As a linguist, I often get asked about best ways to learn languages. This post is in response to some of my readers’ questions on how to begin learning Russian.
First, the Big Linguistic Picture: all languages in the world are divided into Language Families. The largest such family is the Indo-European Family of Languages originating from Sanscrit. It includes Hindi, MOST European Languages, Persian, etc.
Which means that we all: the English speakers, French Speakers, German Speakers, Spanish Speakers, Russian speakers, Hindi speakers and… Persian speakers (in other words, Iranians), belong to one huge family. Kinda makes you pause and think, doesn’t it?
The Russian Language is part of the Slavic group of languages, specifically, the Eastern Slavic sub-group, together with Ukrainian and Belorussian.
Russian Language is one of the 4 official UN languages and one of several principal languages on the planet. It is spoken as the first language by 170 mln people in Russia and abroad, and several times as many as a second or additional language.
Russian is considered a difficult language to learn by Westerners based on its relatively complex grammar and different alphabet. But take it from someone who mastered several different languages – I can tell you from personal experience that English is a much crazier language than Russian, yet scores of people around the world learn it and speak it every day.
So, no worries! Just take a deep breath and use my formula for learning any language: CONCENTRATE ON SIMILARITIES RATHER THAN DIFFERENCES, and I promise, your language learning experience will be a breeze!
I’ve done some research for you on ways to learn Russian based on what’s available on the market today. These seem to be the best options, both paid and free.
1. PAID: Berlitz is an old and reputable language learning company. They are not cheap, but here is an Internet option, which may be quite affordable. They require filling out a form in order to get a quote. This is a more serious program.
2. PAID: This seems like an interesting and affordable program:
They have beginners (Russian Accelerator) and advanced (Accelerator II) courses. This is a simplified program and may not offer reading ability. But I like their methodology and approach.
TIPS: Here are some tips on learning Russian fast
3. FREE: This site has free insights and examples, including Russian alphabet, common phrases, numbers, etc.:
This is a good reference site. It’s a good idea to read through all the available info here to get a frame of reference. However, I’d recommend to combine it with an interactive online (or in person) course, so you could also hear how words are pronounced, otherwise, it may be a bit confusing.
TIPS: in order to be able to read, it is a must to learn the Russian alphabet, which is available at the above free site.
To me, learning the Russian alphabet to be able to read is very important, since all signs in Russia would be in Russian and you really don’t want to feel handicapped.
I noticed that many American programs skip this step and try to teach you how to learn to speak phonetically without anchoring it in written language. To me, it’s a one-sided approach. But, perhaps, for those who want to just get the flavor for the language it’s a justified shortcut, which will allow you to start using the language quickly. It may be easier to learn how to speak first and then, eventually, take the next step and learn how to read as well.
That said, when I taught my students, they learned Russian alphabet in 45 minutes and could read in Russian within 2-3 lessons. All, because I concentrated on similarities instead of differences.
So, don’t let them scare you by saying that Russian alphabet is difficult. The look and roots of the Russian letters are much the same as Latin letters. Both alphabets originate from Ancient Greek. Some letters may sound different – so what? It’s not Chinese, after all, with its several thousand written characters. It’s just 33 letters! No big deal!
In fact, as a linguist, I am trained to spot similarities and common roots among words of different languages. You’d be amazed how many similar roots there are in Russian and English as well as other European languages. All because, as I pointed out earlier, they are all part of the huge Indo-European Language Family. Which means that even Hindi language roots will be similar.
4. FREE: Another Free program – I think it’s a good one! Worth checking out.
5. PAID: Also, check out this interesting program – could be fun and relatively affordable – which will be available in May.
6. PAID: New, very promising course, which combines audio, visual and interactive capabilities. They call it Dynamic Immersion program. Worth checking out!
Hope all this helps and please leave your comments to let me know how you are progressing!
Wishing you much fun and best of luck on your new language adventure!
This post is ever-growing based on various new questions and comments.
A WORD ABOUT SYNTHETIC vs. ANALYTICAL LANGUAGES:
European languages are divided into these main groups: Slavic, Romanic and Germanic. They are also divided into analytical (Germanic and Romanic) and synthetic (Slavic) types. Strangely enough, Latin, from which the Romanic languages, and to a certain degree, Germanic, have descended, is a quintessential synthetic language.
Synthetic languages are characterized by the usage of a large number of prefixes, suffixes and endings, which are added to the root of the word in order to express the nuances and subtleties of meanings, thus making the language rich and flexible. This is why the words in Russian, and other synthetic languages, are generally longer. Because of this, synthetic languages can afford to have a rather simple syntax and tense structure, as well as flexible sentence structure. Gender distinctions (masculine, feminine and neutral) also become very important. These are main characteristics of the Russian language as the most prominent representative of the Slavic group of languages and of the synthetic type of languages today.
Funny anecdote: The crucial importance of the correct prefix usage in Russian is demonstrated by this hilarious and infamous moment in international relations. After being elected, President Obama started his heavily advertised “reset” policy with Russia (generally, a very good idea of course). To much fanfare, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Russia with a “reset button display,” which was especially constructed. She was to symbolically press the button together with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The button was proudly shown to the cameras as the two dignitaries were about to press it. At that moment, Lavrov’s eyes fell on the word written on the display in Russian. The word read “peregruzka.” Lavrov raised his eyebrows, but being a quintessential diplomat, he pressed the button and accepted the display as a memento without flinching. However, he added that the word should have been “perezagruzka,” not “peregruzka.” These two words sound pretty similar to an untrained foreign ear, but they have a distinctly different meaning in Russian. The root here is the same: “gruz,” which means “load.” Alas, as always, the devil is in the detail, as the subtlety here makes or breaks the word. “Pere-gruz-ka” means “overload,” while “pere-za-gruz-ka” means “reset” or “reload.” How’s that for an epic language fail! Honestly, Hillary should’ve consulted someone who really knows Russian. I’m sure some heads have rolled as a result of this incident.
On the other hand, analytical languages rely on a heavy usage of definite/indefinite articles, various particles (eg. of, for, from) and added modifiers to express the nuances of meanings. Example: “little” as in “little girl,” expressed in Russian with one single word “devochka,” or “my little daughter,” expressed in Russian with one word “dochen’ka,” or another variation with subtle difference: “dochurka.” Another example: “little kitty,” expressed in Russian as “kotionok” – masculine & “koshechka” – feminine. The following example illustrates the difference between Russian and English even better: in English you have but one option if you want to say “little bunny,” meanwhile in Russian you have a myriad of endearing options: “zaichik,” “zaichonok,” “zaika,” “zain’ka,” “zaichichka,” etc. All these words, with subtle, but distinctive differences to a Russian ear, can only be expressed in English in one way and with 2 words.
The word is generally rigid and unchangeable, although every analytical language will have some synthetic characteristics – some more than others – and a certain amount of prefix/suffix/endings usage. Example: Spanish “el gato” – “a male cat,” “el gatito” – “a little male cat.” Notice again, how much more flexible and expressive Spanish is compared to English. One word vs. 3 words! While Spanish is an analytical language, it has more synthetic influence from its parent, Latin, and therefore is more flexible than typical Germanic languages, like German and English. Because of this rigidity, analytical languages rely very heavily on complex syntax and tense structure.
Again, not all analytical languages are born equal. Complexities vary. For example, English tense structure is more convoluted than most. Italian, Spanish and German have more streamlined and logical tense structures. Article usage: Italian, Spanish, German have highly logical and predictable article usage. English is characterized with a highly illogical and “frivolous” article usage. Sentence structure is again quite logical and easy to grasp in Italian and Spanish. German has a more convoluted sentence structure, where words are added seemingly ad infinitum, thus making German language sentences some of the longest in the world. Gender usage also varies widely. It matters in Italian, Spanish (in words like “el gato” and “la gata” - male and female cat) and German. However in English grammar, gender has zero importance, thus oftentimes creating confusion. To clarify, a writer or speaker has to add words like “his/her” or “male/female”.
In some analytical languages, inflection plays an important role, for example, in Spanish. This is one of the things I love about Spanish (specifically, Castellano – proper Spanish), as the interesting inflection usage gives it a special singing and romantic quality. Same is true for Italian. Just to mention: incidentally, Chinese language is a heavily analytical language, where in addition to all the above, inflection plays a crucial role.
A note about English Language: All the above notwithstanding, English is still the language of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen; it is the the most spoken international language on our planet, and its popularity is not going anywhere.
I’m going to make a prediction here: since English is spoken by so many people around the world, and not all of them “dig” the complexities of the English article and tense usage, we are living in the period of simplification of many of the old English rules. All languages change in time, adapting to the demands of the present day and its users. Within our lifetime, English – which oftentimes doesn’t follow its own rules – will change, to become more user friendly.
I love writing in English, undoubtedly because I’m a sucker for a challenge.
This is in response to a recent reader’s question about what colleges have good Russian and linguistics study programs.
You should check with colleges that are known for their great humanities programs. Generally, many large and well-known colleges have language programs. This includes many Ivy League colleges, such as Princeton and Columbia. NYU (not Ivy, but close) has a good language program.
Bard College, Red Hook, NY – my fave college in Upstate NY – has an excellent study abroad/exchange program, including Russia. A very old and traditionally excellent Russian (language and lit) program: Amherst College, Amherst, MA. Also, a very extensive Russian program: Hamilton College, Clinton, NY. This college is very selective. Study/work abroad programs are excellent for expanding your horizons and learning from native speakers.
By the way, Russia has recently initiated a very nice Russian college study program geared towards foreigners who want to study in Russia. Check with Moscow University and St.Petersburg University.
For additional tips and details read conclusion and disclaimeres below.
If you are a serious student of Russian, there is no substitute for hard work, and lots of practice with native speakers. A good system and talent helps too, although, anyone, and I mean ANYONE, can learn to communicate in Russian (or any other foreign language) freely, with some work and persistence!
The ancients used to say that “as many languages you know, that many times you are a human being.” This is a very profound statement, as with every language you learn, you also understand better other cultures and other people’s points of view. I like to think that if everyone on Earth cared to learn at least a few languages, there would be much more peace and friendship on our planet.
Join the movement!
Generally speaking, learning foreign languages is like opening up new worlds, it’s akin to broadening your tunnel vision and enriching your life. It’s a very exciting and fascinating experience, however, if you want to master any language, you also have to overcome some formidable challenges.
Be your very own, personal Columbus and discover the new world, but don’t forget to have fun along the way!
I believe that my positive and inclusive personal philosophy of language study, on which I also expand in my new release, THE EARTH SHIFTER (top-rated metaphysical fantasy/thriller, which is based on true history and world events), will benefit anyone who is seriously interested in Russian, and other foreign languages. This includes general public, academics, students, writers and teachers. One of the main characters of THE EARTH SHIFTER is Maxim Elfimov, professor of comparative linguistics at Moscow University. THE EARTH SHIFTER is available on Amazon and Barnes&Noble, as well as Barnes&Noble and other retailers as an ebook and paperback.
Those who like to read about Russia and the Russians, those who want to start their own love affair with Russia, will also enjoy my mystery/thriller GOLD TRAIN (Accidental Spy Russia Adventure), an Amazon/Kindle bestseller. Available on Amazon & Barnes&Noble as ebook and paperback.
P.S. The additional disclaimers below are in response to a certain comment I received:
1. This post is not a teaching course in Russian, but merely a response to several of my reader’ requests to provide links to potentially viable sources for BEGINNING to learn the Russian language and to share the tips for an easier assimilation of a foreign language. The discussion about synthetic vs. analytical languages is generally advanced, however, it is broken down is such a way so as even the beginners could follow it.
2. I am sharing this information publicly as a helpful and free resource. I neither make any profit, nor have any other interest in anyone following my advice or links. I do it purely out of the goodness of my heart and as a service to humanity.
3. My sources and links are intended for general public (not for academics or advanced students of Russian). However, the language discussion above can be a great supplement for both beginners and academics/advanced students of Russian. That said, scholars and academics should have access to proprietary academic programs and language immersion opportunities, such as study in Russia or any other native country or practice with native speakers (always advisable for anyone learning a foreign language). Make sure you have a good system and good teachers, if you are an advanced student, but even more importantly, as with mastery of anything, there is simply no substitute for plain, old-fashioned hard work.
4. The above discussion of synthetic vs. analytical languages is in part based on my study under the wing of the distinguished Russian Foreign Languages School, and in part, on my own lifetime experience, observation, and practice of various languages.
5. I neither recommend, nor endorse the above links to Russian language study sources; I am merely listing several potentially viable ways to learn the Russian language. You may find that some of these courses are for you, and others are not. It is entirely up to you to discern what works for you, and what doesn’t.
6. If I were interested in being a teacher of Russian, my students would be learning it at a much faster pace than average, I guarantee it! I was fortunate to start my study of foreign languages in the 1980s, under the wing of the distinguished Soviet/Russian foreign language school, which was considered the world’s best language school of its day and which gave me an unbreakable, rock-solid foundation for theory, philosophy, practice and general knowledge of languages. However, at this stage of my life, I am simply not interested in this vocation, although I’d enjoyed teaching various languages when I was young and first starting out. But, having quickly found that I wasn’t utilizing even a tiny portion of my talents, I decided to do much more with my life.
7. If you read my bio, you’ll notice that I communicate in all languages I speak with native, or near native, fluency, and moreover, that I write professionally in English. It is my personal and professional opinion as a polyglot and author that English is an illogical language, and as such, it is difficult to get just right. The biggest problem with English is the illogical use of articles (I know the difference very well since I also speak Spanish, Italian and German), and the usage of tenses that is also somewhat frivolous.
In this instance, I do not talk about barely surviving on marginal language skills, rather, I’m talking real language skills here.
8. Finally, this is my personal author blog forum, and as such, it is for people who want to be educated and entertained. I welcome all nice readers, as well as all constructive and positive comments here.
Lada Ray, M.A. (comparative linguistics)
Feng Shui Master, Financial Consultant, Author