8 things to know before learning Russian
13 September, 2017
Russian is beautiful, no argument about that. But the language of Pushkin is also very, very difficult. I’ve been studying Russian for some years now and I can tell you – it’s a language that must be studied constantly and seriously if you want to achieve good results. If you are thinking about studying Russian, reading this post you will give you a flavour of what to expect!
1) Let’s start with the good news
You’ll probably be surprised to hear this, but some things are definitely easier in Russian than in English. For example, the verb “to be” is not used when you are talking in the present tense. Or, you won’t have to choose between the, a or an – articles in Russian don’t exist! And, what I absolutely love about Russian is its logic: once you learn a stem you can easily form verbs, adjectives and nouns.
2) Unprononceable alphabet letters
Here comes the bad news: the contemporary Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters. Some of them exist only in Russian and represent sounds rather difficult to pronounce (й, ы, ш, щ, ъ, ь). When I started to learn Russian, pronouncing the letter ы was a nightmare for me: I thought I would never pronounce it right, but after some practice I learnt how. Nothing is impossible after all…or maybe it is when we talk about Russian. No matter how I strive, I still can’t hear the difference between ш and щ!
3) Gender of nouns
In Russian there are three genders: masculine (мужской род), feminine (женский род), and neuter (средний род). In order to denote the gender of a Russian noun you should always look at its ending. Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking masculine words (such as кот) end in a consonant, femmine words (страна) end in a\я and neuter words (окно) end in o\e. If the word ends in ь it can be feminine (ложь) or masculine (секретарь)…in this case you simply have to learn the word and remember it!
4) Case system
The Russian case system is often one of the biggest difficulties for students. There are six cases, each of them indicating the role of a noun in the phrase. The genders are declined differently in each case, and differently again when we use the plural. Same for the adjectives. The Russian case system can be scary at the beginning and of course it takes time to familiarise with it, but don’t give up: it’s only a matter of practice!
5) Double negative
Here come the reasons why I love Russian so much: it’s unique in its grammar rules, exceptions or structures… It really surprised me when I found out that Russian has a very particular negation structure. In fact, the negative particle не is never omitted and always precedes the word it negates even if you are using words such as nothing, nobody or never in the same sentence. For example: Я никогда его не видел – I never saw him.
6) Aspect of the verbs (Perfective/Imperfective)
The aspect of the verbs is another very difficult point for students. The choice between imperfective or perfective depends on the speaker’s intention and whether they want to emphasize the process (imperfective) or the result (perfective) of an action. For a Russian native speaker the choice is natural of course, but for us mere mortals it’s not so obvious to pick the right aspect.
7) Reflexive verbs (-ся)
The main feature of Russian reflexive verbs is the suffix –ся. This little, friendly suffix can indicate different ideas depending on the verb used: the idea of “doing something to yourself” (translated in English with “myself/yourself” or simply omitted), the idea of reciprocity (translated with “each other”), or even the idea of expressing an interest in a certain subject.
8) Verbs of motion
Here we are: the verbs of motion, the most feared (with good reason) part of Russian grammar. Why are they so frightening? The most difficult part of this for me to learn (I still make very funny mistakes) was the fact that in Russian there are different verbs of motions depending on how you are moving: the verb specifies if you are going on foot, by a means of transport, or if the movement is unidirectional or multidirectional… what’s more, adding a small prefix to a verb of motion changes its meaning entirely, e.g. (в)ходить = walk (in) and (вы)ходить = walk (out).
Now you have an idea of what it means to study Russian… but don’t despair! It will be easier once you understand the language logic and familiarise with the (endless) grammar rules. It will take time and patience but it will be worth it: talking with people in Russian and not in English for once, ordering at a restaurant, and perhaps even reading Russian masterpieces in their original language. Whatever the reward, it will be priceless!