What Makes Learning Russian so Hard for the English-Speakers?

When asked this question, native English-speakers usually provide similar answers: the main difficulties are (in an approximate order of lowest to highest difficulty, and this is not a full list): learning Cyrillic, pronunciation, case for nouns / adjectives, verbal affixes / aspect, intonation, and word order.

Many language learners believe that, if they know a certain number of words, they will be able to communicate the language they are studying, and this may be true for some languages, but not in the case of the Russian language, where words change a lot due to numerous suffixes, endings, and prefixes, which are not only difficult to remember, but, what’s more, they may change the meanings of words dramatically. Learning words and their meanings is not enough in Russian. You’ve got to know a lo about various language structures and grammar rules, if you want to understand and speak Russian.

Those who have just started studying Russian say that learning Russian pronunciation is quite challenging, but in fact, it comes to you with practice. A more difficult thing, probably, is having to remember cases for nouns / adjectives and verbal affixes / aspect.

English has a large number of phrasal verbs which can have wildly differing meanings. In fact, Russian phraseology is very developed, too, and using it may be quite a task to a beginner, when all Russians use lots of phraseology and idioms in daily communication, which makes understanding Russian quite difficult for beginners.

Really many things in the Russian language are left to the learner’s memory. Russian suffixes, for example, may have predictable meanings, which tend to be “technical”, for lack of a better word, while prefixes are more abstract and polysemic—as are the English particles. For example, Rusian words распустить, выпуск, запуск, запущенный have the same root, by the way, but very different spelling and pronunciation, to say nothing about the meanings.

While English phrasal verbs like give up, go on, take off, take after— let you make educated guesses at what they mean, especially if you encounter one of them in context, a learner of Russian cannot reliably deduce the meanings of words by only knowing the meaning of a root or of the parts they are built of.

Also, many English-speakers find Russian language structure lacking logic; they believe that there are too many exceptions to each rule to even be able to call them rules at all. Other learners complain that Russian free word order makes it even more difficult to speak, because while putting words at random places in the sentence, you never know what logical accent your final phrase will acquire.

Here are a few interesting notes which I picked up at Russian learner’ forums;  these comments give you a great picture of their troubles while trying to master Russian:

Comment 1: “It is certainly the vocabulary that is giving me the most trouble, although I seem to have reached a point where words are beginning to be related to each other and I recognize the root and so can guess the meaning, and anticipate the form. The grammar, apart from becoming accustomed to the verbs, does not seem difficult…”

Comment 2: “DO NOT try to learn Russian by roots, prefixes, and suffixes. My SMALL experience with Russian prefixes and suffixes is that they do NOT modify in a logical manner.”

Comment 3: “Basically, you could learn 3 other languages as easily as you can learn Russian. And then there is the grammar.”

And now, for the last comment, on the most optimistic note, to wrap up the discussion for today. Enjoy!

Comment 4:  “If you put solid effort into learning Russian and maintain motivation and dedication, you will become conversationally fluent sooner than you expect! Once you get a foot-hold into the language, you will be learning and retaining more and more, easier and easier. It’s like learning a new word in your native language – it isn’t hard at all to remember it because you can subconsciously find the roots and words similar to it, and you hear it around you so you’re exposed to the word and “revising” it. Just take it slow and understand everything handed to you and you will be on the road to fluency in no time! Good luck :)”

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1 Comment

  1. Oleksanr

     /  February 28, 2017

    Agree with your statement. You have to put a great deal of work in studying foreign language. Especially Russian. Great article Irina!

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