Russian suffers a reputation as a difficult language, but just how hard is it to learn Russian?
Russian is a difficult language to learn, but it's not the hardest out there. Its phonetic alphabet is easy to pick up, and the language borrows quite a few words from English too. Where you might struggle is with Russian grammar and pronunciation. All in all, the Foreign Service Institute believes you can become proficient in Russian after 1,100 hours of study time.
What is Russian?
Russian is an East Slavic language native to Russians (as well as many other ethnic groups) in Eastern Europe and Asia. It belongs to the Indo-European language family and is often compared to languages like Belarusian and Ukrainian (where there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility between them), and other Slavic languages like Polish.
Russian is also one of the most spoken languages in the world. There are over 150 million native speakers of Russian, as well as 110 million second-language speakers. It's also the official language of countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and holds official status in Ukraine, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Romania and Poland.
Your Motivations for Learning Russian
Before you start learning Russian, it's important to think about why you want to learn a new language. When things start getting tough, you can remind yourself of these reasons and keep yourself motivated.
Here are a few reasons why you might want to pick up Russian:
- Travel. Perhaps you’re planning to travel the Trans Siberian Railway, or spend some time in St Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia.
- Work. Maybe you’re looking for a language that will help your CV stand out in the job market. Lots of employers are impressed to see such a unique language.
- Personal. Perhaps your partner or your best friend is Russian, and you want to learn more about their heritage and culture.
Why Your Experience with Languages Matters
Usually, those with a similar mother tongue to Russian, or experience learning another Slavic language will find it easier to learn Russian than others.
If you're an English speaker:
In a study, the Foreign Service Institue (FSI), revealed that native speakers of English, with little to no experience learning Slavic languages, need around 1,100 hours of study time to reach general proficiency or higher in Russian. That's around 44 weeks of pretty intense studying. This puts Russian in the IV Language Group category: “languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English”.
If you speak a Slavic language:
Fortunately for those who already speak a Slavic language, learning Russian can be a lot easier. Some Slavic languages are mutually intelligible, and others share a wide array of similarities between their grammar and vocabulary.
There are three main groups of Slavic languages:
- West Slavic: Slovak, Czech, Polish (as well as minority languages like Kashubian, Silesian, Poperanian, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian)
- East Slavic: Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian (and Ruthenian)
- South Slavic: Bulgarian and Macedonian (Eastern Group), and Serbo-Croatian and Slovene (Western Group).
It's thought to be easier to learn a language if it's from the same language group as your mother tongue. For example, those who already speak Polish, often learn Slovak or Czech too, as the languages have a lot of overlap. When it comes to Russian, it shares between 40-60% of its vocabulary with Ukrainian and around 45% with Polish. In theory, if you already speak Polish or Ukrainian, you should find it easier to learn Russian.
Your Commitment to Studying
When it comes to figuring out how hard it is to learn Russian, you also need to consider how much time you can commit to studying. As is the case with any language, we’d always recommend dedicating at least five minutes to language learning every single day.
The amount of time you can study will determine how long it will take you to learn Russian. So, if the FSI thinks you’ll need to commit 1,100 hours of study to Russian, and you can comfortably commit to 30-minutes of learning each day, it may take a couple of years to become fluent.
Of course, it's not always that simple. We've put together a handy equation that will help you to work out how long it could take you to become fluent in Russian, based on your own experience. To find out more, read out article on how long it takes to learn a new language.
So, How Hard Is It To Learn Russian?
Finally, the big question: how hard is it to learn Russian? Let's take a look at why Russian is often considered to be one of the hardest languages to learn.
Two words: grammatical conjugations.
They're enough to make any Russian student have a breakdown.
If you are familiar with romance languages like French, Spanish or Portuguese you may already have heard of verb conjugations. However, in Russian, you have to change the ending of several words in each sentence.
These are called noun declensions and in Russian, this happens to nouns, as well as pronouns, numerals, demonstratives and adjectives too. With each sentence, you also have to consider whether the noun is masculine, feminine, neuter along with plural or singular. To add to that, each case has to be used in conjunction with different prepositions and different grammatical circumstances.
How many cases are there, you ask? Six!
Another element of Russian that scares away dedicated students is verbs of motion. Verbs of motion, as the name suggests, is a verb that will take you from one place to another.
In English these verbs would be “go”, “swim”, “run”, “walk” or even “crawl”. In Russian, these verbs differ depending on if they are unidirectional, multidirectional, have a prefix or are used without a prefix.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.
Some verbs also indicate how you move things. For example, via transport (like a vehicle) or if you carry something by hand. For instance, возить (to transport by vehicle) and носить (to carry by hand while walking). These verbs of course have their conjugations to consider too!
What can scare people about Russian is the long words full of consonant clusters. It’s true, Russian has a lot of consonant phonemes, a total of 35, whereas English has 24.
Take a look at the word: Здравствуйте. Looks complicated, doesn’t it? But this is actually one of the first words you’ll learn in Russian, a polite “hello”.
You will, however, need a wide range of vocabulary to understand Russian on a day-to-day basis.
To understand two-thirds of a conversation in English you'll need to know 250 common words. However, the same conversation in Russian requires 1,000 words, so you have to learn over three times as many words as you would in English.
Why Russian Isn't as Difficult as People Think
We’ve explored the things that make Russian a little harder to learn than most languages, so why should you invest your time into learning the language?
Here’s what we think makes learning Russian a breeze (sort of..):
A lot of language students tend to dread learning the Cyrillic alphabet.
That's understandable – on the surface it can look pretty scary. However, the alphabet is one of the easiest elements of Russian to learn, and you can probably learn the basics in just a few hours.
Have you read our article about how to become fluent in Japanese? Well, Japanese has thousands of characters, while the Cyrillic alphabet only has 33 letters. That’s only seven more letters than the Latin alphabet!
There are around ten letters that you shouldn't have a problem with in Russian if you're an English speaker. These are either identical to the Latin alphabet, or very similar: i.e perhaps they look a little odd but produce the same sound.
These letters are:
- Аа (Aa)
- Бб (Bb)
- Дд (Dd)
- Ее (Ee)
- Зз (Zz)
- Кк (Kk)
- Лл (Ll)
- Мм (Mm)
- Оо (Oo!)
- Сс (Ss)
- Тт (Tt).
That leaves us with 23 other letters to learn.
If you have any experience learning the Greek alphabet you will recognize a few other letters like Гг (Gg), Пп (Pp), and Фф (Ff).
This leaves around 19 letters to learn!
Some of them can look scary like Жж (Zhh) or Юю (Yu). While others are just confusing like Вв, which sounds like the English ‘v', not ‘b'.
It will take you some time to perfectly memorise the letters without consulting a book, but once you learn them you can’t un-see them!
Borrowed Words (Cognates)
Just like many other languages, Russian borrows some its words from English. More accurately, both Russian and English once borrowed words from German, words which they now have in common.
Over time, and with the continued spread of English through Western media, more and more English words are finding their way into Russian.
Let’s look at a few examples:
- алкоголь – alcohol
- бургер – burger
- xот дог – hotdog
- пицца – pizza
- аэропо́рт – airport
- бар – bar
- журнали́ст – journalist
- му́зыка – music
- теннис – tennis
Cognates will give you a huge advantage when it comes to learning Russian. You already know more words than you think, and with a lot of cognates revolving around food, travel and drink terminology, these should help you hugely as a beginner.
Flexible Word Order (Syntax)
Russian has a very flexible word order.
While there is a general rule of thumb used to arrange words in Russian which is S-V-O (subject-verb-object), often the grammar rules, as well as the context and the speaker, dictate the combination.
A good example to look at would be “I love you,” which can be said two different ways, using the same words:
Я люблю тебя – I love you
Я тебя люблю – I you love
Remember, Russian doesn’t have a completely “free word order”, but it doesn't have rigid rules either.
Lots of Rules, Not Many Exceptions
When you pick up a Russian grammar book, you’ll find list after list of grammar rules. Those that determine whether a noun is female or male, declension charts and rules when it comes to verbs of motion.
While there might be tonnes of rules to learn, Russian has very few exceptions compared to other languages.
For instance, to determine whether a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter all you have to do is look at the ending. If it ends in a consonant or “й” the word is masculine. If it ends in “а” or “я” it is feminine, and if it ends in “о” or “е” it is neuter.
There are a few exceptions but those are few and far between.
Recommended Resources for Learning Russian
We review a lot of different language learning products here at Actual Fluency. Here are some that will help you along the way on your journey to becoming fluent in Russian.
Bite Size Russian
The Bite Size Russian Course features 100 short dialogues by native speakers based on situations you are likely to find yourself in, making learning much quicker, and much more accessible.
The Actual Fluency Russian Pronunciation Challenge
The Actual Fluency Russian Pronunciation Challenge is a 30-day workshop that covers every sound that you’ll come across in the Russian language. Each daily lesson takes less than 15 minutes to go through, ensuring that even busy people are able to comfortably complete the challenge and transform their Russian pronunciation skills.
If there is any course that makes Russian seem easy, it’s Duolingo. The friendly Duolingo owl helps you learn languages in a fun and interactive way bu encouraging you to learn with games and activities in short five-minute stints.
Memrise is primarily a flashcard app that allows you to quickly retain information in your long term memory. It's great if you’re studying the Russian Cyrillic alphabet or re-visiting forgotten vocabulary.
Magnetic Memory Method
If you're worried that you might struggle to successfully memorise new Russian words, we highly recommend the Magnetic Memory Method. Dr Anthony Metivier is a memory expert and claims to help you to improve your memory in just eight days. With his techniques, you can certainly master the Cyrillic alphabet as well as Russian difficult grammar and vocabulary.
Babbel targets all of the key language skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing, in one easy-to-use Russian course. Its courses are available on a dedicated mobile app, as well as on an online platform. This course is ideal for beginners, but it will prove to you that Russian is not as hard as you think.
Our Final Thoughts on the Question: How Hard Is It To Learn Russian?
No language is impossible to learn; it all depends on how you look at it. If you’re motivated to learn Russian and have thought about all of the reasons why you want to learn, it should come relatively easy. We’d recommend starting out with a course that promotes a little bit of learning every single day, one that will keep you motivated and loving your learning journey.
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.