Why Learn Russian? 10 Compelling Reasons to Study the Slavic Language
The Russian language has given me beautiful poems that I learned as a child and can still recite today, like Afanasy Fet’s “I Come to You at the Break of Day,” a joyful ode to Spring and love.
It gave me the recipes for delicious comfort food like my mom’s katleti (fried meat patties) and blinchiki (delectably thin and fluffy crepes). She still makes them every single time I come to visit!
If you’re considering making the leap and starting to study this rich language, I promise the journey will be worth it.
Here are 10 reasons why you should learn Russian!
- 1. Russian is one of the top 10 spoken languages in the world.
- 2. Russia is a world leader in several industries.
- 3. Knowing Russian is often the only way to communicate with Russian speakers.
- 4. The Russian language has a rich history.
- 5. Russian literature is absolutely beautiful in the original language.
- 6. Russian is a wonderfully flexible and playful language.
- 7. It’s easier than people think.
- 8. It isn’t always translated well in media.
- 9. The curse words are plentiful and rich.
- 10. It opens your mind to a new cultures.
1. Russian is one of the top 10 spoken languages in the world.
You might think that Russian is only spoken in (duh) Russia.
But in truth, Russian is the official language in many countries around the world, including Russia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. Russian is also taught in schools as a second language in neighboring countries like Ukraine, Uzbekistan, the Baltics and a number of others.
Learning Russian will allow you to speak to people all around the world. I’m Ukrainian, but I don’t speak a lick of Ukrainian. My native language? Russian, of course.
Over 150 million people speak Russian as their first language. Another 100+ million speak it as a second language. The language is important enough to be recognized as one of the six official languages of the UN.
In fact, Russian is the eighth most spoken language in the world! That’s a lot of potential speaking partners.
2. Russia is a world leader in several industries.
Russia is a global superpower and a leader in many global industries:
- Natural resources like oil, gas and coal: Russia is the third-largest producer of oil in the world and the top producer of natural gas. It’s also rich in other natural resources like coal, iron and gold.
Although the world is starting to take steps away from using finite natural resources, it’s going to be a long journey. In the meantime, knowing Russian will get a foot in the door if you’re looking for a job in the industry.
- Science and tech: Science and technology stagnated while the country reformed itself in the ’90s, but today Russia is returning as a leader in both. This is aided by a government plan to develop new laboratories and science centers and increase research spending. The plan, in effect from 2018 to 2024, aims to make Russia an attractive destination for budding scientists and tech experts.
- Space exploration: If you want to be an astronaut, you need to have a working knowledge of the Russian language. In fact, it’s a job requirement! Astronauts heading to the ISS typically do so through a Russian-owned territory in Kazakhstan, and knowing Russian is essential for any mission, no matter what country you’re from.
NASA still provides training in the Russian language amid other critical skills like spacewalking and aircraft flight readiness. So if you have dreams of exploring space, learning Russian will get you one step closer!
As companies strive to form relationships with Russian businesses and consumers, they need to present their products and services in Russian, not English. This means that even if you have no plans to become a coal-mining astronaut scientist, knowing Russian will still give you an edge in a potential career.
3. Knowing Russian is often the only way to communicate with Russian speakers.
One of the first phrases English speakers learn in a foreign language is “Do you speak English?” That’s because, in most travel destinations in the world, you can typically find someone who knows enough English to be able to communicate with you.
Not so in Russia. As of 2015, only about 7% of Russians speak English well enough to be able to have a brief conversation (like giving directions). This number may have grown since, but the fact remains that if you want to speak to a Russian person, you’ll need to speak Russian.
One reason for this is the former Soviet Union’s insular nature: Russians didn’t need to learn English, so they didn’t. Another reason is how different English is from Russian. Grammar and vocabulary in Russian use pretty simple and easy-to-follow rules, while English is complicated in comparison.
A Russian-speaking friend of mine has lived in the United States for over 10 years and still struggles to speak English. I struggle, in turn, to explain English quirks like the difference between “big” and “large” or “small” and “little.” After all, in Russian you mostly just use большой and маленький, respectively! It’s kind of a big deal (but not, of course, a large deal).
So if you plan to travel to Russia, speak to Russian relatives and friends or work with Russian speakers, it would be a tremendous help to actually speak Russian.
4. The Russian language has a rich history.
About 6,000 years ago, the proto-Indo-European language began to break apart into individual languages. As people moved into today’s Ukraine and Southwestern Russia, they started speaking Proto-Slavic, the precursor to the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian languages.
Learning Russian means learning the history of the language and the country. You can see the influence of Peter the Great’s 18th-century crusade to standardize the alphabet and make the language accessible to the masses. More recently, you can thank the Communist party’s reforms of 1917 for further simplifying and streamlining the language.
Russian has had centuries to grow and yet it’s remained unique. As a result, there’s a certain pride in Russian speakers that comes from speaking their historic language properly. By learning Russian, you’ll be learning a living piece of history.
5. Russian literature is absolutely beautiful in the original language.
You haven’t really read Russian literature unless you’ve read it in Russian. There are some wonderful translations available of Russian classics, but it’s very difficult to translate the feel of the Russian language into English or other Western languages.
For instance, I’ve read Alexander Pushkin’s “The Tale of Tzar Saltan” both in English and in Russian. While the English version has a children’s nursery rhyme vibe to it, the original Russian reads more like a grand epic.
The Russian language is incredibly poetic in general, but it helps to keep the country’s past alive. Due to its turbulent history, Russian literature in the 19th and 20th centuries is especially poignant, using language to evoke feeling and philosophize. Readers generally have to read between the lines to get the message.
The result is often beautiful, poetic and profound. By learning Russian, you can open your world to Russian literature like you’ve never seen it before.
6. Russian is a wonderfully flexible and playful language.
Russian is a beautiful language. It’s also incredibly versatile. Just take a look at how I can move the words in a sentence around and it still makes sense:
Я люблю тебя. (I love you. lit: “I love you.”)
Я тебя люблю. (I love you. lit: “I you love.”)
Тебя люблю я. (I love you. lit: “You love I.”)
Люблю тебя. (I love you. lit: “Love you.”)
That’s not even all. I could go on!
There are some nuanced differences in the sentences above—for instance, the sentence “Тебя люблю я,” is putting emphasis on the fact that it is I, in particular, who loves you (and not someone else). But if you try to say the same sentence in English, you’ll get some really confused looks!
Russian also often allows you to drop pronouns if they’re implied:
“Собака грязная?” (Is the dog dirty?)
“Грязная.” (Yes, it’s dirty. lit: “Dirty.”)
And in the present tense, you don’t even use the verb “to be”!
Я здесь. (I am here. lit: “I here.”)
There are also plenty of words and phrases that are just not translatable into English, and some silly idioms. What other language can make sense from да нет наверное (yes no probably)!?
All of this is extremely freeing, especially if your native language has very strict rules regarding word order and grammar. It makes the language fun to play with!
Here’s a fun little rhyme that perfectly shows how playful the Russian language can be:
Говорит попугай попугаю: (Says the parrot to the [other] parrot:)
“Я тебя, попугай, попугаю.” (“I will spook you, parrot.”)
Отвечает ему попугай: (The [other] parrot answers him:)
“Попугай, попугай, попугай!” (“Spook me, parrot, spook me!”)
7. It’s easier than people think.
Some people are afraid of learning Russian because they have the preconceived notion that it’s a really difficult language.
If you’ve never studied Slavic languages before, , then Russian isn’t an easy language to learn by any means. The United States Department of State lists Russian as a Category III language, a “hard” language.
But calling a language “hard to learn” is an oversimplification. There are always some elements of a language that learners struggle with. In Russian, you might have trouble with the case system, for instance.
That said, many aspects of the Russian language actually make it easier to learn than you might think!
For example, as you saw in the previous section, Russian word order is forgiving. There are also fewer tenses than in English (and many other languages), and stricter pronunciation rules mean that you’ll always know how to say a word (even if your accent isn’t perfect).
Russian has a lot of cognates (words that sound similar and mean similar things) with English, Dutch, German, Italian, French, Polish, Arabic and Greek (from which it also draws many of its written letters). So if you have any background in those languages, you already have a head start on the language!
8. It isn’t always translated well in media.
“Metro 2033” is a video game about post-apocalyptic Russia, based on a Russian book and developed by a Ukrainian studio. The game is available in several languages, but as far as I’m concerned, the only right way to play it is in Russian.
If you’re playing through the game with English subtitles, you miss a lot. There are entire side-conversations that aren’t even translated, and some asides by the characters aren’t included in the subtitles.
This is also true in games like “Call of Duty,” where characters routinely call our Russian phrases that aren’t translated.
Even if you’re not a gamer, there are tons of examples of Russian being used in non-Russian media from TV shows to movies, the most infamous of which is “A Clockwork Orange,” which uses an English-Russian hybrid throughout.
Whether you’re watching an English movie that throws in some Russian or a Russian movie with English subtitles, chances are that you’re missing out if you don’t understand Russian. The language has many words and concepts that are difficult to convey in a translation, so you miss a lot of the nuances of the language. The only way to really understand what you’re hearing is to know Russian.
9. The curse words are plentiful and rich.
I once watched, mouth agape, as a high school classmate of mine stubbed his toe and rattled off a full two minutes of Russian curses. He never once repeated a word. I was absolutely in awe.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you learn a language simply because the curses are amazingly inventive. But we’ve all looked up some fun curses in languages we’re learning, right?
Besides the obvious references to body parts and bodily functions, the Russian language has a few less offensive euphemisms, like блин (“blin”), which means both “pancake” and “darn,” depending on the context. (Or possibly both, if you’re not the best cook!)
There are even some ridiculous-sounding expressions that show displeasure while being completely family-friendly, like ёлки палки (“yelki palki”), which literally means “trees sticks” and has a similar tone to “fiddlesticks.”
A Russian friend of mine regularly shares funny ways to use the language. This past weekend she was laughing about how the word хрен can mean “horseradish,” “terrible” and a certain part of the male anatomy. What a truly wonderful language!
10. It opens your mind to a new cultures.
When American movies and shows need a villain, they get a Russian. This is in part because of the less-than-stellar relationship between Russia and America for most of the 20th century, and partially because, as Trevor Noah points out, English spoken in a Russian accent sounds oddly threatening.
As a result, if you live in the West (especially in America) what you know about Russia, its culture and its people might be built on stereotypes and stilted media portrayals. Thanks to the country’s marred reputation, it’s easy to overlook the rich history and culture of the country. Russia has incredible architecture, delicious food and a rich history of dance—and that’s just the beginning.
Besides this, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Russia isn’t the only place where you’ll hear Russian spoken. That means that by learning the Russian language, you’ll be introduced to many other wonderful cultures and people. Many Ukrainians like me, for instance, speak Russian, as do people in Belarus, Uzbekistan and a number of other countries.
When you learn a language, you also learn its culture. So by learning the Russian language, you’ll open up a whole new world of people, traditions, music and more, from all over the Russian-speaking world!
So why should you learn Russian?
It’s a beautiful, often misunderstood language. It can offer you a bit of culture and history as well as potential job opportunities. It’s simply a wonderful language to learn!