The reputation of Russian grammar proceeds it. It’s known for being especially complex, and at times even unpredictable. Thus many students list the Russian language among some of the most difficult foreign languages to learn.
If you’re thinking about learning Russian, don’t let the gossip and hearsay steal the wind from your sails. There are some very practical ways you can overcome the common difficulties of the language and learn it proficiently.
In this post we take a look at three highly practical tips to help you tame the beast that is Russian grammar.
1) Take the Case System Step by Step
When I began learning Russian I thought its grammatical case system was the bane of my existence. For those who don’t know Russian, nouns will take on different forms based on their function within a given sentence. This means if a noun is the subject it will look one way. If it’s a direct object it will take a different form.
There are a total of six different Russian cases, which means that Russian nouns are always changing! This can feel debilitating when trying to carry on a basic conversation. A great way to ease the tension and learn the cases in a way that’s natural and memorable, is to simply learn them one at a time.
Start with one case and practice making sentences with it. Once you’re comfortable with the word endings in that case move on to the next one. At first this process might appear to slow down your progress (especially your speaking ability), but in the long run it will leave you with a rock solid foundation in the Russian case system; which is a fundamental concept in the language.
2) Focus on Specific Verb Forms
Russian verbs are conjugated, meaning that they change form to show things like person, number, and tense. If you’ve taken Spanish or French then this concept will look familiar. If you’re completely new to the idea then it may take some getting used to. A Russian verb has a “regular” or dictionary form (also called the infinitive), and it will also take six other forms based on the person(s) performing the action. Thus for the Russian verb “to work” (Работать), you will have a different version for “I work” (работаю), “You work” (работаешь), “He/she works” (работает), “we work” (работаем), and so on.
Technically speaking English verbs are also conjugated, just not in the same way as in Russian. One of the biggest challenges of using Russian verbs is remembering the correct conjugation. Unfortunately you can’t reliably predict the conjugation of a Russian verb based on it’s dictionary form, because they don’t follow any specific pattern.
However, this doesn’t mean that for each verb you have commit all six individual conjugations (I, you, he/she, me, you all, they) to memory. Thankfully the “he/she”, “we”, and “you all” forms can be predicted if you know the “I”, “you”, and “they” forms. It’s still a lot to remember, but it does make things easier but cutting the necessary information in half!
3) Learn Hard and Soft Letters
Nouns, verbs, and pronouns change constantly in Russian. The endings they take often depend on whether or not the word ends with a soft or hard letter. In the Russian language you have a group of hard consonants as well as soft consonants. This goes for vowels as well.
The distinguishing factor of a hard or soft Russian letter is determined by how it is pronounced. The difference can seem subtle or even non-existent to a native English speakers. Whether you’re reading or speaking the language, being able to recognize whether or not a particular letter is hard or soft will mean the difference between using the correct word or not.
If you mispronounce a hard or soft letter you may even change the meaning of a word completely. Needless to say knowing how to hear and pronounce hard and soft consonants and vowels is vitally important if you’re serious about learning Russian.
It’s best to practice the hard and soft letters together in their respective pairs. Find a good audio source and compare the hard and soft sounds by listening to a native speaker. It will take a little practice, but after some time the distinction between hard and soft will become second nature.
To an English speaker, Russian grammar can feel like a giant enigmatic puzzle. However, if you break down the tougher aspects of the language and focus on the big pain points, the grammar system will lose much of its mystery and the language will begin to really open up for you!
Jesse is an avid language lover and occasional world traveler. In his free time he likes to blog about language learning and play blues guitar.