I’m a reluctant Russian learner. Actually, let me rephrase that: it was never my plan to learn Russian. I simply found it necessary after marrying a Russian woman.

My experiences learning Russian, an essay by one of Vlada's students

How hard could it be?

Being a linguist, I was airily confident. I’d learned several languages before (including some ancient, dead ones). I knew all the theory of language learning. I’d done it many times. Russian lessons would be a piece of cake.

How hard, I asked myself, could it be?

Well, as you will have inferred already from that corny and rather obvious set-up, it wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped.

Learning Russian isn’t, to steal a phrase, just one of your holiday games. After a mere two lessons, I realised I’d bitten off more than I could chew easily. This was going to be a major Project.

Eight years later, it’s still ongoing. Admittedly, it needn’t be. I’m a lazy linguist in my advancing years, and don’t put in the time to learn vocabulary or instill grammar rules in my brain.

Moreover, my efforts at Russian mastery are sporadic at best. I’m ashamed to say that whole years have passed without my picking up a text book or learning anything new whatsoever. Life being what it is, Russian lessons are rarely my first priority. And the wife is all too willing to indulge me in English… so necessity isn’t driving me as it might.

The bad news

So how have I found it (er, when I’ve actually been bothering to study)?

Well, let’s do the bad news first…

Bad news one: Case, gender and number. There are three genders in Russian and six cases… so nouns and adjectives take multiple forms depending on their position or role in a sentence. If you know any Latin or Greek, this concept will be familiar. It won’t make it any easier to decline nouns correctly, on the fly, in conversation. This takes endless, painful practice.

Bad news two: Conjugation. Again, like Latin or Greek, Russian verbs conjugate according to pronoun, tense and voice. More painful trial and error. LOTS of error (see above).

Bad news three: Perfective and non-perfective forms of every verb make for another painful learning experience. It effectively means you must learn two word roots and conjugations for every verb. Distressing.

Bad news four: Verbs of motion. That’s all I’m saying.
Am I putting you off? Don’t panic. It’s not all bad news. For balance, here’s the other side of the story:

The good news

Good news one: The Cyrillic alphabet is easy. No, honestly. It baffles me that so many folks assume that learning another alphabet is going to be horribly hard. It’s the easiest part. Russian is spelled phonetically, so words are nearly all written exactly as they sound… which makes a pleasant change from, say, English. Trust me: if you think this is the tough part about learning Russian, you’re in for a nasty shock

Good news two: No articles. ‘The’ and ‘a/an’ don’t exist in Russian. Which saves quite a bit of aggro and nonsense. If you know any western European languages, you’ll know how irritating it is to have reproduce articles correctly with gender agreements. In Russian, this problem simply doesn’t exist (except in converse: pity the luckless native Russian struggling to understand the whole concept of articles when learning English).

Good news three: Some of the ‘weird’ gender agreement stuff common in other European languages isn’t an issue in Slavic ones (French preceding direct object, anyone?). There ARE plenty of other problems, but not these ones… thank God.

Good news four: No dialects. Learn French in Calais and you’ll be pretty baffled by what you hear in Marseilles. Villages 10 miles apart in the UK produce distinctive regional accents and idiom – not to mention the vast differences in pronunciation between New York and Sydney.

Russian, by contrast, sounds pretty much the same in Vladivostock as it does in Moscow. That’s 10 time zones east to west without any noticeable change in people’s accents. If you’re taking Russian lessons in London, you won’t care much… but when you arrive in Russia, wherever you’re going, you can be confident that nobody will sound ‘odd’.

Still keen to learn Russian?

I hope so. There’s no point my pretending that it’s an easy language. I’d be lying. On the other hand, it’s not killingly tricky. You just have to get your head round a few unusual concepts, and put in the hours.

One of these years, I’ll take my own advice.