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Debunking 4 Common Myths about Learning the Russian Language

This week's post is created by Jesse of Spanish Hackers. Jesse is a native English speaker from the USA. His language learning journey started with the Spanish language. Currently, he is studying Russian and hopes to use the language as he travels the world.

According to the US Foreign Service Institute it takes approximately 44 weeks (1100 classroom hours) to reach proficiency in the Russian language. In fact by their estimation Russian falls into one of the hardest categories of languages for native English speakers to learn.

Glossika ranks the difficulty of languages by measuring three important aspects to get to fluency: the acquisition of vocabulary, grammar, and phonics. Glossika ranks the difficulty of Russian 6.81 out of 10, which is currently the highest score of all languages on Glossika.

Russian certainly has a tough reputation, and because of that many shy away from ever learning it. But is all this hype justified? Maybe, but maybe not.

In this post we look at four common myths surrounding the difficulty of the Russian language.

1) The Cyrillic alphabet is too difficult

Shortly after I started learning Russian, I had a friend over to my house. He saw the sheets of paper I was using to practice my Russian handwriting and he asked if I was learning a secret code. He had no idea I was learning the alphabet of a foreign language.

For many native English speakers the Cyrillic alphabet looks almost completely indistinguishable from the English alphabet. Even so, this doesn’t mean that learning to read Russian is like cracking a coded message. The truth is that learning the Russian alphabet isn’t nearly as difficult as people often make it out to be.

There will be some letters in Russian that will look completely new, but there are also several like Аа and Мм, which look and sound similar to their English counterparts. For me the new symbols and letters weren’t that hard to remember. The letters that looked like English ones but had completely different sounds were the most difficult for me, mainly because I kept confusing them. For example, Вв looks like English Bb but is pronounced like Vv.

Still, even with these challenges most learners have a pretty good handle on the Russian Alphabet after a week or two of study and practice. Don’t let Cyrillic spook you.

2) Russian Grammar is overwhelming

I’m not going to sugarcoat things here. Russian grammar can get pretty complicated. As a native English speaker it’s easy to get lost somewhere between the grammatical cases, verbal aspect, flexible word order, and verb conjugations. It can get overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to!

While there are a lot of rules in Russian grammar, for the most part they are fairly consistent. If you take grammatical concepts like cases or verb conjugations and break them down into smaller parts, like focusing on a single case or a single pattern of conjugations, it’s a lot easier to understand and remember what’s going on.

Beginners often make the mistake of biting off more than they can chew when learning Russian. They dive into a textbook or grammar sheet and quickly become discouraged and distraught.

For instance take the common phrase “next week” in Russian…

There's only one way to say "next week" in Russian, and so you always use the grammar in that phrase the exact same way, so there's no grammar to learn -- you just say it that way. But you can "borrow" that grammar for lots of other phrases, and by doing this via Glossika, where you pick up the patterns of Russian grammar the same way a child learns it inherently by using the language.

week = неделя (it's feminine)
next week = на следующей неделе (it's prepositional case, feminine adjective ending -- which is too confusing -- but if you just practice saying the phrase, you'll remember this pattern as it shows up in many other phrases and sentences, and pretty soon you're using prepositional case properly in all situations).

We can see another similar example in the Russian term for weekend: выходной, which oddly enough is plural unlike in English.

If we were going to say “next weekend” in Russian it would be: на следующих выходных (it's prepositional plural -- which is very confusing -- but if you practice saying the phrase, you'll start noticing this pattern in lots of sentences that describe similar ideas)

So if your aim is to speak Russian then you might not even need to worry about grammar to the degree that you thought. Grammar is certainly important and will always have its place in language learning, but one of the greatest assets to your speaking ability is actually knowing the syntax of the Russian language. Which brings us to our next myth about learning Russian...

3) It takes years to become conversational

Before I became interested in learning foreign languages I assumed that it took 2-3 years of study before you could hold a basic conversation in a foreign language. This was because I had met many people who had taken years of language classes in high school or college, and they still had trouble speaking the language.

The problem wasn’t in the languages they were learning, but the way in which they learned these languages. Often traditional courses focus heavily on grammar and send students through a myriad of exercises and tests that help them remember the rules, but don’t necessarily help them learn the language.

To develop proficient speaking ability in Russian you need to know how to use Russian grammar and vocabulary, not just remember lists of rules or words. This is where syntax comes in. Learning a language’s syntax helps you practice the language in a way that you begin to pick up the natural patterns of sentences. After enough time and study you’ll be able to naturally use things like grammatical cases, word order, etc. This is what makes Glossika such a powerful learning tool, as it focuses heavily on teaching its users the syntax in a way that is both practical and memorable.

During your studies your grammar won’t be perfect, but even without consciously knowing all the rules you will be able to become conversational. The time it takes to do so can be measured in months rather than years!

4) It’s hard to find native speakers if you don’t live abroad

Finding native speakers for languages like Spanish or even Chinese doesn’t seem that difficult for many learners, depending on where you live. If you’re learning Russian though, you might not be as optimistic. It’s important to remember that Russian is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world with over 250 million speakers!

Russian is the official language of 4 countries, and can still be heard in a dozen countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Most if not all of these countries have a global diaspora. If you live anywhere near a major city you might be surprised to find native Russian speakers.

If you can’t find native speakers locally, try moving your search to the internet. There are a host of free language exchanges online, where you can easily connect with native Russian speakers who are learning English themselves. Through text chat, video chat, or instant messaging you can take turns helping one another practice your foreign language.

Conclusion

Foreign language acquisition is never easy, no matter which language you’re learning. There’s a lot mystery and misunderstanding surrounding just how difficult the Russian language is. For native English speakers there will be some twists and turns, but the road to fluency in Russian probably isn’t as confusing as you once thought.

Overall your studies should be gradual yet consistent. As you take the language piece by piece you will see your skills improve!

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Debunking 4 Common Myths about Learning the Russian Language
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