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Why is Russian Difficult to Learn?

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Russian > Linguistic Difficulties When Learning Russian

Are you soon visiting the Moscow capital of Russia? Are you soon going on a several month language stay in Saint Petersburg? Are you looking to have a change of scenery and to discover more deeply what the Russian culture has to offer?

In any case, knowing how to speak Russian can be an advantage and create a link with Russian locals.

When attempting to learn a language, one must be aware of the language’s main difficulties. Learning Russian presents some difficulties, as we will see, but arming yourself with willpower and motivation will remain your best weapon if you are looking to succeed!

The Mosalingua platform, recognized among other things for its language learning methods, classifies Dostoevsky’s language as the third most complex language to learn after the difficult Mandarin and Arabic.

According to the LA Times:

There are aspects of Chinese that make it hard for foreigners to learn, and there are aspects that make it difficult for native Chinese. I think the one that gets the most press — and is in some sense the most controversial — is the Chinese characters. For alphabetic languages, there’s what they call a virtuous loop between the writing, speaking and listening — those three categories constitute one composite skill. But the problem with Chinese, and to some degree Japanese, is it breaks that loop. Speaking does not necessarily help your reading. Reading doesn’t necessarily help your writing. These become three different skills that have to be mastered in parallel, and separately.

But though learning Russian will not be as difficult as learning to speak Mandarin Chinese, learning to speak Russian will not be as easy as learning Spanish or French. However, this ranking remains totally subjective and will vary from one person to another.

To cheer you up a bit, Ioannis Ikonomou, a European official in the Brussels Parliament and a man who is fluent in more than forty different languages, considers that the most complex language is Hungarian, before Mandarin Chinese or Russian…

The First Difficulty of the Russian Language: the Cyrillic Alphabet

cyrillic-alphabet Before embarking on Russian grammar, we will start with the basics: the Cyrillic alphabet!

Russian is part of the Slavic language family. We’re sure you guessed it–but the Russian alphabet is different from what we find in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, or Germanic languages.

Much like when you try to learn Chinese with characters or sinograms, or learn Japanese with the famous kanji, with Russian you will have to master a new writing method.

The only difference is that learning the Russian alphabet is much simpler because we can find points of comparison with Latin letters.

Indeed, some letters of the Cyrillic alphabet are borrowed from Latin languages. In total, the Russian alphabet is composed of 33 different letters broken down as such:

  • 7 latin letters,
  • 9 Greek letters,
  • 15 Russian letters,
  • 1 hard sign and a soft sign: the soft sign softens the consonant preceding it, and the hard sign emphasizes the preceding consonant. They are neither consonants nor vowels and these two signs have no phonetic transcription, since they simply do not have a sound.

Nevertheless, although the alphabets are different, the writing methods are similar. Indeed, the Russian alphabet contains 33 letters and not one more. The writing systems are totally different in China or Japan.

The Cyrillic alphabet was adapted from the Greek alphabet. It uses many letters that look like Latin letters, but actually are pronounced differently, like ‘Н’, which is actually an ‘N’. That makes learning to read and write Russian feel like learning a secret code!

There is definitely a difference in the writing system but it is much less difficult to learn and very much less discouraging than when one is learning Arabic writing, kanji, or Chinese characters.

The Second Difficulty of the Russian Language: An Often Complex Pronunciation

ease-talking You may not have the ease of Obama when you first start trying to express yourself, but you will get there!

The Russian language’s phonetics can be a puzzle for an American learner. Again, from one language to another, the tones and sonorities vary which causes difficulties when trying to pronounce certain sounds and sometimes, certain words.

In the Tolstoy language there are a number of phonetic rules, which may at first seem complex to master.

First and unlike English, the Russian language is characterized by the presence of a tonic accent that can be placed on any syllable of a word. The major difficulty is that this toned accent can move and change depending on the form of the word.

For example, it is not uncommon for a word to be declinated once it enters the plural, and to have a change on the accented syllable.

A little training and memorization will familiarize you with these rules!

There are some specific cases that can also cause some concerns for learners. Especially with the sound Ы [y], which does not exist in English. Similarly, for some people, it will be difficult to roll the “R” in Russian, but, do not worry, Russian teachers ensure that you will be understood by rolling the “R” like English people do. An American accent can also have its charms!

At first, we obviously advise you to learn to pronounce the letters of the alphabet then to concentrate on the rules of  phonetics (with the vowels, the consonants, before or after the hard sign or the soft sign, etc…).

The ideal method with oral learning is to become familiar with the rules via videos, which you can easily find on Youtube any step by step Russian learning method website.

The Third Difficulty of the Russian Language: The Declensions

believe-us Russian lessons will get easier with time–believe us!

If you are looking to quickly get by with Russian and consolidate your language level, there will inevitably come a time when it will be necessary to look at the declensions. These variations are not a problem for a native speaker or an informed Russian speaker, but this is one of the main difficulties for a beginner in Russian.

In German, there are 4 declensions (the nominative for the subject, the accusative for the complement, the dative for the indirect complement, the genitive for the noun’s complement). But in Russian, there are 6:

  • The nominative,
  • The accusative,
  • The genitive,
  • The dative,
  • The instrumental, which is to answer the questions such as “by whom? “, “by what?” or “how?”. We will speak of additional reasons later on,
  • The rental, which indicates a place or a location.

In Russian, the declensions change the endings of adjectives, pronouns, or nouns according to three criteria, which can also be found in the Germanic language: the famous tryptique (case, genre, number):

  • The case: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, rental,
  • Gender: masculine, feminine or neuter,
  • The amount: singular or plural.

The Fourth Difficulty of the Russian Language: Grammar and Conjugation

Learning the Russian language correctly requires mastery of conjugation and grammatical structures.

Let’s look at this, however. There are only two possible forms for a verb:

  • The perfective: it describes either an action past and gone, a future action, or one that has occurred but that is not meant to be repeated (one time only),
  • The imperfective: which describes a present action, can also describe a repeated action, or an action started in the past but is not over.

This seems clear enough and much less complex than the multitude of conjugations that can be found in the English language or the French language, for example.

Nevertheless, some difficulties may arise as evidenced by Mayu Okamoto:

“I remember when I read my illustrated textbook a hundred times in a row. But I always hesitated: he came where he came from? What is the meaning ? Where is he now? Has he stayed or is he already gone? It’s horrible. “

The action verbs also complicate the picture. For the verb “to go,” which can be used in an infinite way in English and Spanish (go to the supermarket, go by bike …), in Russian there are specific versions for specific instances to memorize.


Rigor is Important if You Would Like to Speak Russian!

study-up Russian is far from the Latin alphabet. So don’t forget to study up on that.

We will never stop repeating it, but learning a foreign language cannot be improvised. Rigor, regular work, and motivation are the main ingredients for success. This is especially true in the case of learning Russian.

To gain fluency in oral expression, why not decide to learn the Russian declensions via a worksheet and repeat this over several days. This will ultimately help you to gain a real handle on the Russian language and its particularities.

As suggested by the Mosalingua method, learning a language requires an almost daily investment if you want to perfect the assets your learned yesterday and incorporate the novelties you learned today. It is a long-term job, which will have to be repeated, day after day, to validate your skills, deepen certain notions, and progress quickly!

And don’t forget: some of the greatest writers who’ve ever lived wrote only in Russian. If you learn Russian, you’ll be able to read the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Gogol, Pushkin, and many more, all in the original.

In short:

  • This article is not intended to discourage the learner in his quest for mastery of Pushkin’s language. Nevertheless, it is a fair warning about the difficulties of the Russian language and a reminder that you will probably encounter them on your learning adventure.
  • However, the picture is far from dreary. There are many aspects where the Russian language is much simpler than others. For example, verb conjugation means that it is not necessary to use a pronoun, because the verbal forms are distinct and indirectly imply the said pronoun. Similarly, there is no hesitation between a definite or indefinite article. Many second language learners (for whom Russian is not a mother tongue) testify to the pleasure of speaking this language, which some truly consider to be a great work of art.
  • Moreso than for any other language, it will not be possible to learn to speak Russian properly if one is not really motivated. It requires a well-defined learning objective and some real motivation (a long trip to Russia, working in Russia, a year of study in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, etc…).

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