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Russian Language Profile
Home > Languages > Russian

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Fascinating language associated with cold, communism, melancoly, raucous accents and a difficult grammar. Now that Russia is opened, the chance to talk to thousands of Russians eager to explore the other half of the world or for us to visit them is an even better reason to learn this wonderful language, less difficult than usually thought.
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Russians are not very keen on foreign languages. Those who are often speak extremely well the language they studied, but most Russians only understand Russian. They know theirs is a hard language and do not expect you to speak it. This means that even modest efforts to communicate in Russian will be welcomed with enthusiasm and unlimited forgiveness for whatever mistakes you might make. This attitude applies to Russians in their country but also when they are travelling.

If you travel to Russia, I strongly encourage you learn as much Russian as you can. Even a small number of words will prove extremely useful unless you wish to be remain in your hotel or gesture like a pantomine whenever you want something.

Doing business in Russia or with Russians abroad is greatly helped if you speak their language. You do not have to be Russian to benefit from increased trust and better contact through your knowledge of the language. Quite the opposite, Russians usually will trust more a foreigner than a fellow Russian! And if they can speak only Russian, they will rather deal with you than somebody else that they could address only through an interpreter.

Chic factor

Speaking Russian fluently is as chic as can be, especially in Western Europe. Russian has the reputation of being very hard (see below) and used to be a subversive language, spoken by revolutionaries and exiled noblemen. Many people in the West do not understand how Russia used to function, and have no clue how it works today. People who speak Russian tend to become clouded with an aura of shade and mystery. If you doubt that speaking Russian is chic, try yelling orders in your cellphone in a restaurant.


Russian is an official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan as well as the UN. It is widely understood in the Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaidjan, Turkmenistan, Moldavia and Tadjikistan.

Outside former soviet countries, Russian is thee mother tongue of more than 750,000 people in Israel, where you can find Russian-language newspapers and TV channels.

Many people in Eastern Europe (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, east Germany) understand Russian, but it is generally perceived as the language of the former oppressor and and it is not generally positive to be classified as Russian-speaking.

SpeakersAt least 167 million people speak Russian as their mother tongue, and a further 110 million use it as a communication language.

You can travel to a wide variety of countries on Russian, and get whatever type of landscape you want : desert, permafrost, sea resort, huge cities, etc... Russian is a very useful language to speak when visiting former soviet republics as very few people speak any Western languages. An added advantage is that very few tourists from outside the region care to visit Russia and its former empire. As a visitor, you really get the country for yourself. Locals are usually proud of the interest you show in their country and generally very friendly. This is in sharp contrast to heavily visited destinations such as France, New York, Venice or London, where even if you have doctorate degree in the local language as a tourist you will be still be treated as a lemon to be squeezed.


If you do not live or travel regularly to Russia nor have a Russian girlfriend, you need to make sure you can practice your Russian otherwise.

This is easy with Russian! There is a wealth& of books and DVDs waiting for you, and many are accessible from the internet or even at local Russian shops if you live close to a Russian expatriate destination.

The ressources available on the Internet in Russian are incredibly rich. You can find millions of high-quality newspaper article, commercial website, download Russian music, etc...

You can spend hours reading about local news, or strange faits divers that happened in remote places in Russia from your web browser.

And if you travel to Russia, you can buy truckloads of CD-ROMS, DVDs and books for pennies in the many open-air markets in large cities.

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I rate this language as (difficult to learn). Grammar is not simple because of the case system that changes the ending of most words according to their function (subject, object, etc...), their number and sex. Neither spelling nor pronunciation compensate this, although some of the grammar is refreshingly simple.

But don't be discouraged. Russian is still way easier than non-Indo-European languages and ideographic languages such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean.

You can begin to understand written texts already after a few hours of study!


Many strange consonants, and the unusual vowel Ы with no equivalent in English. Almost every consonant has a "wet" counterpart, as if it were followed by an y (per versus pyer). It's fine for the p but when you try the rolled wet r, things warm up.

Some words have chains of consonants that you would never believe can be pronounced without help from a vowel. But they can, and after a few minutes of exercise you'll manage to get it about right.

To pronounce Russian perfectly is not easy, but Russians forgive mistakes easily and getting understood is not difficult. And it's very fun to learn. I remember the first time my relatives heard me - by chance - speaking in Russian on the phone, they were quite impressed that such sounds could exit from my mouth.

My mother tongue is French, and learning to pronounce English correctly (I mean really correctly) was not much easier than Russian.

Please not that the writing system is not entirely phonetic, especially when you leave the dictionnary and venture into a real text. The stress (accent) in words change the way you pronounce, and the stress is found only in dictionaries. Unlike Spanish, the student cannot know with certainty how to pronounce a new word based on the way it is written.

I rate difficulty of learning to pronounce Russian correctly as . If all you want is get understood, difficulty would be .


Russian words change according to their grammatical role in the phrase. The system is complex and riddled with exceptions - bad news for the learner.

Some languages "chose" to express the function of a word by its order in the phrase. "Dog bites man" or "Man bites dog". Language learners are glad to find such languages, because all you need to do is learn the words, then the word order.

Not so in Russian. Here the word order does not matter much, since words change their endings to denote their function.

Most words change with their function, genus, number etc..., so you get a lot of freedom with syntax because the relations between words are clear from the words themselves, so their position is mostly irrelevant. Nice, but on the other hand, if you understanding of the case system is less than perfect, you can have a hard time telling if it is Arkady who gave the apple to Marina or the other way around.


Good news for the learner, Russian vocabulary consists of about 10% of loan words that you already know (like prablyem for problem or kofe for coffee). If you speak Italian, French or German, you will learn Russian vocabulary even more easily as many words were borrowed in the 18th and 19th century from these languages.

The rest of the Russian vocabulary is built a little bit like German : roots are assembled to make whatever word you need, even if the way those words were assembled is sometimes mysterious.

TransparencyRussian is the most natural gateway into the world of slavic languages. Not all slavic languages are closely related to Russian. Bulgarian and Ukrainian are the closest, with Polish and Serbo-Croatian having a largely similar vocabulary. Czech is more distant.
Click for a list of languages related to Russian with percentage of lexical similarity and relative grammatical difficulty.

The Cyrillic alphabet looks awesome when you don't know it. Russian texts appear to be obscure and barren. Westerners that can read Russian are seen like Egyptologists, adventurous scholars or monks.

This is a big scam, as the Cyrillic alphabet can be mastered in a few hours. And if you see a Russian text transliterated in latin alphabet, you will see it for what it is. Many words, when deprived of their Cyrillic disguise, are quite similar to English words.

This is a nice feature of Russian, since with little study you can begin to understand seemingly intractable texts.

You can tell "imported" words after one hour of Cyrillic alphabet, (you will recognize them behind the Cyrillic disguise), but to pronounce correctly you'll need some time, mainly because some letters are not pronounced and the accent (which is usually not written) changes the pronunciation of most vowels.

To write correctly is the last step, about as difficult as French. I rate the difficulty of writing Russian correctly as .

Time needed I think you need two years of intensive study to begin to be proficient in Russian. If you study one hour a day regulary you will probably be reasonably fluent within three years. Being able to read a newspaper article with a dictionary can be achieved under a year.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Travel ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
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There is a wealth of material to learn Russian. The best I found to begin with is :

  • Reading Modern Russian, a book that teaches you what is say in no-frills, down to earth approach. Not fancy but clear and usable, and one of my favorite books about Russian.  Buy it from Amazon for 19$.
  • For advanced students, I recommend Barron's excellent Russian Slang & Colloquial expressions, well researched and very fun.
  • If you speak German and want to write in Russian fluently, you might find the Russisch schreiben, aber wie ? useful. It lists useful expression in such a format that you can find them easily when needed. Too bad they don't make it in English !
  • A good book for conversation is the austere Russian as we Speak it, which I bought at the Russian bookshop near the Flatiron building.
  • For people who want to check their flexions (declensions) or those who want to learn grammatical cases by inference, 5000 Russian Words : With All Their Inflected Forms is a must : it contains all the forms of nouns (Genitive plural, dative singular, etc...) of the 5000 most common words in Russian.

There is also a program developed during the cold war that comes with many tapes and that you can use on your own. You can buy it from Audioforum.

Intermediate and advanced students should definitely get their hands on books published by Russki Yazik in Moscow, cheap and excellent. There are so many that I cannot recommend one in particular.

Note pour les francophones : les seuls livres d'apprentissage du russe utilisables que je connaisse en français sont ceux édités à Moscou.

(I have tested every program or book I reviewed here myself)

SchoolsThere are many schools in St Petersburg and Moscow, so be picky.
  • Russian Story lets you buy most Russian newspaper in electronic format in their latest incarnation and at a fraction of newsstand's price.
  • The excellent radio Voice of Russia has news service in Russian that you can listen to with real audio directly from Moscow.
  • Deutsche Wellen have a very good Russian service where you can find the transcript of many sendings, all accessible through their website.
  • The BBC has also a rather good Russian program, as well as Radio Canada.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Travel ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
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