This post is most immediately about learning Russian for native English speakers, but most of the principles apply to learning other languages as well.
A bizarre conversation with a bizarre psychologist
Here’s an excerpt from a bizarre conversation with a psychologist who kept frequently insisting I had “very few interests” well past the point that he gave the oddest body language in acknowledging I had master’s degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge, England), and (it also came up) I had (briefly) studied French at the Sorbonne—and in all of this, he still alleged in undiminished force to have “very few interests”:
Me (trying another approach): I’m a philologist.
Him (looking to neutralize or dismiss it): What on earth do you mean by that?
Me: Languages are like Scotch: one is a good start; two is just about perfect; three is not nearly half enough.
Him:Me: I’ve dipped a finger in a lot of languages, but I’ve read the Bible in five or six languages.
Him (counting on fingers while guessing): English, French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew.
Me: A dozen translations in English, two translations each in French and Spanish, Latin, Greek, modern Russian three times in the Synodal version, and I’m working my way through the Slavonic…
Him: Russian is a tonal language, and it’s the second hardest language for native English speakers to learn after Chinese.
I don’t remember what I said next. Those were some of the most bizarre remarks about Russian I’d heard in my life.
At least one webpage I’ve seen about easy, medium, and hard languages for native English speakers placed Russian squarely in the middle of things to learn; the major qualification for that is simply a vocabulary that doesn’t overlap modern English that much; I would guesstimate that the number of Russian words a native English speaker would easily recognize amounts to less than 10% of the words one would encounter. Beyond that, the grammar is not particularly slippery, or otherwise odd; the alphabet has strong and recognizable similarities to our own (compare CJK ideograms or even trying to see where one letter ends and another begins in Arabic for the un-initiated). It’s actually a lot nicer an alphabet to outsiders than the English use of our alphabet is. Learning Russian is moderately difficult, but it’s doable, and this page is here because I want to share what gleanings I’ve learned in my studies, and make things easier.
A preliminary note: the Russian alphabet
The first point I’m mentioning is the alphabet. In a word, it’s not a hard alphabet to learn; it’s just unfamiliar and takes practice. I learned it on an iPhone app named “Learn to read Russian in three hours.” Good old fashioned flashcards should work just as well, or for that matter having the alphabet below handy for cross-reference in reading. (Or a memory technique discussed below.) Also, don’t feel the need to make every sound. The Russian R sound is trilled; I’ve tried at length to learn a trilled R and don’t know how to make it. The H sound is a grated H, the kind that makes you sound like you are clearing your throat because you have a bad chest cold. I can sometimes make it, but I’ve heard native Russian speakers pronounce it as an English K, or an English H, so apparently both work. There is also a sound that sounds like an “sh” followed immediately by a “ch”; I’m working on this and sometimes succeeding at making it one sound without a break between the “sh” and “ch” sounds. Don’t sweat it overall; in most languages people will have some tolerance for imprecise sounds: if your worst liability is an inauthentic R or H sound, you’re doing well!
Open just this image to print it
The letters you should pay attention to are those on the far left.