Blog - Russian language

Added on Sunday, 2011-11-06 11:38 CET in category Moscow
In Russia, people speak Russian. No big surprise there :) But learning and eventually actively partaking in society speaking Russian yourself is quite a long and interesting endeavor.

Speaking Russian

In order to properly function in Russia, it's really important to be able to speak Russian. Whereas I try to get by with English whenever I feel I can, with only 5% of the population indicating they can speak English, being able to speak Russian is simply a necessity. (This 5% may have increased somewhat over the last few years, but it's not nearly as high as in countries like the Netherlands or Norway.)

English is of course being taught in school, and teenagers often do speak it reasonable well, but with no exposure to the language and no practice outside of the classroom, people simply forget. (Pretty much like me and my French :)

This really is one of the main points of this blog post, exposure is key! And with movies being dubbed instead of subtitled, TV and magazines being pretty much exclusively in Russian and pretty much all foreign text being translated/transliterated to Russian/Cyrillic, this exposure simply isn't there. (There's apparently a legal requirement to include a translation/transliteration of all foreign text on packaging, so e.g. "convertibles" becomes "конвертиблз" (konvertiblz).)

Learning Russian

So soon after my first visit to Moscow, in 2004, I started to learn Russian. First, as mentioned above, out of necessity, since I didn't want to need to constantly be translated; second out of interest, I liked how the Russian language was so very different from Germanic/Romance languages; and third, because Russian sounds and looks beautiful.

Russian is indeed very different from most languages I was familiar with, like Dutch, English, German and French. In those languages, you would say "person" (EN), "persoon" (NL), "Person" (DE) or "personne" (FR). In Russian, that'd be "человек" (chelovek). There are of course also a lot of similar words, like "джекпот" (dzhekpot), "автобус" (avtobus) or "парад" (parad).

A small, incomplete list of differences:
  • A different alphabet, based on the Cyrillic script;
  • Some completely new sounds like "в" (v/w), "щ" (shch), "х" (kh) and "ы" (y) (see also;
  • Completely unpredictable stress;
  • Vowel pronunciations depending on this stress, e.g. the word "окно́" (okno) being pronounced as "aknó", but the word "о́кна" (okna) being pronounced as "ókna", or "молоко́" (moloko) as "muhlakó";
  • The letter "е" (ye/yo), with two sounds indeed, the sound depending not on stress here, but on the word itself, which, but only when the letter is pronounced as "yo", then indicates where exactly the stress is. Usually, anyway. Sounds weird? It is weird :) The "yo" sound does have its own letter, btw., "ё", but it's used less and less somehow. Oh, and when declining the letter stays the same, but the sound can change ("жена" (zhena) => "жены" (zhony));
  • Iotation and palatalization;
  • Three grammatical genders: male, female and neuter (in singular as well as in plural);
  • More or less six cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, prepositional, and somewhat/possibly locative and vocative;
  • Numerals decline by these cases, and for the numbers "one" and "two" they do so by gender as well;
  • However, numerals in the nominative and accusative can also determine case. E.g, "one" goes with the nominative singular, "two" through "four" with the genitive singular, and "five" and up with the genitive plural;
  • Verbs have two tenses, imperfective and perfective aspect, 6+3=9 participles, present tense being conjugated by person, but past tense by gender;
  • And a few other oddities like animacy, double negatives, the absence of the verbs "to be" and "to have" (well, almost anyway) and the absence of articles.

As daunting as all that may seem, and believe me, it takes a while to get everything down, one of the nicer things about Russian is that it has so very few exceptions. The grammar is incredibly extensive, but once you get it, it's mainly a matter of rote learning new vocabulary. (I use Flashcards Deluxe for that, btw., and highly recommend it.)


But like I said before, exposure is key! Before I moved to Moscow almost two years ago, I had already been learning Russian for about five years. But my practical Russian seemed like it was at a bare minimum. I had had little practice, pretty much no exposure, and at first making an order in a restaurant or answering the phone was uncomfortable to say the least. But after a few months, mainly my understanding of Russian improved a lot. I started working in a Russian company and really started talking Russian on a daily basis. Also, e.g., I read prescribing information in Russian just fine, got a healthcare card by myself and usually understand native speakers even when they're not holding themselves back.

Even though functional Russian is great and has made life here a lot easier, that's of course not all there is to it. A lot of nuances and slang are completely lost on me, and because of the dissimilarities between Russian and Dutch/English words, whenever I don't understand a word, I often won't have a single clue as to what it means. But through enough exposure, in a few years I'll hopefully be able to say that Russian is my third completely fluent language :)