Is Russian difficult for English speakers?

I’ve sometimes heard people describe Russian as a difficult language for native English speakers. It is, indeed, a little more difficult for such learners than languages related more closely to English, such as other Germanic languages or the Romance languages. On the other hand, it is probably less difficult for them than completely unrelated languages. Native speakers of English will probably learn Russian more easily if they already know some German—or of course if they know another Slavonic language.

Alphabet

The most common fear people express about learning Russian is about getting used to the Cyrillic alphabet. This is only a minor obstacle and only for the very early stages. When I started Russian, I did some fairly intensive practice on the alphabet for about a week and never had any problems after that. In fact until recent years, I found Russian words much harder to read in English transliteration than in Cyrillic.

Vocabulary

People also worry about the vocabulary. Certainly, fewer Russian words are readily recognisable without learning than is the case for languages that are more closely related to English (such as German) or that share many common words descended from Latin (such as French, Italian or Spanish). On the other hand, more Russian words are easily recognisable than is the case for, say, Mandarin or Japanese.

Grammar

Russian is a reasonably highly inflected language, with 6 grammatical cases for nouns and adjectives. This puts some people off, though not people who know, for example, German or Latin. On the other hand, the conjugation of verbs is much simpler than in German, French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese. Overall, the grammar is probably slightly more complex than German.

Things I still find difficult

As a native English speaker, I find the most difficult parts of Russian to be 3 features of the pronunciation (one high central vowel, verbal stress and soft consonants at the end of a word) and one feature of the syntax (verbal aspect). I discuss these below.

High central vowel

The Russian vowel spelled ы in the Cyrillic alphabet (and usually transliterated as y) is a high central unrounded vowel:

  • High means the tongue is near the roof of the mouth, as in the first part of the diphthongs in the English words eat or boot.
  • Central means the highest part of the tongue is near the centre of the mouth, rather than in the front (as in the first part of English eat) or back (as in the first part of English boot).
  • Unrounded means the lips are unrounded (as in the first part of English eat) rather than rounded (as in the first part of English boot).

The International Phonetic Alphabet uses the symbol ɨ (barred i) to represent this vowel.  

This vowel does not exist in English. It is pronounced higher in the mouth and with more tension than the English neutral schwa (which is a mid central unrounded unstressed vowel, as in the first syllable of English about).

I have never mastered this Russian vowel. When I don’t try hard enough, it sounds just like a normal i. When I try to produce it accurately, I just sound like a strangled frog .

Word stress

The stress on words in Russian is strong and has pervasive effects on how vowels are pronounced, and its position is partly unpredictable. Getting the stress in the right place takes a lot of learning and trial and error.

Soft consonants that end words

Most consonants in Russian are either soft (palatalised) or hard (unpalatalised). Palatalised means the tongue is raised towards the roof of the mouth (palate). An example of a palatalised sound in English is the first n in onion. This consonant sounds like an n and a y pronounced either together or with the n flowing on seamlessly into the y.

I don’t have much trouble with soft consonants followed by a vowel but I struggle with soft consonants at the end of a word. One example of a word ending in a soft vowel is мать (mat’), meaning mother. The final letter (ь) is a soft sign, showing that the t is pronounced soft. In transliteration into English, an apostrophe is used for the same purpose.

The soft sign does not show a separate sound following the consonant (in this case: t), it just shows how the consonant itself is pronounced. (In fact, several centuries ago, the ancestor of the soft sign did mark a very short vowel, but the vowel was subsequently lost and so the symbol remains only to mark the consonant as soft.)

Although English has some soft consonants, they are not a pervasive part of the sound system, which they are in Russian. English doesn’t have words that end in a soft consonant. So it is very hard for English speakers (including me) to produce a soft consonant that isn’t followed by a vowel. The best I can usually do is add a neutral vowel (schwa) after the consonant and do my best to cut the vowel off immediately before it really gets started. I’m not sure I’ve ever succeeded in pronouncing a soft consonant without at least a very short hint of a vowel following on.

Verbal aspect

My Russian supervisor in my first year at Cambridge (Natasha Squire) said it would take us 10 years to start understanding and using verbal aspect well in Russian. She was wrong: that was over 40 years ago and I’m still not there. What was she talking about?

Russian verbs must show not only their tense (whether the verb is past, present or future) but also their aspect. Different aspects are different ways of depicting the event or state described by the verb. Russian verbs have two aspects: perfective and imperfective. Speaking very roughly, the perfective aspect depicts it as a single undivided whole, and the imperfective looks inside the event or state.

For example:

  • я прочитал книгу вчера (ya prochital knigu vchera) (perfective) means I read the/a book yesterday.
  • я читал книгу вчера (ya chital knigu vchera) (imperfective) means I was reading the/a book yesterday or I read part of the/a book yesterday. In some contexts, я читал книгу might mean I used to read the/a book.

(The example is for a male speaker. A female speaker would say: я прочитала книгу/я читала книгу, with an extra a at the end of the verb.)

Put like that, aspect might not sound too hard. Indeed, English expresses aspect, for example in distinguishing I read (simple past) from I was reading (past continuous). Similarly, French makes somewhat similar distinctions between the imperfect tense and either the past historic tense (in formal writing) or the perfect tense (in some of its uses, for example referring to a single completed past event).


The concept of aspect has proved a major problem in pedagogy, where the forms involved have pushed both teachers and students to perceive the whole topic as fraught with danger and often as just too difficult.

Russian: A Linguistic Introduction, Paul Cubberley, 2002

So what makes Russian aspect so difficult for an English speaker? Almost every verb comes as a pair of linked verbs (one perfective, one imperfective). Whenever a speaker uses a verb, the speaker must decide whether to use the perfective verb or the imperfective verb. And a reader or listener must identify which aspect was selected and understand how that selection affected the meaning conveyed.

If I am reading Russian, I don’t consciously take in whether a verb was perfective or imperfective (unless I stop and think really hard) and I don’t think I absorb this subconsciously either. Similarly, when speaking I don’t often stop to think consciously about which aspect I am using and I doubt whether my subconscious choices are particularly accurate, except for the most basic distinctions.

The use of verbal aspect in Russian, and in the Slavonic languages generally, is a vast topic and many papers and books have been written about it.

Conclusion

I’ve mentioned above 4 features of Russian that I still find difficult, even after more than 45 years. The 3 sound features are annoying rather than a major hindrance. On the other hand, aspect is pervasive in the Russian verbal system, so that particular feature means I still feel less comfortable in Russian than in German, French or even perhaps Italian.

People will definitely find Russian easier if they come to it already having a good knowledge of German (as I did) will because there are grammatical similarities, and also some similarities in how some ideas are expressed.

For a native English speaker, Russian is a bit more difficult than most Germanic or Romance languages, but easier than languages that are not part of the Indo-European family. For example, native English speakers would probably find Hungarian, Finnish, Mandarin and Japanese more difficult than Russian.

One comment

  1. Hi Peter,
    Your post about Russian pronunciation dropped into my inbox and I couldn’t resist sharing an experience from my Russian classes many years ago. The teacher (from St Petersburg) gave us all a tip on the pronunciation of “bl”. It was, she said, the sound a person makes after being stabbed, when the knife is withdrawn from their chest. Gave me certain insights into the Russian culture!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: