Is Russian Hard to Learn? The Ultimate (Optimistic) Answer

If we showed you a movie scene in German on YouTube, we are sure you would start to point at the screen and go “Oh, I know that word…!”. More than a few times. This is because German and English belong to the same family language and many of their words have the same roots. However, if we were to do the same with a scene from a Russian movie (which, by the way, would be a great idea as Russian cinema is truly fantastic) chances are you won’t understand a thing.

Does this mean that Russian is extremely hard to learn?

No! That is a common but unfair misconception. The fact that Russian sounds so unfamiliar to English-speaking people just means that these languages belong to different language families, i.e., that their linguistic origins are not related in any way.  

Now, if you want to know how hard Russian really is, we will have to delve deep into the Russian writing system, and other aspects such as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Are you ready? Perhaps, after reading the article, you could answer the question “Is Russian hard to learn?” yourself. 

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The Russian Alphabet

Is Russian hard to learn? Globally, not so much. Now, is the Russian alphabet hard to learn? 

You bet!

The Russian alphabet, with its strange-looking symbols that never sound the way you expect them to, is probably the hardest aspect of the Russian language.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that writing in Russian is as difficult as writing in Chinese. In fact, a few Russian letters (and sounds!) will be quite familiar to English speakers. Letters like А а, К к, М м, O o, and Т т have quite straightforward spelling-to-sound rules, which means they have the same sound in all contexts in all Russian dialects.

Let’s focus, then, on the letters that may give English speakers a headache:

В в – Similar to English V

Е е – Pronounced like the “ya” in “yawn”.

Н н – An equivalent to the English letter N.

Р р – Similar to the “r” in “risk”. (To make this letter sound Russian, you need to roll your tongue as far back as you can without looking weird)

У у – Pronounced like the double “o”  in “book” or “took”.

Х х – Pronounced like the “h” in “hammock”, but with a stronger quality, more like the “j” in the Spanish word “jamón” (ham).

The sounds above are particularly hard because they are linguistic false friends. We look at them and we think we know what they are. But they are actually something different!

Now let’s delve into a group of letters that look more menacing than they really are.

Б б – An equivalent to the English B.

Г г – An equivalent to the English G, as in “go”. 

Д д – An equivalent to the English D. (What? Isn’t that an A?)

З з – An equivalent to the English Z.

И и – Sometimes equivalent to an English I, it is often pronounced like the “i” in “coffin”. (Sorry, I should have probably thought of a more cheerful example).

Л л – Equivalent to a clear English L, it sounds like the “l” in “laugh”. (There you go)

П п – An equivalent to the English P.

Ф ф – An equivalent to the English F. (If you say so…)

Э э – Pronounced like the “e” in “met”. (OK, I can see that…)

The third and last group is about sounds that will be familiar to English ears, but which don’t have their own letter in our language, usually because they’re a combination of two different sounds together. 

Ю ю – Similar to the “y” in you” or the “u” in “university”.

Я я – It sounds like the “ya” part in “yacht”. (And no, it has nothing to do with the letter R). 

Ж ж – Similar to the sibilant S in “measure” or “pleasure”.

Ц ц – This is pronounced like the “ts” sound in “gets” or “meets”. (Just think of a drop of water hitting a hot pan!)

Ч ч – An equivalent to the English /ch/.

Ш ш – An equivalent to the English /sh/.

Щ щ – This one is pronounced like “sh”, but your tongue has to be in the same position as if you wanted to say “ch”. (Imagine you are about to say “cherry” and say “sherry” instead)

Ы ы – It sounds like the short I sound in “pit” or “kit”. (Sort of…)

Russian Grammar

So, what’s the answer? is Russian hard to learn or not? If by “Russian” you mean “the Russian alphabet”, the answer is yes. Now, if you’re thinking about Russian grammar, not so much.

Sure, it’s harder than Spanish grammar. But it is definitely easier than Chinese. (Poor Chinese, you’re getting that a lot today!).

These are just a few reasons why Russian grammar is easier than you might think:

  1. Word order is flexible. Although most Russian phrases normally follow a subject-verb-object structure, they make sense in other orders too.
  2. The famous verb ”to be” doesn’t even exist in Russian in the present tense. “You are pretty” is simply “you pretty” (which sounds hilarious if you ask me): Вы красивая
  3. Changing word order because you’re asking a question? Not in Russian. In this language, questions are formed by simply changing the intonation of an affirmative sentence. 
  4. To form negative adjectives, verbs, and nouns you simply add не before it. Example: intelligent / unintelligent: разумный / неразумный
  5. There are no definite (the) or indefinite (a/an) articles in Russian! 
  6. Forget about “perfect” tenses. In Russian, only 3 verb forms— past, present and future.

If we had to mention one difficult aspect of Russian grammar, it would be grammatical gender and grammatical cases. (Yeah, that makes two things, I was hoping you wouldn’t notice).

In Russian, there is a gender among nouns —masculine, feminine, and neutral. For example, a table (Таблица) is male, and a pen (ручка) is female. 

Also, nouns are declined by case, which means that their ending changes depending on what question they answer: Who? To whom? etc. 

All in all, however, it’s plain to see that, when it comes to grammar, the answer to the question “Is Russian hard to learn?” is a loud, assured “No”. 

Russian Vocabulary

Picture of a Russian newspaperLike we said before, It’s not that Russian vocabulary is particularly hard. It’s just completely unfamiliar to English learners. The only real challenge is that Russian people simply think about words differently. 

Take the verb “to go”, for example, a word that we use dozens of times every day in English. In Russian, this verb technically doesn’t exist, at least not in the same way we use it in English.

Russian verbs of motion are much more specific. To say that someone is going somewhere, Russians need to specify the “method” or “kind” of movement involved (walking, driving, flying, climbing, etc.)

This means that there are two separate sets of conjugations for “going on foot” (Ходить/Идти) and “going by transport” (Ездить/Ехать). However, the extra difficulty posed by these exceptional cases can be tackled by learning the different versions of “to go” in contextual chunks. 

Like with any other language, in order to learn Russian, you need to think in Russian!

FAQs About the Russian Language

What’s the Level of Difficulty of Russian?

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) offers a list that shows the level of difficulty involved in learning any specific language for an English speaker. According to their research, Russian belongs to Category IV, as it presents significant linguistic or cultural differences from English.

How Long Would It Take to Learn Russian?

According to the FSI, it would take 1100 hours or 44 weeks to become conversational in Russian. However, how fast you master the language will depend on other factors such as your learning methodology, how much you are exposed to the language, and your natural predisposition. 

How Many Words Does It Take to Be Fluent in Russian?

Russian universities recognize six levels of achievement in the acquisition of the Russian language. For example, an elementary student has a vocabulary of 750 words, an intermediate one knows 2300 words, and an advanced speaker uses up to 6000 words. In order to achieve native-like fluency, a learner needs to be able to use up to 8000 words.

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Luckily, we can help you on your way to fluency. On our website, you will find online and in-person courses taught by native Russian teachers who believe that speaking is the best way to learn a language. 

If you’re still unsure that the question “Is Russian hard to learn?” can have a happy answer for you, give us a chance to show you it can. Send us a quick message now and we’ll pair you up with a Russian tutor for a free trial lesson, no strings attached! We have the feeling that you’ll want to come back for more!