The first thing you need to know about Russian is that it is not a language that you just “pick up”. You have to actually study it, and you have to study it properly, digging into every grammatical rule and case there is. Even if your mother tongue, like Russian, has Slavic roots, you’ll still be stumped by the grammar.

While the alphabet may seem like a huge challenge with all the different unfamiliar symbols, it’s actually the easiest part of learning Russian. All you have to do is remember what the “backwards R” [Я] and the “upside down h” [Ч] represent, and you’re good. It’s more of a matching game.

The really hard parts, though, which break even the most enthusiastic of learners, are the cases and the verbs. For most students, grammar, and in particular the cases, is the hardest thing about learning Russian.

If you don’t know what cases are, they’re basically language torture. Every time you use an adjective, noun or pronoun you have to consider a) the gender of the noun b) whether the noun is singular or plural c) what is happening to the noun, i.e. what is its function, what is its case? And this combination of factors determines the ending you have to choose for the noun, adjective or pronoun. It makes a potential choice of 24 different endings for each word.

The only benefit that I see to these cases is that, unlike in English, word order is not that important in the Russian language, as thanks to the cases, you can understand the role of each word no matter what the order. I think it is impossible for me to master all the endings of all the words every single time. So I’ve just accepted this and usually stick to English word order, throwing in whatever ending sounds like it could be right at any given time. It’s easy enough to get the case right when you’ve heard a sentence or phrase a thousand times, but whenever I’m creating new constructions I picture a great big grammar table in my head and try to find the right ending, but this proves to slow down speech dramatically.

I was curious if my take on learning Russian was similar to that of the international students at ITMO Foundation Program, which is mandatory for those who want to study in a Bachelor's or Master's program taught in Russian. Turns out that coming from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from Persian, Mongolian, and Arabic to French, Chinese, Serbian, and Vietnamese, their experiences are equal parts challenging, interesting and life-changing.

A Little Hard

That’s how Abdullah Muhammad described his overall take on the language. Apparently, my struggle with grammar (and reading cursive) resonated with students across the board.

The most frustrating part of learning Russian is being aware of making mistakes and not knowing how to fix them. Grammar is very hard, even for a Serbian,” says Sara, a student from Serbia.

Pronouncing Russian words correctly is an ongoing quest. Tara, from Iran, says: “The soft letters for me were an absolute nightmare”. One of the letters of the alphabet looks like a little “b” but it has no sound [ь]. Instead, it makes the previous letter “soft”. Making letters sound softer is extremely challenging for the untrained and foreign ear, but to a Russian speaker, the sound is drastically different.   

Several students cited shopping at the grocery store as one of their top challenges. Most cashiers aren’t particularly used to, or able to deal with, a foreigner who can’t understand them, so you face issues like Michelle did. “I went to the store and the cashier asked me ‘Do you need a bag?’. I answered ‘I do not understand’ in French and she got angry and looked at me as if I had a second head.” Tara could understand what the cashier was saying but couldn’t always respond. “In stores or shops, cashiers asked me questions that I understood overall, but didn’t know if it was negative or positive, or how it was asked specifically, so I would usually freeze and not answer; or even worse, sometimes I knew what was asked specifically but I didn’t know how to answer it. In these situations people usually thought I was stupid or got mad since they had to repeat their question a few times for me to say something.

Love, Must and Other Favorite words

There’s a special kind of satisfaction in being able to master a word like dostoprimechatelnosti [достопримечательности], which means landmarks/attractions. Here are some other words that our students grew to like:

  • Posledovatelnost [последовательность] = sequence
  • Tovarisch [товарищ] = comrade
  • Tusovka [тусовка] = party/clique
  • Ostarozhna [осторожно] = be careful!
  • Pozhalusta [пожалуйста] = please
  • Blin [блин] = meaning “pancake” in a literal translation, it also serves as a catch-all expression of frustration, surprise, and even admiration.

My favorite word is “sozvonimsya” [созвонимся], which in context translates to “let's call each other later to arrange something”. I always walk away from hearing that phrase thinking, “But wait, who will call who, and when?” It’s like this kind of vague promise that you’ll “be in touch” later, and it’ll be over the phone, but there’s nothing concrete set, and it’s used quite often!

How long did it take?

When asked how long it took students to understand a movie or eavesdrop on a conversation, the answers ranged from a month [for someone with previous experience] to never, with the most common being around six months to a year.

After about four months I started understanding parts of conversations, but I was not sure about the parts I understood; after about ten months I started understanding parts of the movies but I’m still struggling to understand everything,” said Tara.

Theoretical learning of a language is not enough, so you should talk and talk more with the Russians to get better,” commented Sami Fares, who speaks Arabic as his first language.

It took me about a year ‘till I could sit alone with a Russian speaker and have a meaningful conversation, and I definitely would give a lot of credit to immersion. When you study a few hours a day of Russian and then walk out surrounded by the language, with the opportunity to immediately practice, it’s quite possibly the best way to learn. I was lucky enough to have many Russian-speaking friends from the get-go and that sped up the process of being comfortable speaking the language, but grammar had to be learned in a class setting.

Was it worth it?

It certainly was for Jelicca from Serbia. “I met a lot of wonderful people, found my best friends, completely changed my life and found myself in [St. Petersburg].”

I can’t imagine my life without Russian now. Learning Russian is one of the reasons I stayed as long as I have, and it brings me joy when I sit with a sweet Russian babushka and hear her story. It makes me think how, if I didn’t know this language, all these doors would be closed and these beautiful stories would be lost on me.