After a quick foray into a romance language like Spanish or French, it’s likely that you could be conversational on a basic level, woo your monolingual friends, and feel like a less of a tourist in a foreign country.
However, don’t be so bold as to think your success in the languages of Western Europe will carry over into the east. The Slavic languages play by a vastly different set of rules, and Russian (being the most widely spoken language in the group) is no exception.
In this post, we’ll look at three of the biggest hurdles you’ll face learning Russian, as well as several practical approaches for ameliorating them so that you start speaking the language as soon as possible.
First, the three biggest problems with Russian…
1. The Grammatical Case System
One thing I didn’t count on when learning Russian was it’s grammatical case system. It’s cold, unrelenting, and leaves no region of the language untouched. Russian nouns receive different endings based on their function within a sentence. Without getting too in depth into the finer points of grammar, take a look at these English sentences:
- This is a dog.
- I have a dog.
- I kicked the dog.
- I gave the dog a bone.
- I played with the dog.
- There is no dog.
In Russian, each one of these sentences uses a different form of the word “dog.” Each form is called a case. There are six cases in the Russian language, meaning that there are six different forms for any one noun you want to say. If that wasn’t difficult enough, it gets even better.
If the noun is plural, it has an entirely new set of endings to choose from. Pronouns also have different forms, which are essentially completely different words. Also, adjectives will change form so that they agree with the noun they modify.
Suddenly, conveying a simple idea like “I gave my friend’s dog a big bone” becomes immensely difficult for the new Russian learner, as they have to juggle a seemingly endless amount of forms and word endings.
The use of Russian verbs also poses all sorts of challenges for the native English speaker. As in Spanish, French, and other Romance languages, Russian verbs change based on who or what is performing the action (this is called conjugation).
In addition to conjugation, Russian verbs come in many sets of pairs. There’s one pair for the past and future tenses where one verb signifies a completed action and the other represents an action that wasn’t completed.
There’s another pair for verbs of motion (run, walk, drive, fly, etc.). You use one to describe a single motion in a single direction and another to describe a repeated motion. You also use two different verbs depending on whether you’re “going” by transport or by foot. It can all seem dizzying.
Russian has several sounds that don’t exist in the English language. On top of that, there are a large collection of sounds that sound similar to English but are noticeably different. For me, it was the length of the words and the long combinations of consonants that made Russian difficult to speak and understand.
It’s not uncommon to have a 15+ letter word which has three or four consonants in a row (those four consonants usually being some combination of v, s, n, p, or t sounds).
Everything in your English-speaking brain will revolt against processing the sounds of a Russian word. When I first started using the language, the words felt more like noises than actual language.
How To Face The Challenge
Together, these aspects of the language make learning Russian a daunting task for any would be language student. If taken in all at once, the sheer number of new grammatical rules and foreign sounds will leave you with so many plates to spin that you’ll be hard pressed to utter much more than a “да” or “как дела.”
But there are three things you can do to start speaking the language more efficiently. These techniques won’t get you fluent faster, but they will get you speaking the language quicker than many traditional methods. These three steps should be done in order as they build on one another.
1. Focus On Pronunciation First
Before you learn a single Russian word, learn correct pronunciation. Take the Russian sound system letter by letter until you can more or less pronounce and recognize each individual sound in the language. You’ll have to learn the Cyrillic alphabet anyways, so you might as well learn the written form of letters alongside the spoken sounds.
Once you have a handle on the individual sounds, start to practice pronouncing longer words” breaking them down by syllable and gradually stringing them back together to say the complete word. Once you’re comfortable with words, look for some basic Russian audio. There’s a ton of beginner phrases and dialogues on the internet (just Google it).
Listen to the spoken audio and try to imitate not just the sounds of the words and letters but also the intonation of the speaker. At this stage it’s not important that you understand what you’re saying. All you’re doing at this point is training your tongue and your ears so that they become comfortable with the sound system of the language.
2. Learn The 500+ Most Common Words
Many a linguist has spent ungodly amounts of time determining which words in a given language are used the most frequently. Thankfully, frequency lists for most languages aren’t hard to come by on the Internet. Take the 500 most common Russian nouns, adjectives, and verbs and commit them to memory. For now, stay away from prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, etc.
I recommend putting these words into a spaced repetition flashcard deck. Don’t use English translations. Instead, pull images off Google for your flashcards and use a site like Forvo to put MP3s of native speakers into your cards as well.
If you’ve paid your dues to the pronunciation system, you’ll find it a lot easier to remember words when you hear them. Where you hear a word, see an associated image, and see the word’s spelling, your brain has a lot more information to grab onto when it’s trying to recall Russian vocabulary.
It will take you a while to manually make each flashcard, but once you’ve built your deck, 20 to 30 minutes of study each day should get you through 500 words in about a month or so. If you use spaced repetition everyday (the way it was designed to be used), these words will begin to bury themselves into your memory. You won’t be forgetting them anytime soon.
3, Pick Apart The Grammar
Now, it’s time to see your patience pay off as you get into the meat of the language. It’s best to build on your knowledge step by step and piece by piece, so that you can make steady but firm progress in the language.
At this level, the two principle grammatical obstacles to speaking basic Russian are verb conjugations and cases. Many Russian verbs share endings and fall into several groups which are all conjugated the same way. When you’re learning verbs, focus on working with one group at a time. For now, stick with present tense verbs.
Similarly, spend a week or two systematically practicing a single Russian case. Don’t move onto a new case until you are comfortable with the word endings and uses of the current one. Again, you want to progress through the language gradually. A lack of thoroughness in the beginning will spell disaster later on.
As verbs and cases become more familiar to you, those 500+ words you already know will allow you to create a ton of basic yet useful phrases in the language. Your ability in the language will effectively leap past most beginning Russian students who are likely to still struggle with basic words and phrases for the first few stages of learning.
This approach to Russian is slow at the start, but over the long term, it will help you gain considerable momentum. That being said, it only works if you consistently study the language.
Above all other factors, discipline is the most indispensable part of learning a foreign language. Techniques and tools provide some value, but at the end of the day, the determining factor in learning Russian is you.
Read More: What It Takes To Learn A New Language