About five or six years ago, I watched a WW2 documentary on German TV. They interviewed a Russian veteran. I tried to understand what he was saying since we spoke Croatian in my family and the two languages are very similar.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't decipher anything over the German dubbing.
I don't know whether this documentary was a catalyst of sorts but what I do know is that now, half a decade later, I am fluent in Russian and understand every single word when I watch interviews.
In this article, I'll tell you my story of how I went from not knowing any Russian to passing the most difficult exam in Russian and speaking it at a native speaker level.
Here's what we'll cover:
This isn't a language nerd article. I know all the intricacies of the language. But I don't want to talk to you about how verbs of motion and case declensions work. You are much better off learning these from a book than from a blog article on the internet. Plus, everyone's experience is different. I cannot tell you how to be fluent in Russian. Instead, I want to share with you my motivation and my journey learning Russian, as well as a few guidelines for learning Russian.
Why I wanted to learn Russian
I've always been very interested in learning languages. I grew up bilingual, my family is from Croatia and we still speak Croatian at home to this day. Outside home, I spoke German and since this was the language I went to school in, it became my real native language. In school, I learned English, then French and then Italian. English was a language that I've always loved. French...not so much. I've forgotten a lot of it although I can still read French. My Italian is somewhere at the intermediate level. I even took an interest in Japanese but never made an attempt at learning it.
So it's not a big surprise that Russian caught my interest for some reason. It could be because it was so close to Croatian but vastly more useful. I looked at my first Russian book when I wrote this article. I saw that I even translated from Russian to Croatian although I've never formally learned Croatian. For some reason, I felt a pull towards Russian and an identification with the language. You would think I learned it for the women but I honestly did not. Back in uni, I was actually more into Latinas and Spanish girls. Only later I realized that a lot of Spanish girls are ugly and Russians are so, so much better. Good thing that by then I already spoke it pretty well hehe.
How I started learning Russian
In my second year of uni, I took the decision to enroll in Russian classes. To be fair, I don't remember much about them. I remember we had an old lady as a teacher. Apparently Russian outside of Russia is always taught by elderly women). I also remember learning some basics: the Cyrillic alphabet, basic sentences, how to write in Russian. It didn't differ a lot from other languages that I had learned.
In case you're wondering about the alphabet: it's easy to learn and you'll have it down after a few days max. Cursive writing is a bit more difficult. I still recall that it bothered me a lot that we had to learn it. It just seemed so pointless and it required a bit of practice. I refused to do it in the beginning and wrote only in block letters. However, the elderly Russian lady teaching us was having none of that. Today I can say that learning to write in Russian is a valuable skill. If you plan to spend time in Russia, you should know how to write cursive and, even more importantly, how to read it (which is a pain in the ass, trust me). If not, then it's not that important. Regardless, writing is a skill that helps with your learning progress even if you don't need it daily.
How I became fluent in Russian
I learned Russian for one semester before I had to stop. The following term I went on an exchange year and unfortunately they didn't offer Russian in Ireland. After returning to Germany, I didn't go back to uni because I had only an internship and my thesis left. Hence, my Russian was still dormant. Then I enrolled in the program that would change the direction of my life profoundly.
The most important reason for enrolling in that double degree program was the opportunity to go to Moscow the following year. I knew I didn't want to stay in Germany. Being abroad had been too much fun. And the prospect of learning to speak fluent Russian appealed a lot to me.
In London, I had five hours of classes a week. Our teacher was again an elderly lady but was very competent and left a lasting impression with me. The classes weren't a ton of fun but they were useful. We often read out aloud and did exercises together. I also remember that much of the class was in English, which really bothered me. We started from the very basics. Because of that, I had a big headstart on the others with my years of language-learning experience in general and with Russian in particular. The class went very fast though and I couldn't rest on my laurels for too long. Overall, I for sure could have learned it even faster if the classes had been only in Russian.
There, I picked up the mantra "you learn a language through imitation." The most straightforward and natural way to learn is to imitate what you hear and read: accents, speech patterns, intonations, words, figures of speech and everything else you can imagine. I was top of the class because I was very motivated: doing extra work at home, trying to learn vocabulary, watching videos that I only half understood and doing more exercises. I picked up working with flashcards again and have stuck with that method ever since.
All in all, I did much more than five hours in class. It was probably closer to ten hours a week for nine months. Most of all, I worked on my pronunciation because it was important for me to not sound like a completely retarded foreigner. My English has a fairly neutral accent and that's what I wanted to have in Russian as well. Here, again, speaking Croatian helped. Many sounds are similar or the same although word stress is often different in Russian.
By the end of that period, I was somewhat conversational, around B1 level. I still remember boarding the plane to Moscow for the first time. I couldn't understand some of the security announcements but I understood the stewardesses and managed to order some chicken. I arrived in Moscow and went to my dorm. Luckily, I had a buddy that met me because I didn't understand all of what the babushka in charge of registering new guests wanted from me.
In Moscow, I again had four hours of Russian per week. Luckily the classes were all in Russian and my level improved significantly throughout these nine months. The permanent exposure to Russian, of course, helped a lot. I went on a ton of dates and always spoke Russian, never switching to English. Very quickly my Russian was anyway better than most girls' English. Listening to a chick trying to put together a few sentences in broken English actually grates my ears. I would rather speak Russian. My life and social circles were also centered around speaking as much Russian as possible. Sure, my friends were mostly foreigners but I tried to seek out as many Russian speakers as possible.
At the intermediate level, we already did real work on the language. Much of it revolved around learning verbs of motion, verbs with prefixes, expressing emotions and building vocabulary. By the end of the nine months of studying it in university and the 12 months overall in Moscow, I was fully fluent. I wanted more, however, there was a problem...
How hard is it to learn Russian?
In fall 2015, I left Moscow. My level was already better than what 95% of foreigners will ever reach but I still wanted more. Some things about Russian I had already figured out. Others I knew but was still making mistakes. Still other parts of the language eluded me and I have not mastered them to this day. Here's how hard it was to learn Russian for me.
Easy to learn
The Cyrillic alphabet wasn't hard at all, it took me a few days at best. It's as straightforward as the standard Latin alphabet and you can learn it even if you don't speak the language.
Because I spoke Croatian, I had a big headstart. The basic vocabulary was easy for me because many words are very similar, if not quite the same. A Croatian djevojka is a Russian devushka, a Croatian krava is a Russian korova and so on. There were many differences too, but speaking a Slavic language is a big, big advantage.
Pronouncing Russian always came naturally to me for the same reason. The vast majority of English native speakers will have problems with this. I've met only a selected few that managed to strip themselves of their distinct accents.
Word order is vastly less important in Russian than in German or English. This is something that most people will find "easy" about the language. I knew very quickly how to manipulate word order in sentences, which helped me a lot later when it was about using different sentence structures to convey a different message.
Hard to learn
Verbs of motion
Not going to lie, verbs of motion weren't easy. In English, you always "go" somewhere but in Russian, you can go by bike or car or go on foot and it's always a different verb. That in itself isn't the worst if it wasn't for...
Russian uses aspects to convey whether something is in progress or happens many times or whether it is a one-time action. Croatian has the same but I never learned the language properly, having it picked up only from speaking in my childhood. That helped me somewhat but getting aspects right still took me quite a long time although it can be mastered.
I grew up with German and Croatian and both languages use cases so this wasn't new to me. It still wasn't easy to get it right all the time and to learn the many different endings. Especially in the heat of the moment when you want to get a point across, endings can go out of the window. Certain verbs trigger certain cases and in complex sentence structures that can lead to an entire array of words with different endings. Cases are not that difficult to learn and remember but very difficult to apply correctly 100% of the time.
Very hard to learn
Something that keeps tripping me up to this very day is word stress. Russian uses a seemingly arbitrary system of stressing words. This is made even worse by the fact that the stress might jump depending on the case. So the word "window" in the singular is stressed differently from "windows". Don't even try to understand how or why because you won't be able to. You basically have to always know how to stress a certain word. That's why beginner books always indicate where the word is stressed but the problem never goes away.
Prefixes are a serious pain in the ass. The good thing is that a word like "make" is the root of many different words. The problem is that all these words have different prefixes (up to a dozen). Sometimes you even stack them on top of each other. In theory, they all have a common meaning. For example, the prefix "do-" means "until the end", as in "reading a book until the end". It's rarely as straightforward though. Combine this with the devilish aspect system and you are looking at a list of 25 verbs stemming from the root "to make". It took me a long-ass time to get this right and I am still not perfect.
Having a broad vocabulary
Languages like Spanish or English have simple sentence structures. If you compare a paragraph of text in Spanish or English with Russian, you will notice that in Russian the sentences are much longer. The same goes for vocabulary. Of course, you can express yourself in a sophisticated way in English. But there's a reason why the President of the United States can get elected while speaking English at the level of a fourth-grader. That would not happen in Russia, simply because Russian is a much more nuanced and therefore more difficult language to learn. Past the upper-intermediate stage, it becomes very hard to learn and retain new words because they can be used only in a very narrow context.
I'm sure you could say this of languages like German too, but Russian is infamous for this. I don't know whether it's true, but I heard that Pushkin used more than 10,000 different words in one of his novels. Given that a person needs to know 5,000 words to be considered proficient in a language, you can imagine how his prose sounded.
Who and what helped me to learn Russian
Given all these difficulties, some things helped me with learning Russian. I have an extra section about tips. These are things that helped ME but they might not work for you. The tips are universally applicable.
I found a person that corrects you and actively helps you to be the most helpful thing. I sort of employed my girlfriend as a part-time Russian teacher. She had to correct all my written exam preparation, grammar tests, explain to me words or collocations that I didn't know. Working with books and monolingual dictionaries is the way to go. But nothing beats being able to ask a real person for help. Of course, this person needs to have a good grasp of the language themselves. If they can't explain you the reason why you communicate something in that particular way that doesn't help.
I also went through books and exercises multiple times to revisit concepts that I "sort of" understood but not completely. For example, I went through these two books twice:
Through other books, which I used for exam preparations, I even went three times. Doing the same exercises over and over helped me a ton with accuracy.
I also work very well with learning through input. When I was studying, I read a lot of newspapers in Russian. I was always picking up on little linguistic intricacies in conversations and text messages. I paid as much attention as possible to how people pronounced certain words and the intonation of the language. Then I tried to imitate as much of that as I could.
How I achieved proficieny in Russian and passed the C2 exam
So how did I make the final step from fluency to proficiency? I've had no more formal classes after I left university, meaning I did the rest of the work on my own and without a teacher.
I continued studying Russian after I had finished uni because I wanted perfection. I know I wouldn't be able to speak Russian as well as English but I wanted to come as close to that as I could. My exposure consisted of conversations with native speakers (read: girls). I tried reading a few books in Russian but nothing stuck with me. I had on and off plans to pass either the C1 or C2 exam and books to prepare for those. Sometimes I studied and sometimes I didn't, depending on my motivation. This was a real problem because there was no real reason to continue studying Russian. I already was fluent, whether I understood 10% more didn't make a big difference.
Eventually, I returned to Moscow and continued in the same fashion. Sometimes I'd use flashcards but then drop them again. I read through the entire "Homo Sapiens" book in Russian, which took me a few months. The intermediate plateau was a real thing.
In the end, two things pushed me over the edge. First, I set a real deadline to pass the exam. I said I'd do it until the end of 2019, come hell or high water. Second, I started participating more in Russian-speaking events. I went to workshops in Russian, I held speeches in Russian, read biographies in Russian and had more intimate conversations that required a wider range of vocabulary. To prepare for the exam, I learned Russian figures of speech, watched vlogs and documentaries that I liked. In short: I really immersed myself in native content. I lived in Russian.
Despite having little material available to prepare for the exam, I prepared for it quite seriously for a few weeks. It turned out to be way more chaotic and easier than I anticipated but I passed.
What next? The "hard learning" part is over for me. I'm not going to sit down with books anymore because I know more than enough Russian. I use the language daily and I still jot down the occasional interesting word but that's it. I don't know whether it was actually worth investing so much time into learning the language to such a high degree. It's at least a distinctive feature and something that very few people have achieved.
My tips for learning Russian
Since I am competent with languages, people often ask me about tips and materials for learning Russian. There are a few guidelines that I can give that apply to any language. Here are my tips to learn Russian effectively:
Practice your pronunciation by reading out aloud
Before you even start speaking, you must pronounce the words. You know these funny clips or movies where people with a thick German, Russian or Spanish accent speak Englis´h? Sure, you understand them but do they sound pleasant to you? Not to me. I'm way more impressed by a person that speaks a language with a neutral accent and good pronunciation. There's nothing impressive about being able to say 10 words in Russian with a heavy American accent.
The best way to practice this is by reading out aloud. You need a text with an audio version that you can repeat after. Dialogues are even better. Listen, read along and repeat. Try to mimic what you hear as closely as you can. That's the whole secret. People with language learning experience or that have a sense of music will have no problems with this. If you can't hear certain sounds, you won't be able to pronounce them. Here, only a teacher will be able to help you. In general, good pronunciation is underrated and makes a big difference between sounding respectable and like a fool.
Pick one resource and do not deviate
Everyone wants the perfect book but there is no such thing. Truth be told, it doesn't matter what you use.
Pick one to two resources and stick to them slavishly.
I like to use a book and a resource for listening, a podcast or something of the sorts. For Russian, we used "Colloquial Russian." I don't know whether there are better books out there but it's good enough and it got me results so I recommend it. Whatever you pick, information overload is real, Stick to as few resources as you can.
I'm beating a dead horse but consistency, as always in life, is king, If you do 15 mins every day, you will get better results than doing 3 hours once a week. Compounding returns are your best weapon in language learning. If you want to make real progress fast, you need to study an hour a day five times a week. Any less than that won't get you far, that's the reality.
Balance accuracy and fluency
There's an old debate whether a person should first learn to speak and then correct the mistakes or try to speak as accurately as possible from the start. The truth is: it depends. You need to strike a balance between the two. Try to be as accurate as possible but don't sacrifice too much fluency for that. The main goal is communication. You need to get your point across. Personally, I don't prioritize one over the other, I always try to learn and remember as many correct structures as possible. It's a fine line especially when it comes to cases. Do what works best for you.
Set a goal with a fixed deadline
You don't have to sign up for an exam but you need a clear goal. For example "speaking 30 minutes without big interruptions within 3 months". That's a clear and defined goal, You also need to be held accountable, otherwise, the devil of procrastination will take over. This is not groundbreaking advice but it's advice that works.
Use Russian content past the intermediate level
If you want to get over B1, which is unlikely since most people don't need it, you need to use Russian content and Russian books. All books published by Zlatoust are excellent and recommended. Some of them are old and dry and not up to modern standards but there's no alternative and no other way of learning it without them. Don't believe anyone that tells you "people pick up languages". That's horseshit. Your brain is not a sponge. You need spaced repetition and the more you study systematically, the quicker you will learn something.
Forget becoming proficient without being in the country
When I passed the CPE (C2 exam in English), I did the speaking part with a Russian guy that was terribly nervous and couldn't put together two sentences. It turned out that he had never been to an English-speaking country. I didn't have to prepare for the exam because I had lived and studied in English-speaking countries. I already had had massive exposure to English. You cannot reach native-level proficiency without living in the country. Firstly because the math doesn't check out. You cannot simulate having that much exposure to a language like when you are in the environment. Secondly, because many things you only learn through speaking and hearing them from native speakers. C1 in an exam and C1, in reality, are two very different things.
Use a book
I said the resource doesn't matter as long as you stick with it. But I would still use a book over video content or apps. You can complement the former with the latter but books are a) compiled by experts and b) checked by them. In all the languages I learned, I've never worked without a book It's hard to understand grammar concepts without a book and your adult brain is eager for explanations, which are only provided by books. Use them.
Methods don't matter
Some people prefer output-based methods and speak as much as possible, using trial and error. Others use translations. I like to use a lot of input and imitate what I read and hear. The truth is that you need to find what works well for you and then, again, stick with it. Spreading yourself too thin is also a real thing. However, it is important to learn and practice all skills even if you prioritize some over others. You might not write a lot in real life but learning some writing is beneficial for you because you practice different skills. You can take your time, pick the right words and speak in a different tone.
How long did it take me to learn Russian?
To cap this off, I want to answer another popular question:
"How long does it take to learn Russian?"
The boring but true answer is: it depends. It depends on your native language, on your experience with languages, on your talent and your will to put in the work. There's the standard "1100 hours" answer as per some American foreign language institute. That may be true for you or not, no one knows. Here's how long it took me:
To learn the alphabet
I can't remember exactly but it was not more than a few days. The alphabet is much easier to learn than you'd think.
To become conversational
About a year. By conversational, I mean being able to speak and get around. For some others, my level at that stage would already have been very high since I was able to have full conversations but did not understand everything.
To become fluent
About two years. By fluent, I mean getting around effortlessly and understanding almost everything while not suffering any major breakdowns in communication. That's what they call B2-C1 level when you know the language well enough to be completely independent.
To become proficient
About three years. By proficient I mean understanding 95%+ and being able to process even difficult written and spoken communication in different contexts. "Native level" sounds nice but I found that especially in a difficult language like Russian, it's hard to reach the language of a true native speaker. In English, you might get there 95% but in Russian, it will be a bit less than that. Getting rid of your accent, getting all endings right and never reaching for words is almost impossible.
All that said, I am not the typical case because I already knew several languages, speak a Slavic language and have a knack for languages in general. If I had to guess, I would say it'll take you twice as long if you do not have all these advantages.
Should you learn Russian?
Last but not least, let's talk about motivation.
I cannot tell you why you should learn Russian. You should not learn any language if you need to find a reason to do it. That means your motivation isn't there from the start and that spells trouble. I could tell you three benefits that I gained from knowing Russian.
If that isn't obvious, I don't know what is. Of course, you have to learn it for the chicks. Yes, you can get women without knowing Russian but the respect you gain from speaking it and the bigger pool of targets makes more than up for the effort. Some people come to Moscow only for the nightlife and the women.
Speaking a difficult language is a status booster. On top of that, Russian sounds impressive to someone that doesn't speak it. Go sit in a diner in Kansas and start speaking Russian, you are sure to get a ton of head turns.
Not an original argument but if you are in natural resources, an arms dealer or in the foreign policy/international relations sphere, Russian will have serious benefits. It does also give you access to the Caucasus countries, as well as Ukraine and Central Asia. If you do not ever plan on going there for an extensive amount of time, then don't bother. If you do, it's worth it 100%.