking Russian and aim to listen to correctly spoken Russian every day, your Russian 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, even if you don’t specifically focus on it.
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 the Russian language 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 Russian.
While this is annoying if you just want to go to Russia once as a tourist, the lack of English speakers is 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. Language learning is a necessity.
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.
So is Russian hard to learn? It all depends on the perspective you want to take. The number of Russian speakers will make it actually easier to learn the language.
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 when you are learning Russian.
You will need to learn:
- in which situation to use each of the 6 cases: nominative, accusative, prepositional, genitive, dative, and instrumental case.
- 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 cases.
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 Russian 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 new 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 are important if you want to learn Russian grammar. But people tend to overvalue perfect grammar and undervalue normal communication. It’s better to communicate normally with mistakes, than to try to speak perfectly, but make your conversation partner bored.
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 native 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.
Russia 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 native English speakers who want to learn Russian?
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 word.
Once you’ve spent a couple of months learning Russian, you’ll have plenty of experience to say the most common words correctly.
There are a 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 3 tips to learn Russian pronunciation:
- Use audio when learning a new language, 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 it’s not hard to learn Russian is that 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 to learn Russian. That can be rude. There’s a fine line between having an interest in people and the Russian culture and annoying them.
But there’s a big chance you’ll have a Russian colleague or someone on 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 maybe with another Russian-speaking country, such as Ukraine or Belarussia.
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 the country, or they seem to be 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.
So is Russian hard to learn?
If you come from a native English-speaking country, Russian is not one of the hardest languages to learn. People expect Russian to be a difficult language, as the Russian alphabet differs from the Latin alphabet. But in reality, this is a small hurdle for serious language learners.
If you are serious about learning, Russian can actually be easy to learn. As there is flexible word order, lack of articles, and Russians, in general, are very happy to hear you speak Russian.
Russian Language FAQ
Below you find answers to common questions regarding the Russian language:
Is it hard to learn Russian from English?
Hard depends on your perspective. If you’ve learned other (Slavic) languages before, it will be much easier to learn Russian. But for most native English speakers it won’t be ‘easy’ to learn Russian.
Is Russian easy to learn to speak?
It’s not easy to speak Russian. But if you focus your efforts in the beginning stages on learning new vocabulary and practicing speaking, you can reach a conversational level in Russian rather quickly.
Is Russian worth learning?
Yes, learning Russian will broaden your horizons. You’ll be able to communicate with over 300 million Russian speakers. Learning Russian will also help you train cognitive functions such as memory, pattern recognition, and discipline.
Which is harder Russian or German (or any other language)?
Since most western languages such as German, French or Spanish are closer relatives to English, Russian is harder to learn. However, there are things such as the absence of articles, or the easy tenses that make Russian easier to speak.
What should you do next?
Learning Russian does NOT need to be difficult. All you need is a solid plan that helps you improve the following things daily:
- listening skills
- speaking skills
That's ALL you need. If you can do this for a couple of weeks, you’ll already be making great progress in your Russian skills.
And the best part? If you improve a little bit every day, soon these practices will become daily habits.
And then you will start making progress on autopilot.
This means that learning Russian is now a part of your daily routine. So you won’t even need discipline anymore to get yourself to practice.
If you like the idea of this, but don’t know where to start, go here for more information.