How Hard Is It To Learn Russian?

Have you always wanted to read untranslated versions of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy? Or are you just looking to add another alphabet to your repertoire? Whatever your motivations may be, here’s the lowdown on how hard it is to learn Russian.
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How Hard Is It To Learn Russian?

You may have heard that Russian is an extremely complicated language. Indeed, mastering Russian’s Cyrillic alphabet and complex grammar can be a daunting prospect, but before you say нет, спасибо! (No, thanks!), let Babbel’s expert linguists give you the real picture of how difficult (or doable) it really is. As the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, famously said before lifting off: Поехали! (Let’s go!).

Find Your True Friends: The Cyrillic Alphabet (Кириллица)

The natural starting point for an English speaker learning Russian is the Cyrillic alphabet and its 33 different letters. If you look at it and say “That’s Greek to me!”, you’re more correct than you might think. The Cyrillic alphabet was developed during the 9th Century and contains a blend of Greek, Latin and Old Slavic symbols.

The upside for us English speakers: Cyrillic uses 11 letters that match our alphabet, so we technically only have to learn 22 new symbols. For example, I’ll bet you’ve already got a pretty good handle on words like мама (mama), какао (cocoa) and атом (atom). But Russian learners beware! False friends are lurking among those familiar letters. While A, E, O, K, M and T generally correspond to the same sounds in English, the following symbols may trip you up during your first lessons:

Cyrillic Letter English Sound
H N
P R
C S
X H

Nothing to fear, though! With a bit of persistence, you’ll be reading война и мир (War and Peacein Russian before you know it. Or as the Russians say: Без труда не вытащишь и рыбку из пруда! (literally: “Without hard work, you won’t drag the fish out of the pond!”)

Stop — Grammar Time!

A ‘Case’ for Optimism?

At first glance, Russian’s six grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental and prepositional) are sure to intimidate an English-speaker learning Russian. Given that English only has a two-case system, one of the biggest challenges of languages like Russian is learning that nouns, adjectives, personal pronouns and numerals are all marked with endings corresponding with their respective case. For example, there are five different endings for the noun “captain” in Russian:

Nominative Accusative/Genitive Instrumental Dative Prepositional
капитан капитана капитаном капитану  капитане

Scary, right? But not as scary as it was in the past: Russian learners actually used to have to master a seventh case called the vocative, but modern Russian has lost this case except in fixed expressions such as “Боже мой!” (My God!) or “Господи!” (“Lord!”, vocative of Господь).

We aspiring Russian learners can also take comfort in the fact that Russian is still far from being the most case-heavy language, even within the Eurasian region. For example, the languages of the Finno-Ugric (also called Uralic) family — including Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian — have no fewer than 14-18 cases!

While it’s impossible to say exactly how long it will take you to learn Russian, the combined challenge of the Cyrillic alphabet and 6-case system means that you’ll definitely have to invest a bit more time and make plenty of mistakes before reaching the basic conversational level. But as a wise Russian chef once said: “Первый блин всегда комом” (The first pancake is always lumpy), so fear not and get into the language-learning kitchen!

With Complexity Comes Flexibility

While you’re busy perfecting those proverbial Russian grammar-pancakes, you can also take comfort in two additional aspects of Russian: First, one of the nice things about grammatically complex languages is that they have correspondingly free word order.

Take the example sentence in English: “I showed the captain my ticket yesterday.” Because there is no affix to tell us what the subject, direct object or indirect object is in English, we cannot move any of the elements around in the sentence (unless we introduce a preposition: “to the captain”). This means that learners must learn this rigid word order in English. By contrast, this sentence can be written in virtually any combination in Russian:

Russian English
1. Я показал свой билет капитану вчера. I showed my ticket (to) the captain yesterday.
2. Я показал вчера капитану свой билет. I showed yesterday (to) the captain my ticket.
3. Я показал капитану свой билет вчера. I showed (to) the captain my ticket yesterday.
4. Вчера я показал свой билет капитану. Yesterday I showed my ticket (to) the captain.
5. Вчера я показал капитану свой билет. Yesterday I showed (to) the captain my ticket.
6. Свой билет я показал капитану вчера.  My ticket I showed (to) the captain yesterday.

Though all of these forms are 100% grammatically correct, it is also important to note that, when placed within the context of a conversation, the orders in these examples emphasize different elements of the sentence. For example, in example 3, you would be emphasizing that you showed him the ticket yesterday, and not today or a week ago. Likewise, in example 4, you are specifying that you gave it to the captain, and not a deckhand or cabin boy.

Other Upsides

Russian also gives us a little break in that it doesn’t have any definite or indefinite articles. Thus, “a boat” or “the boat” would both simply be “лодка” in Russian. Though English also has a relatively simple system with only one option for a definite article (the) and one option for the indefinite article (a/an), learners of languages like German have to learn a host of different article forms. For the masculine noun der Mann (the man), there are no fewer than eight forms of definite and indefinite article the learner has to choose from!

So to sum it all up, there’s no question that learning Russian is less of a river crossing and more of a transatlantic voyage, but I hope this article has proven that the Russians are spot-on when they say: “Без паники на Титанике!” (literally, “No panic on Titanic!”).

Are you ready to dive into learning Russian now?
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Todd Ehresmann
Todd Ehresmann was born and raised in the Upper Midwest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He completed his PhD in Germanic Linguistics, delving into the inner workings of urban migration and language change, including his dissertation on the early development of Berlin’s urban dialect. A resident of Berlin since 2012, Todd is on a mission to explore the European continent by bike, one country at a time. When he’s not on two wheels, he can be found baking sourdough bread and croissants, or honing his latest top-secret chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Todd Ehresmann was born and raised in the Upper Midwest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He completed his PhD in Germanic Linguistics, delving into the inner workings of urban migration and language change, including his dissertation on the early development of Berlin’s urban dialect. A resident of Berlin since 2012, Todd is on a mission to explore the European continent by bike, one country at a time. When he’s not on two wheels, he can be found baking sourdough bread and croissants, or honing his latest top-secret chocolate chip cookie recipe.
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