Learning the Russian Language: Dos and Don’ts

6 years ago, I entered the University of Sheffield with my A Levels in French, Spanish and English Language, studying BA Modern Languages. I had never had the opportunity to study an Eastern European language before, but my bilingual cousins could speak Russian and English and I was always fascinated when they used to communicate in front of me and my sister in Russian. It seemed so alien to me, and so beautiful, with it’s rolling and trilling consonants. So at the age of 18, I signed up to take Beginner’s Russian (Modules 105-106) at university, ready to embark on a journey that would make me goggle at the complexity of a language I had never explored before.

You want to learn Russian? This is what I wish I had known right from Day 1.

Don’t be put off by the alphabet.

The Cyrillic alphabet (named after the Byzantine disciple Cyril) is the least of your worries. It can be learned within a week, if not shorter. Sure you may have to remember that Ресторан is pronounced “Restoran” and not “Pecmopah”, but this is easily remedied after a few stumbles.

Do take note of the stress, and learn it!

Russian stress switches around, unlike other Eastern European languages like Polish and Czech which have more set rules. Замок can mean two different things: castle and lock, depending on where the stress falls. In ‘castle’, the stress is on the а, which means that it sounds like “zamak”, whereas lock sounds like “zamok” as the stress is on the ‘o’. If you don’t use the stress correctly, Russians may look at you blankly. This might sound strange, but imagine if someone with a foreign accent stressed “vegetable” like “veggie-table”. It would take you a while for you to figure out what they meant, wouldn’t it? Well, it’s the same idea in Russian. If you’re not sure where the word stress goes, you can always use our trusty pal Wiktionary. Just enter the word in Russian and it will tell you where the stress goes.

Don’t be frightened off by cases.

Russian has a freer word order, where the words that require most emphasis are placed at the end of a sentence. This is great, because it allows you more freedom in your speech. However, Russian is a language with a prominent case system. You know how verbs conjugate? (I play, you play, he/she/it plays etc.), well Russian does something similar with its nouns and adjectives: they decline.

Russian has 6 cases. A very simplified version is the following: Nominative (the one we use normally), Accusative (the direct object), Genitive (covers things that mean ‘of’ or ‘no’), Dative (the indirect object), Instrumental (things that follow с “with”, or just generally convey the idea of “with”), and Prepositional (things that state your position: in, on, about…etc. Basically, they follow a lot of prepositions.) For example:

Nominative: Какая русская водка самая вкусная? (‘Which Russian vodka is the tastiest?’, the noun and adjectives are the subject of a sentence and therefore require no declination)

Accusative: Я люблю русскую водку (‘I love Russian vodka’, Русская водка is the direct object of the sentence and therefore needs to change to accusative).

GenitiveНет русской водки (‘There is no Russian vodka’, because it follows нет ‘no’, Русская водка has to jump into the Genitive case). Another example is “Я учительница английского языка” – I am a teacher of the English language. I always remember this because Genitive sounds like Generation, and the Genitive serves the goal of stating what descends from what. In this case, ‘the English language’ is a descendant of ‘teacher’, therefore ‘the English language’ английский язык changes to the Genitive case.

Dative: Дайте мне русская водка, пожалуйста! (‘Please give me the Russian vodka!’. Here ‘Я’ I turns to мне ‘me’ as we are talking about giving something to someone else. We actually have the dative in English. Notice how we say ‘give it to me‘? Well, there’s no escaping it in Russian either.)

InstrumentalОн приехал с бутылкой русской водки (‘He arrived with a bottle of Russian vodka’. Here, бутылка ‘bottle’ is in the instrumental case, as he arrived with a bottle of Russian vodka. A good way to remember this one is to think of the item that you are doing something with as an instrument to your action. So, when you say Я всегда хожу в школу пешком ‘I always go to school by foot’, as the idea is that you use your feet as instrument to get you to school.)

Prepositional: Правда и ложь о русской водке (‘The truths and lies about Russian vodka’. Because русская водка follows the preposition о ‘about’, we need to put русская водка into the prepositional case.)

The great thing about the case system is that you can start to see the patterns emerge. Of course, the different endings depend on the gender and number of the noun, but you will learn these as you go along.

Don’t be scared of grammatical gender either!

Russian, like many Indo-European languages, has grammatical gender. It has three: Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. Although these might seem scary, they’re actually very straight forward. A general rule to follow is that masculine nouns end in a consonant, feminine end in а or я and neuter nouns end in о or e. Most loanwords (like кино ‘cinema’) are neuter.

Do learn your verbs of motion, as well as their conjugations

Russians have different ways of saying that you’re ‘going’ to places. You have your unidirectional verbs which stress that you are taking a singular trip with one direction, and you have your multidirectional verbs which stress that you didn’t just go in one direction, you went in two or more. For example:

Где Папа?

Он шёл в супермаркет.

Where’s Dad?

He went to the supermarket. (He hasn’t come back yet.)

Я всегда хожу в школу пешком.

I always go to school by foot. (A repeated action – you walk there and back every day by foot.)

Please, please, please learn these pairs and their conjugations as I didn’t and I still struggle to conjugate ездить and ехать off the top of my head.

Do keep an open mind.

Chances are that you have never studied a Slavic language before and everything is going to seem pretty strange to you at first. However, the people who did best in my class were the people who threw caution to the wind and just accepted the eccentricities of the Russian language. Instead of thinking “that’s pretty stupid, why would you do that?” think “that’s weird and interesting, why is it doing that?”.

Do have fun with it.

Languages are a beautiful blend of logic and creativity – you follow the rules (or lack of rules) to produce something original. You will make mistakes, you will have an accent, you will forget the word for ‘carpark’ and tell your Yandex Taxi driver “I am in the park of cars” desperately willing him to understand, but you will develop more confidence every time you use it and convey a message, and you will gain new vocabulary and a sound understanding of grammar every time you read a newspaper or watch a programme. Language is there to be explored and not to shy away from once things get tough.