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Why You Should Learn… Russian

Russian churches          Following on from my post last week about learning Portuguese, here’s the seventh post in my series on the top 10 most spoken languages in the world.

No. 8: Russian

144 million native speakers, 250 million total speakers. Official language of Russia and many of the countries in the former Soviet Union, and 1 of the 6 official languages of the United Nations.

Why Russian?

            I personally find the Russian language extremely appealing and impressive. Perhaps it’s the stereotype of Russians dressed up in furs and parading around their opulent palaces in mid-winter that caught my imagination, or perhaps that image of Russian spies that always seem so glamourous. I decided on my Gap Year that I wanted to learn Russian and I spent the next two years striving to master the language. I started with a weekly evening class and the following year I took an intensive Russian module at university for 4 hours a week, but without the exams or the credits. And I did actually enjoy the language, and I adored learning about the culture from my amazing teacher Julia. But you need many more than two years, and at that point I was learning another three languages for my actual degree and I just couldn’t dedicate enough time to Russian. So I sadly dropped it, but never with the intention of giving up forever and I will get my Russian back up to a decent level.

             Having never been to Russia I can’t claim to know it first-hand. But from my classes with Julia, from talking to Russian family friends and friends who have visited and lived there, I’ve built up an image of a deeply split country. Immense poverty and poor quality of life in the great rural swathes of central and eastern Russia is contrasted with unimaginable wealth and privelage in the bigger cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. However it’s this wealth that’s making Russian such a valuable language to learn, and also as it’s considered one of the “hard” languages to learn, it’s quite rare among Westerners. The Russian language was imposed upon the members of the Soviet Union for years, so much of Eastern Europe still speaks Russian, even if not as a first language.

St Petersburg

          As one of the family of  Slavic languages, understanding Russian apparently helps with its close relations such as Polish & Bulgarian, although Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet (see the phrases below). Cyrillic has 33 different characters, but very confusingly, the letters you see typed in a textbook or online are invariably handwritten in a completely different way! I quite quickly picked up the alphabet and can still read it phonetically (although I wouldn’t necessarily remember the translation), but learning to handwrite really tested me… I’m very impressed by anyone who has persevered with Russian long enough to master it and I’d appreciate your thoughts on the language! Why did you want to learn Russian?

Top 5 Survival Phrases:

  • привет ‘Privyet’ – Hello
  • спасибо ‘Spasiba’ – Thank you
  • Как поживаешь? ‘Kak pozhivayesh?’ – How are you?
  • Я не понимаю русский язык ‘Ya ne ponimayu russkiy yazyk’ – I don’t understand Russian.
  • до свидания ‘Da svidaniya’ – Goodbye

          Throughout my two years of Russian we used two books, both of which I’d recommend: Oxford Take Off in Russian and The New Penguin Russian Course. But I’m warning you now – Russian is not a language to teach yourself at home! Find a local class taught by a native and prepare yourself for an uphill slog with the grammar as I’m sorry to say that Russian uses the dreaded declensions. Anyone who’s learnt German or Latin will know what I’m talking about…

Next week I’ll be profiling the No.9 most spoken language: Japanese.

[You can still vote below for the languages you’d most like to learn]


  1. Great language and I’m also two – sided. I took Russian lessons for 2,5 years and skipped every third class. I loved it and hated it. I was born in Poland, so the languages, especially grammar is similar. I want to know Russian, and yet it’s a language of historical oppressors, so you don’t want to admit knowing it. Strange feeling.


  2. I visited Moscow for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was struck by how little English I encountered – the metro was especially fun to try and navigate! My boyfriend works there and is attempting to learn via Rosetta Stone to avoid situations like the one where he thought he bought milk and ended up with some sort of probiotic yogurt…


      • I really did (I studied Cold War history at university though so a lot of it had to do with me geeking out :p) Regardless, I’d absolutely recommend it – so fascinating and still feels more or less untouched by tourists (at least when I went, but the temperature could’ve had something to do with it…) China’s on my list, though I can imagine it’d put my navigation skills to the test!


  3. Coming from Eastern Germany, Russian was the first mandatory foreign language in our schools – as for minqan in Poland it was also for us the language of the oppressor, but not at all similar to German. The complicated tenses and inclinations give the language a beauty and depth that is amazing. If you master Russian, all other languages are easy to learn! It helped me a great deal, by I speak 7 languages and my 4year old, who is being raised in Africa, knows 3 languages fluently already. A language is a mindset – knowing many languages means to have a wider conscience!


  4. I learned Spanish in high school and during the 2 years I lived in Barcelona. I loved it! Barcelona is such a beautiful city. But somewhere deep inside of me I have always fostered a yearning to know Russian. Much to my surprise the local university in my small Montana community offers a 4 year Russian major. So, I decided to give Russian 101 a chance one fall semester. Now I am a Russian major and third year student. Russian is such an exotic and exciting language with such a dynamic culture behind it. With that Russian will never fail to disappoint if you decide to learn it for the right reason. I still love Spanish but it can’t match the excitement and joy I get from learning Russian. If you are considering learning Russian on your own give the Living Language complete Russian course a try.


  5. While living in Warsaw, I visited Kiev (before the problems started…) and found myself fascinated with the Cyrillic alphabet. A few months later, after growing frustrated with my French course (I’m getting close to fluency and by the time you get to that level, it becomes difficult to see progress, hence the frustration) so learning a new language seemed like the thing to do. So…Russian? Why not! I can’t pretend to “speak” Russian as I’ve only been taking 1 hour a week since January, but I did (sort of) manage to navigate SPB & Moscow with my minimal Russian (even got complimented once or twine) and hope to continue improving at learning this strange yet beautiful language I’ve come to love!


    • Well done Alba! I’ve never had the chance to practise my Russian in Russia, so I’ve still got that to come! Good luck with the rest of your studies.


  6. Hello there, I’m Firas, umm It’s interesting to read your warning about not learning the language on my own, Actually I started learning Russian just like that, I started like a week ago, it’s summer, and I already have a close russian friend, Plus I love Russian culture, So I decided to give it a go, And So far I can read and write in Russian, and I am slowly progressing, BUT, I don’t know, do you think I can make it if i keep going on m y own or at some stage I will have to stop or it will be too hard or something like that, what do you think?


    • I personally am not very good at studying by myself, so I know that I need a classroom with a teacher to keep me on the straight and narrow. But if you can teach yourself and manage to keep at it then well done! If you have a friend to help you with the pronunciation and answer any questions you have then that should be ok. I hope you manage to learn it!


  7. I was fortunate enough to travel to Russia last year and I absolutely agree with your friends, there is a huge divide between the haves and the have-nots there. In the cities and tourist areas that I visited, it was like the middle and lower classes just didn’t exist – they were hidden away, far from prying eyes. Russia, out of everywhere I’ve travelled to, clearly made quite an impression on me – I’ve just started a travel blog myself and the very first proper story I’ve written is about Russia!


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