Russian is one of six official languages of the United Nations. While learning Russian can be difficult because of its use of the Cyrllic alphabet and gender-based nouns, it can also be worth it for economic, political or cultural reasons, among others.
“Since Russian is one of the non-Western European languages critical to U.S. national security, students who are interested in pursuing a career in politics and international relations often decide to have Russian in their resumes,” says Ksana Blank, senior lecturer in Princeton University’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.
Cultural factors can also influence wanting to learn Russian, she says, since fans of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov may want to read these writers’ works in their original language.
In order to learn a language such as Russian, Blank recommends being patient and practicing regularly, especially with someone who speaks Russian fluently. Here are some other strategies you can use to learn the Russian language quickly and effectively.
There are 154 million Russian native speakers in the world, according to Russia Beyond, and the World Population Review lists four countries that recognize Russian as an official language. Additionally, many people in or from former republics of the Soviet Union such as Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia understand Russian, along with those in or from former Soviet satellite countries such as Poland or the Czech Republic.
Knowing Russian can open doors for entrepreneurs in these countries. Plus, having a good understanding of the language can also help people understand other languages in the Slavic language family, which draw upon similar linguistic characteristics. It can also be useful for those traveling throughout Eastern Europe, where English is sometimes not as well-understood as it is in Western Europe.
While learning Russian for tourism isn’t common, Blank says, many want to learn it because of Russian culture’s impact on Western civilization. In addition to being able to read classic literature in its native form, those who enjoy Russian classical music such as Tchaikovsky may want to learn the language for its historical significance.
While Russian is classified by the Foreign Service Institute as Category III – languages with “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” – Blank says learning the Cyrllic alphabet, often considered a roadblock to learning Russian, is easier than people think. So, how hard is it to learn Russian?
“Although it looks unusual, it is not difficult, because several Cyrillic letters are immediately recognizable from their similarity to English letters,” she says. The letter “H,” for example, is also used in Cyrllic language, however, in Russian it is used for “N” sounds. Once you understand these changes, Russian can become easier to learn.
Understanding Russian grammar may also take time and practice. “Russian does not have articles, but has gender,” Blank says. Words are either masculine, feminine or neutral. “It has only three basic tenses of present, past and future, but in past and future, almost every verb has two aspects of perfective and imperfective.”
However, one characteristic of Russian can actually make it easier than some other languages. “The word order in Russian is flexible, because Russian has (six) cases,” Blank says, which can change depending on placement in Russian sentence structure. In comparison, Hungarian language has 18 cases, she says. Russian language also uses fewer words to express meaning and doesn’t contain articles such as “a,” “an” or “the,” which makes learning Russian challenging, but doable.
As with any language, total immersion is the fastest and best way to learn Russian. Blank also recommends keeping an eye on your learning speed. “Learning Russian takes more time and requires a slower pace than learning Romance languages,” she says. To make learning Russian language easier, try these tips:
- Learn Cyrillic. It will serve as a foundation for reading and writing in Russian. It can also help with speaking or pronunciation as you learn Russian. Unlike English, Russian letters have one distinct sound.
- Learn stressed (elongated) and unstressed (shortened) vowel sounds.
- Memorize Russian phrases and basic Russian words.
- Practice speaking Russian as much as possible, especially with native speakers.
- Listening to and repeating Russian alphabet sounds will be helpful as you learn how to speak Russian. The Russian “R,” for example, should be rolled a certain way, and the best way to learn how is to listen to others do it. This is also where native Russian speakers can help.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Practice writing Russian with native speakers who can help correct emails, texts or other forms of writing.
- Watch Russian movies or TV shows with English subtitles on. This can help you associate spoken Russian words to translated English. As you become more advanced in your learning, you may also opt for Russian audio only.
- Continue to learn how to read Russian via Russian websites, forums, books, newspapers and magazines.
As you research resources to help you learn Russian, consider your ideal method of learning. Are you a visual or auditory learner? How fast do you want to learn Russian? It’s also important to factor in your budget as you gather tools to help you on your journey. Here are some learning resources to try depending on your style:
- Russian movies and TV are a great way to become immersed in both culture and language. These can be found on Netflix, which allows you to change audio language on most Russian selections, or through YouTube, which has a wide selection of free Russian content. ETVNET offers live Russian TV channels, while Russian state-owned channel NTV can be added to a cable TV package. Beginners can start with Russian children’s programs and work their way up to more advanced media.
- Russian radio and podcasts can also be useful to more advanced learners. TuneIn Radio offers a variety of radio stations that feature Russian news, sports and music, while internet radio platform Radio Dacha plays the top hits. “Listening to Russian songs while following the lyrics is another fun and yet very useful way to improve your language skills,” says Mike “Misha” Danilin, an adjunct Russian language lecturer at New York University. Podcast series that teach Russian such as “Russian Made Easy” and “A Spoonful of Russian” can also be helpful, along with Russian history podcasts such as “Arzamas” or science podcasts such as “Postnauka.”
- Russian textbooks catering to your learning level can be another key resource in mastering the language. Danilin recommends “Beginner’s Russian With Interactive Online Workbook” by Anna S. Kudyma and Olga Kagan for elementary Russian learners. “It is effective for a classroom but can be a great self-learning tool as it comes with a wide variety of interactive online exercises,” he says. For intermediate learners, he suggests “V Puti” by Kagan, Frank Miller and Ganna Kudyma. Russian books in general can also aid learning – consider children’s books for beginners, themed magazines (such as sports or home) for intermediate and more complex books for advanced learners.
- Popular Russian websites that students can visit include news outlets Vesti.RU and state-owned Sputnik (formerly RIA Novosti), which can help with reading and learning Russian culture.
- Internet classes are a good way to learn Russian online, especially if you can’t meet with a tutor in person. Udemy and Babbel offer paid classes with different levels of Russian language, while beginners’ resources such as RussianLessons.net and YouTube can help you learn Russian free. Danilin recommends this YouTube channel for Russian grammar in particular.
- Paid language learning apps such as Rosetta Stone have become increasingly popular over the years for all levels of Russian lessons. Duolingo offers free Russian courses in different levels and has a paid version as well to remove ads. Another free Russian app to try is Russian Cyrllic, which teaches the alphabet through a three-hour program.
Like any language, mastering Russian requires dedication and commitment. While the Foreign Service Institute estimates Russian will take 1,100 class hours to learn, this could be more or less depending on how many hours you can commit to each week. Your goals for the language will also play a factor – for example, if you simply want to learn how to speak conversational Russian without reading or writing, the process may move more quickly. If you want to become fluent in Russian, though, Danilin says practicing daily for 15 to 30 minutes can help you learn Russian fast.
One of the best ways to learn a foreign language quickly is to experience the culture firsthand. “I would recommend everyone who has passed elementary stage, which normally takes about one year, to go to a Russian-speaking country and spend some time there,” Danilin says. However, as shown above, there are numerous ways to get to know the Russian culture, language and history before or without going abroad.
Getting past the first year is the hardest part. From there, the journey can speed up. “It becomes a much easier and natural process once you’ve passed the most difficult elementary stage,” Danilin says, “not to mention it being very rewarding.”