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Learn Russian language

Russian Language is Difficult Even for Native Speakers

One of top 5 questions I get in emails from my readers is “How to learn Russian?” Russian is indeed one of the most difficult languages to learn because of grammar, pronunciation and exceptions to the rules. But guess what?! We, Russians, study our language for 10 years in school, yet very few people do not make grammar mistakes when they write or speak.

My Own Experience With The Russian Language

girl readingI am told that my Russian is really good, and I like to agree with those people. :-) I think that is because my mom taught me to how to read when I was 3,5 years old. Reading a lot helps, because you remember how words are spelled on some subconscious level and have a good source to expand your active vocabulary. However, even after so much reading, I still do make punctuation errors every now and then.

Russian is very difficult for even the most deliberate speaker/writer of the language. Yet, it is sometimes painful to hear fellow Russians make “lazy” use of the language (not caring about declension, proper use or spelling of words). We do notice mistakes and, in general, are not tolerant to them. Some time ago one of my friends started a discussion on Facebook about mistakes we hate most and, it became the longest discussion thread I have ever seen.

On the other hand, we are absolutely delighted to see non-native Russian speakers attempt to learn and practice the language. We are not only tolerant and forgive any mistakes in that case, but also try to help our foreign friends in any way we can.

How Russians Learn Russian?

As any other people, we learn to speak from our parents in an early age and build the active vocabulary from books, TV and being immersed in the Russian-speaking environment.

Russian language textbook - 2nd grade

Russian language textbook – 2nd grade

But to write well, we need to study Russian in school for 10 years. First of all – these studies are to learn grammar rules. And to learn how to check your spelling, based on these rules. Secondly – we memorize numerous exceptions. Russian language does have a lot of them. Finally, a good teacher will weed out “parasite words” and,  improve pronunciation if needed.

I often get questions about pronunciation and accents. “Can you recognize which part of the country is somebody from?”. I usually cannot, except for understanding whether a person is from Moscow or not (Muscovites reduce most “o” sounds to “a”(sounds like “u” in “under”). So, when I say “moloko” (milk), I actually pronounce it as “malako”. That is considered a correct pronunciation. It is funny that now, learning Spanish, my correct pronunciation in Russian is a big problem – I have a heavy Russian accent when speaking Spanish exactly because I tend to reduce vowels.

Sometimes I can also say that a person is not from Moscow or is not from the same cultural strata as I am, judging by the words they use. It could be just one or two words and, you understand that you have a completely different background. These words serve as codes the other way too – people can recognize “their people”, based on the vocabulary the same way people who are working in the same industry connect when they hear familiar professional slang.

How Does Russian Change With Time?

As any language, it evolves. New words are being added. Some of these words are indeed new, such as “selfie”, some have changed their meaning with time. Also some words have become extinct because they are no longer needed. Here is a nice video on that subject.

How do languages change and evolve

How do languages change and evolve. Check out the link to video by Alex Gerdner in the text.

In general, that is positive. Language is a living being and has to change. Business influences changes in language a lot. Many English words (such as “marketing”) have now become part of the Russian vocabulary. Sometimes though, there is a perfectly good Russian word, but people still use the English word instead. Critics are against that. Some critics even think that all English words should be replaced by Russian words in the language. I do not agree with such extreme, but I also feel that people, who work in both Russian and in English could use less English words when they are speaking Russian. At one of my jobs we even made a point of notifying each other about the usage of English words when it was not necessary.

Many people think that Russian language is deteriorating in general, but that is not true. It is just that with the appearance of social media, more people started to write and their writing is now public. So we do see many more mistakes in written language. These mistakes do not affect middle-aged people, but they can influence young people. When you read a lot of incorrect text, you absorb the mistakes and may start to repeat them.  What is also interesting about social media writing – although it is a written text, it is usually a conversation, so it closer to oral speech than to a book text. And that is one of the reasons why people love to use smileys and other emojis. In a face-to-face conversation you smile and use other facial expressions and body language. It is faster and easier to add an emoji to a phrase in social media rather than carefully select words so that they convey the emotion. But that happens in all languages now, not only in Russian.

What Are The Most Difficult Things For Foreigners, Who Learn Russian?

Pretty much everything. We really admire foreigners, who not only learn Russian, but master speaking fluently. To us it shows that they are interested in our country and our culture and want to better connect with us.

Here are just some things that are difficult in my opinion:

  • Cyrillic alphabet and pronunciation. 33 characters, some of which look and sound like characters in English alphabet (but may in fact be pronounced differently, such as “р” is in fact pronounced as “r”), some look completely foreign. To make the situation worse, some characters are the ones we never pronounce. For example, we have a letter “ь”, which is called a “soft character”. We do not pronounce it, but it softens the pronunciation of the preceding consonant, similar to how in Spanish you say “manyana”, when you see the word mañana. We also have a letter “ъ”, which is called “hard character” and is not pronounced at all or a letter “й”, which is quite rare, but it changes how the vowel that is after it is pronounced. “йо” would sound as “yo”. As in “yogurt”. But my favorite is “ы”. Very few foreigners are able to pronounce that vowel!

  • Absence of articles. Unlike most indoeuropean languages, we do not use articles, which can be confusing for the people, who are used to having them. Articles really haunt me in my English. As you may have noticed, I often omit “a” and “the” and a lot of my English-speaking friends tell me about that
  • Genders. To make up for an absence of articles – we have genders. Each noun has its own gender and it is important to memorize it. Most of that is quite logical – for example in Russian “a girl” is “девочка” and is feminine (contrary to German, where das Mädchen is for some reason neutral (which drove me crazy when I was learning German). But English does not have genders for nouns, so it must be difficult for the English-speaking people to memorize the gender of each noun
  • Conjugation of adjectives. All adjectives conjugate according to nouns they belong to. That must be understandable for the Spanish-speaking people, but pretty difficult for the English speakers
  • Cases. We also have cases and unlike German, which has 4, we have 6. One needs to understand which case to use  and make sure that the entire chain of verb, noun and adjective have correct endings
  • Prefixes. Are the endings the biggest nuisance? No! Prefixes (part of the word that is before the root) are! Prefixes often take over the function of prepositions. For example, the verb “ехать” – go/drive changes its meaning when you use different prefixes. (приехать means arrive, поехать – start going , заехать – drive in, переехать – drive over, выехать – drive out , объехать – drive around, съехать -drive away/under, etc.)
  • Slang. A lot of words have double or triple meanings. Most of that is slang – for example drive away/under – съехать is one meaning, but we can say съехать c темы – which literally means drive away from the topic. But you cannot say приехать к теме – drive to the topic. You would use придти к теме. (walk to the topic). No logic, just memory training

I am sure I did not name all the difficulties. Let me know what was the most difficult for you when you learned Russian. And how you managed to learn that difficult thing. What do you suggest to other people, who are learning Russian? Let’s discuss this topic in comments.

Leave a Reply

  • Shaziane - 1 year ago

    Я учусь сейчас. The soft/hard sounds have confused me, and it’s a big deal especially since this assists in the conjugation of adjectives. I’ve accepted that I simply have to learn the words, that there is no shortcut. The pattern is slowly appearing as I can call very few words correctly instinctually after seeing them.

  • Simon Schütt - 1 year ago

    Thank you very much for the great article(s).

    Among the difficulties you already mentioned, learning the verbs of movement was or is the most difficult for me. Going, driving etc. Then there are the two aspects of the verbs for each of which you have to learn a different verb. I almost always mix them up.

  • S. - 1 year ago

    Very interesting article; it always makes me feel better when I know native speakers struggle with Russian language as well. :) I think the most difficult thing for me as I learn Russian is the grammar. I have been learning Russian for almost a year now, and my comprehension level is pretty good, I think. But even though I can understand the grammar when I see it or hear it spoken, I cannot recreate it myself at this time when I am speaking. I think I need to get better at accepting the fact that I am going to be a bit grammatically incorrect, and just SPEAK. I have not put in a lot of time actually “studying” grammar; instead, I am trying to understand it as I go along and come across it (or need to know for a sentence construction.) Pronunciation has come very easy for me (even the dreaded “Ы”!). Native speakers have even told my that my pronunciation is good. There is still so much I don’t know and need to learn, but I am in love with the Russian language so I will not stop.

  • iwaka - 1 year ago

    A couple of corrections on your terminology.

    The things you called “clauses” in your list are actually called “cases”. Clause is a different linguistic term, and I only understood what you meant thanks to the numbers for German and Russian.

    The things you called “consoles” are “prefixes”. You’re thinking of the wrong kind of pristavka here :)

    Your friendly neighborhood linguist

    • Tanya Golubeva - 1 year ago

      Many thanks!!! Corrected the mistakes. I actually thought that the word “console” sounded weird :-)

  • Anonymous - 1 year ago

    Привет, ребята! :)
    Мне труднее всего дались (да и сейчас даются) не цензурные слова и их проверка на правописание.

    • Tanya Golubeva - 1 year ago

      Слава богу без них можно обойтись и в устной и в письменной речи :)
      Но комментарий отличный, повеселил редакцию!)) (кстати, в редакции всего один человек, все тексты пишу я))

  • Владислав Логвиненко - 1 year ago

    вы серьезно считаете, что на Украине не говорят по-русски? 5 стран, CIA FactBook значит, ну да, конечно :)

  • Neil Fitzgerald - 1 year ago

    Self-taught beginner here. I have a few things to add to your list:

    (1) TYPING: What everyone says about the alphabet is true: it’s no big deal – you can master it in a single afternoon. The awkward thing about Cyrillic isn’t learning the letters but typing them. Either you have to (i) invest in a bilingual keyboard (ii) learn to touch type from scratch all over again or (iii) use a workaround like the “phonetic keyboard” in Windows, which is a clever idea but frustrating in practice. I went with (ii) but in hindsight a combination of (i) and (ii) would have been smarter.

    (2) STRESS: More than anything else, stress – the tonic accent – is what makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Especially the fact that varies (often unpredictably) across verb conjugations and noun declensions.

    (3) ASPECT: It seems to me as though the perfective aspect is basically like an extra tense (or rather, an extra two tenses) except for the fact that there’s *no rule that gets you there* so you just have to memorize the pairs one by one. If I were to draw a graph of my “contentment level” against time, annotated with what I was thinking, then you’d see me coasting along nicely with a thought bubble that said “Perfectives: that’s how to talk about completed actions. Cool! So what’s the rule here – we just add по, right? …right?” and then the graph would fall off a cliff when the dreadful truth finally dawned on me.

    (4) NUMBERS: Numbers in Russian are “the gift that keeps on giving”. Just when you think you’ve mastered all of the ridiculous rules (e.g. genitive singular for numbers ending 2-4, genitive plural for the rest) you realize there are a *whole load more*. E.g. that numbers have declensions. And there’s some monstrously insane thing about: “when a feminine noun has the nom. pl. and gen. sing. have the same stress, then the adjective has to be nominative plural” or whatever. I refuse to learn that bit right now.

    (4) Regarding gender: actually, Russian’s gender system is much easier than you find in (say) the Romance languages. Basically the ending gives you the gender every time, with a small enough number of exceptions that memorizing them is a breeze.

    (5) Regarding adjective endings: although my “graph of contentment level” nosedived when I realized every adjective had 6 x 4 grid of variations associated with it, it soon returned bounced back when I noticed that adjective declensions are regular. Still, it’s one thing to be able to reproduce a declension table, and quite another to internalize it to the point when the right ending just ‘pops out at you’ without having to consciously reason your way to it. (I have an image in my head of people walking around with pencils and clipboards doing “long russian”. Like long division: rather than working it out in their heads, every time they wanted to say something – especially something with numbers and adjectives – they would first scribble down their working on the sheet in front of them, to make sure they get their endings right.)

  • Sabrina - 10 months ago

    I’ve been attempting to learn the Russian language since 1984. This past winter I signed up for a formal class, only to have it get cancelled because people were not attending. So now I’m back to independent study but I found those few weeks of classroom time helped greatly. I will not give up! :)

  • Jitka - 10 months ago

    Interesting article. I have learned Russian language for 8 years, never finding any difficulties (in Czechoslovakia that was mandatory). But now I strongly prefer to write to Russians in English. While I am still able to read azbuka and understand maybe 2/3 of text, English comes much easily to me thanks to the frequency of use. And I am too lazy to switch my keyboard to azbuka, print where is which letter and fish Russian phrases from deepest parts of my brain.