The 3 Biggest Challenges You’ll Face When Learning Russian

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.

There are a host of good reasons to learn Russian.

2. Verbs

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.

3. Pronunciation

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.

Russian grammar will test your mettle.

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.

Simple Steps

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

35 thoughts on “The 3 Biggest Challenges You’ll Face When Learning Russian”

    1. I wonder how many non-native russian speakers are there in the world with half way decent pronuncation, because, every time I hear russian in some big Hollywood blockbuster movie, its just fucking terrible, cant they just hire someone with clean russian and overdub the actors gibberish?

      1. It is very hard I’ve known Russian for 5 years now and I still can’t pronounce в properly, a friend told me to pretend to make the sound you’d make if you got stabbed in the stomach, I still cannot pronounce понедельник (Monday)
        And yes Hollywood Russians are cringeworthy

  1. Might be usefull to shout “I’m a fellow ROK reader” when NATO forces us to shot each other.

  2. The easiest way to learn any language is to grow up with it at least on TV and have some family friends coming by and speaking it, otherwise its going to be hard/harder depending on your background as well as learning skills.
    I for one am very good at russian, however, in recent years Ive chosen to speak it with more pronounce accent of my native language even though I could as well not. Basically I can adapt to the language style of company Im in if its foreign language or different dialect.

  3. Weak. I first learned Russian under Nikita Kruschev’s favorite translator, Sergei Shishkov, at U. Michigan A^2 to improve my fleet assignment as a naval aviator. I later studied Russian language in Moscow as adjunct to my dissertation in computer science. I improved it further teaching law coursework in Russia as part of my JD/LLM sequence. I’m a patent lawyer now and I utilize Russian on a weekly basis. It’s not that difficult a language compared with Armenian – Beiruiti, Eastern and Western etc. Clearly you’re younger than my generation, X, because you have no idea how to learn how to learn new communication. I feel for you, truly.

    1. Who cares about learning armenian ? Hayvanstancis have ruined our reputation so much that the only reason to learn armenian is to be able to communicate in orange county correctional facility .

  4. One good thing about learning Russian is that other Slavic languages like Polish or Serbo-Croatian will seem almost familiar, especially since many of them use the Latin alphabet instead of Cyrillic. With the notable exception of Bulgarian, the other Slavic languages’ grammar is also very close to Russian, so if you’ve mastered Russian grammar, you’re pretty much good to go with the others for the most part.

    1. Bulgarian and Macedonian abandoned the case system. They’re also the only two Slavic languages to use definite articles.

    2. theres no serbo croatian, thats serbian
      croatians use serbian since the end of 19th century

  5. I’ve been learning it. If you know a romance language, it’s easier. I have been surprised how many Russian words have the same Latin/Greek roots as in Western European languages. So it’s not as bad as I thought. I thought it would take me years just to be able to discern anything in Russian, but I can have some basic conversation after a year.

    1. Russian also borrowed a lot of words from French and German, and some from Dutch, English, and Italian as well.
      In fact, just about any Russian word with an F (Ф) in it is of foreign origin.

  6. If you have already studied a romance language, or especially Latin, the whole conjugation and declension thing is a lot easier. Russian is also very logical. If you have any speaking ability at all, you will stand out as far less lazy and stupid than most Westerners.

  7. The case system kicks my ass, but as a native Spanish speaker, the Russian verb system was fairly easy to grasp, and pronunciation is somewhat like my language (especially the r’s). The lack of definite articles was a relief for me, rather than an oddity. Overall, not an extremely difficult language, IMO.

  8. I don’t know anything about Russian language and have never heard of noun case before reading this. However, having clicked through to the tutorial of how case works, I have to admit that there is a certain logic to it, even though it would be a real bitch for an English speaker like myself to learn and get used to using.
    Verb conjugations are, of course, central to learning Romance languages and also take a lot of effort to get used to using.

  9. No time to learn Russian. Portuguese is a very difficult language. Even locals can’t learn proper grammar.
    So, I can speak Portuguese, Spanish and English. Why should I learn Russian?

    1. I understsand you, 3 languages is about 3 times more than average native english speaker will ever bother to learn to speak :D!
      However, if you have an opportunity to learn new language, regardless what kind of language, do so, every language learned is a treasure itself.

  10. I’ve taken courses in 21 different languages, 10 of them on the intermediate level or higher (counting my native language and english) so I may have some knowledge of this subject; having studied russian too.
    Whenever you’re learning a language, you should concentrate on your successes and the vocabulary and grammar you’ve already learned as opposed to what you don’t know yet. This applies to everything else but for those who struggle with languages it may be worth emphasizing.
    Even if your russian is bad now, think about how many words you already know that the average guy on the street does not. Even if you cannot have a conversation in russian yet, you can have a conversation ABOUT russian so you’re already more cultured than the average person in that sense.
    I’m not saying you should walk around with your chest puffed out and get delusional about your skills but that you should take pride in having taken on a challenge, having learned SOMETHING and continuing down that road.
    When I was a teenager, I was getting started in a martial art and an assholish friend of mine (more like a bully) picked up a booklet written for those starting out and said in a sneering tone “beginners info” or something to that extent; he was insecure about me putting myself out there and facing risks to improve while he was busy scratching his ass and I’m sure he still is.
    Since he had nothing going for him, he did what he could which was to emphasize the fact that I was not intermediate or advanced. Whatever you do in life, some jealous loser will find a way to belittle your achievements to feel better about himself, which is why you need to define what success means to you (unless you’re Trump or something) and consciously give yourself credit every time you make some progress.
    As a language learner it will be very easy for the jealous to taunt you by asking how to say this or that in russian or try to ridicule you for not being able to follow a fast conversation or whatever. You must not let them get to you (ever). Concentrate on your strengths and your past successes that start with learning to say hello.
    Another thing that applies to self-learning any language as an adult is that your vocabulary progress will necessarily be asymmetric because you have much more general knowledge than a child; thus you may not remember some ordinary words at all times while you may simultaneously have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of grammar and know some rare words that some intermediate learners have never heard. Your interests will affect what sort of vocabulary (aside from the essentials) you’ll learn the fastest.
    Finally, the one thing that I find comforting about different languages is that sometimes you’ll expect a word to be really fanciful and when you look it up it’s actually very similar to an english word or a word you already know from another language. It can be compared to many things in life like approaching some intimidatingly hot girl; it seems more intimidating than it turns out to be; she might be very similar to girls you’ve already slept with.
    As an example I recently started learning greek and what I learned this week is that the word for “rock” (the mineral, not the music) is practically the same in portuguese and greek although the languages are completely different. Obviously most of the vocabulary is still different but every now and then you have these encouraging moments where you see these glimpses of unity between languages and it helps with confidence.

  11. As a multilingual learning Russian I can tell you that these difficulties are precisely what I like about Russian. It’s such a great thing when a language has clear case systems which let you know exactly how a noun is being used. It really cuts out a lot of bullshit.
    In English we do so much fucking around with prepositions, relative pronouns, articles, and other grammatical junk just to make tangible concepts out of things other languages deal with so smoothly using simple case systems.
    English compensates by inflating its vocabularly with an astronomical range of different words, sometimes five or more words to refer to the same entity but with nuanced differences that can make English quite poetic.
    Yet I still believe English is becoming a retard’s language.

  12. A Russian cabbie told me his best pick up line was Я качоо ипатся and recommended it.
    It will certainly get a reaction, one way or another, as it is definitely naughty.
    Have also found that many times it is better to not speak good Russian with girls. I just say I Я говорю немного по-русски плохо. And we go from there. They appreciate it if you can speak a little Russian, even if badly. Need more, that’s what phone translators are for.

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