There is never a wrong time to learn a new language. You may have once thought about learning Russian, but have been turned away by the prospect of having to learn a new alphabet and its reputation for being difficult. I’m here to tell you that you should not let these things put you off, and that learning Russian will be enormously worthwhile.
Here are ten reasons why…
1. Travel Opportunities
Russia is an enormous and fascinating country, with so much to offer travellers of all types. However, English is not widely spoken, even in tourist hotspots in Moscow and St Petersburg. Even if you aren’t planning on travelling into provincial Russia, being able to ask for directions or exchange simple pleasantries with the people you come across will make your travels far more enjoyable and the people open up to you.
2. It Opens Up Many Other Countries
Russian is a slavic language, so having a grasp of the language will make learning other slavic languages easier. This can make travel in Eastern Europe easier and more enjoyable. The further west you travel from Russia, the more distantly the two languages will be related. Russian is closely related to Ukrainian and Belorussian (though by no means mutually intelligible), and more distantly related to Western and Southern slavic languages like Slovene and Serbian. These languages share the same DNA, so you may recognise some words. Then, of course, you have the legacy of the Soviet Union, where speaking Russian was heavily incentivised.
Russian will also help you unlock the fascinating “stans” of Central Asia. The most numerous peoples in this region – The Kazakh, Uzbek and Kyrgyz – speak Turkic languages which are somewhat related. However, since these countries have a long history of Russian influence (even before the Soviet Union), you may be able to use Russian to make yourself understood. It’s more likely that a shopkeeper in Samarkand or police officer in Bishkek will be able to give you directions or help you in Russian than in English.
Wherever you are, it’s important to learn a few words and phrases in the most commonly spoken language in that country. It’s good manners. Learning “excuse me, please, thank you, hello” will help people open up to you. However, when your few phrases of Tajik or Ukrainian run out, being able to explain yourself in Russian may be your best bet.
3. The Alphabet is Easy
Having to learn a new alphabet will make even the easiest language seem daunting. However, compared to learning Chinese logograms, the three Japanese alphabets or the beautiful yet remote Arabic script, the Cyrillic alphabet is a piece of cake.
There are 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet: 21 consonants, 10 vowels and 2 letters which change the sound of the consonant they come after (ь, ъ). They are surprisingly easy to learn. One method for learning the alphabet is to begin by learning to read Russian words which look similar to their English counterparts (e.g. банк = “bank”), and then learn to write simple English words and names in Cyrillic characters. For example, my name – Charlie – would be written Чарли.
In Russia, most signs will be written in Cyrillic. So, if you are hoping to navigate, being able to read street names will be a must. Thankfully, the alphabet is gloriously phonetic. Words are spelt more or less how you would expect them to be.
Also,Tajikistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Serbia and even Mongolia use versions of the Cyrillic alphabet, albeit with some adapted characters. Having a good grasp of the alphabet will give you a head-start when travelling to these regions.
4. It’s Different, But Not Too Different
For an English speaker, Germanic languages like Norwegian or Romance languages like Italian and French will typically be easier to learn because they have some similarities with English. As a slavic language, Russian has little in common with English. Arguably, it has more in common with French!
However, Russian is still a European language. Its phonetics are not that different from sounds you find in English. And, although some may require some practice, words are not difficult to pronounce. If you can do a comedy Russian accent, you will have a head start with pronouncing some of the more unusual sounds.
Also, the order of words in a sentence is very flexible in Russian. This means you can directly translate each word from English into Russian or vice versa, as opposed to having to change the order like you would in German.
5. It’s a Beautiful Language
Admittedly, this is somewhat subjective. But Russian could easily be considered one of the most beautiful languages to speak and listen to. Although it has a reputation for being harsh and guttural, when you start to learn it you will realise that it is actually very soft and lyrical. The gentle consonants and warm vowels, combined the iconic accent can make speaking Russian feel like you’re singing.
Russian is also a very expressive language. Changing the ending of a word can change its meaning, and can be used as a term of endearment or have some other meaning. This means that there are about a dozen words for cat – кот, кошка, кртяра, котенька, кошак, котяндра – all with subtly different but adorable meanings.
There are also a lot of Russian words for which we have no equivalent in English. Some of these describe abstract emotional states and the human condition, others will make you wonder why we don’t have a word for that in English. Some of my favourites include:
Тоска “Tos-ka” = An extreme existential despair
Бытие “By-tee-ye” = The objective reality that exists beyond a person’s subjective perception.
Белоручка “Byel-o-rooch-ka” = Literally “white hands”, indicating a lazy, unhelpful person who doesn’t like doing any work.
6. Gain a Window into the “Russian Soul”
Russian is a language intimately connected with its history and the land in which it evolved. Most Russian courses and language-learning books also try and teach you some Russian history and cultural practices along with the way. Doing so will give you an insight into a fascinating culture, and will help you understand how Russians see the world. Russia is still a major player on the world stage, and learning their history and how they think will help you understand the country’s role in international affairs.
The construction and evolution of the Russian language can also give a window into how Russians think. Two different words may have the same translation into English, but their different etymology may mean they have a completely different subtext and extra meanings which you would miss from a simple translation.
Russians are also very fond of idioms, with politicians and shopkeepers using them alike. Perhaps you could use some of these in your everyday speech, to add colour to your life?
7. Appreciate Russian Literature Fully
Tolstoy, Pushkin, Bulgakov, Lermontov, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Zamyatin – Russian language and poetry is some of the most well-regarded in the world. While it is possible to enjoy Anna Karenina and The Master and Margarita in their English translations, you are missing out on a whole other dimension of the story which can only be appreciated in the original language.
If a full novel intimidates you (Russian novels have a habit of being doorstops), then there are many completions of short stories by legendary writers which are published in bilingual books. That way, you can develop your understanding of the language, while not missing out on the story and appreciating little details you would miss out on in a translated edition.
8. It’s Good For You
You probably already know that being able to speak a second language is like a workout for your brain. A review from the National Education Association found that learning a second language at school was hugely beneficial to a child’s neurological development, and that students who studied a second language had more accurate memories and performed better in seemingly unrelated subjects such as maths. Continuing to study a language as you get older can preserve your precious neuroplasticity and help fight Alzheimer’s disease.
Russian has a reputation for being a difficult language, which would lead you to assume that learning it would have more cognitive benefits than learning a less complicated language such as Spanish. A Swedish study from 2014 indicated that studying Russian, Arabic and Dari (a dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan) significantly increased the size of certain parts of the brain compared to a control group. All three of these languages use non-latin alphabets and have grammatical features not found in English. However, the Russian alphabet is significantly easier to learn than the Arabic script (I speak from experience) and it is more familiar to most speakers of European languages.
With these cognitive benefits in mind, taking up a new language and making learning it a habit is a no brainer. And if you choose to learn Russian, the benefits could be even greater.
9. Employers Will Love You
Russian is widely considered by employers to be one of the most valuable languages for potential employees to be able to speak. With around 265 million Russian speakers around the word, particularly concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, businesses interested in expanding into that valuable market will certainly appreciate your linguistic skills.
Also, if you’ve ever wanted to work in national security, your fluency in Russian and knowledge of the culture will make you incredibly valuable. A report from the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee identified a shortage of Russian speakers in the UK and among British diplomats put the country at risk and left them less able to detail with threats to their national security and anticipate events such as those in Ukraine. The intelligence agency GCHQ is actively seeking Russian speakers to join the service, and the CIA considers it “mission critical” to their operations.
10. You Like A Challenge
Learning a new language is never easy, but some languages are easier than others for English speakers to pick up. Russian is by no means easy, but that by no means makes it impossible or a slog to learn. Over time, long words will trip off your tongue as fluidly as your own language, and the numerous grammatical tenses will become instinctive. While you work to get there, you will get the satisfaction of knowing that you are mastering one of the most widely spoken and beautiful languages in the world. You definitely will not regret it.