What are the pitfalls of the no-grammar approach to learning Russian?

A healthy dose of scepticism should be the response to any approach suggesting that you abandon grammar completely. If grammar weren’t important in Russian, native speakers wouldn’t use it. With all but the most basic of sentences, expressing more complex thoughts or engaging in meaningful conversations will be a distant dream without knowledge of Russian grammar.

The primary skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing are supported by grammar. Clearly then, grammar plays some role in clarifying meaning and therefore improving communication. Before deciding to abandon grammar altogether, think long and hard about your language learning objectives. Are you studying the language at university level, determined to obtain native-like fluency for a particular job opportunity, only planning to read Russian, learning it to communicate with your partner’s family, or simply learning a few phrases for a week-long trip to a city like Moscow, or Kyiv?

Some of those objectives permit a relatively low-level of ability and you could possibly get away with not learning grammar if you’re just memorising a bunch of phrases, or content communicating at a very crude level. However, an understanding of grammar is essential in order to use Russian professionally, or to appreciate the rich body of Russian literature which exists.

Although with the no-grammar approach you can improve your grammar organically (through constant exposure to the grammatical patterns you hear through native speech) and develop intuitive knowledge of the correct grammatical structures, it will be at a much slower rate than if you make a conscious effort to not only educate yourself on these topics, but also make an effort to use that knowledge. Without familiarity with at least some foundational grammatical principles, you’ll stumble time and time again as you’ll struggle to make yourself understood and will fail to acquire the ability to independently monitor the quality of your output , correcting it as necessary. This is doubly so if you are unable to immerse yourself in a Russian-speaking environment.

Why learn Russian grammar?

Unlike English – an analytic language – Russian is a synthetic language and the grammatical concept of case declension is a fundamental (not to mention inescapable) part of Russian grammar. See it as your friend rather than your sworn enemy. You have to learn Russian case declension if you want to be understood, because Russian sentences generally do not make sense without the changes in form used to indicate the role of a particular word in a sentence. In addition, certain grammatical changes, such as the manner in which singular and plural nouns are distinguished by changes in the endings applied, simply have to be learned because to not apply them would make your speech unpleasant for the average ear of a native speaker. Notably, it is this same feature which makes Russian sentence structure so flexible.

Without ever picking up a Russian grammar textbook, you’ll grow accustomed to your errors and it will be a challenge to correct them later on. Arguably, it’s far better to progress slowly but speak accurately, than to learn a tonne of information, only to have to unlearn all of the inaccurate and incorrect information you have acquired, at a later date. Taking the time to learn grammar, deconstruct sentences and understand the whys and wherefores of Russian grammar, is what will allow the steady march towards and attainment of something approaching native-like fluency.

How difficult is it to study Russian grammar?

The advance towards mastery will be filled with unique challenges at every stage. However, it is not impossible and as you master each new theme and combine study with simply ‘taking in’ the language, patterns will emerge and you will draw connections with other resources you have used to help you on your journey to fluency, which will settle your anxiety.

Many things about Russian are easy to master. For example, the endings to be applied to past tense verbs and the present and future tenses which have the same endings – albeit with a change in the root to which the suffix is applied(!) Once you know the limited range of patterns which apply, as soon as you learn a new infinitive verb you will be in a position to use it immediately.

Don’t be intimidated by long word lists showing changes in forms out of context, such as the image below. In reality, you learn the patterns and contexts in which certain forms apply so that you can use them as necessary, without having to run through a 48-word list in your mind!

What is the best way to study Russian grammar?

One approach to the case system is to learn the nominative case of nouns and then slowly progress through the uses of each case until the changes become natural to you. At Unlocking Russian, you’ll find clear and comprehensive guides on the uses of all of the cases : the nominative case , the accusative case , the dative case , the prepositional case , the instrumental case , the genitive case and even the more obscure ones (though you can leave the latter one for another day).

The most important element of grammar study is to apply the rules you have recently learnt, in order to make your use of them instinctual, whether that is through completing textbook exercises to which you have the answers in order to double check your work, constructing your own sentences, or listening to spoken Russian. Dedicated and consistent practice studying the endings required, parsing accurately constructed sentences and creating your own sentences or doing cloze exercises (those with key words hidden, or removed), will eventually pay off and help you retain the knowledge you have gained.

Be sure to focus on developing your listening, reading, speaking and writing skills evenly. For example, try a little listening, reading, speaking and writing and you’ll slowly become accustomed to the quirks of the language. Listen to Russian-language music and podcasts, watch Russian-language TV series, read Russian books, speak the little Russian that you know with native speakers and don’t be afraid to write in Russian and post your passage on language learning forums to receive feedback from native speakers. This is the best way for the knowledge to become intuitive.

Don’t feel disheartened if you struggle to produce sentences without hesitating, as you think of the right words to use and endings to apply. Your output does not have to be perfect before you speak and natives may still understand you – even if your attempts could do with a bit of work. Just try and apply grammatical rules learnt with native speakers, in order to benefit from their constructive feedback and modify your use of Russian accordingly.

When you attempt to use newly-acquired grammatical rules with native speakers and you make a particularly embarrassing mistake, your brain preserves the memory with great intensity that it is stored in your subcortical memory storage region , never to be forgotten again. With each initially stressful interaction, your confidence in using those newly-acquired structures will grow and you’ll receive feedback on things such as pronunciation, which can be improved at an early stage – that is, before they become heavily-fossilised errors.

What are the best resources for studying Russian grammar?

When you decide to study Russian, you’ll be well-advised to secure a high-quality textbook, oronline course to follow, or get a tutor. Russian language resources such as this verb conjugation chart are extremely helpful, but be sure to focus on the parts of them that make sense to you because you have taken the time to study the rules for that section, rather than worrying about the mountain of information you don’t know yet.

Conclusion

Misunderstandings as a result of poor grammar are entirely avoidable if only you take the time to study. You don’t have to become fixated on perfection. Ultimately, as a non-native speaker of Russian, the likelihood of you achieving 100% perfection in your delivery every time is slim, but you can definitely come close to it. You just need to make sure that you continue to strive to improve your Russian by making sure to combine vocabulary acquisition with manageable doses of Russian grammar. When combined with an immersive approach to learning Russian, involving hearing lots of real dialogue and extensive reading, you’ll gain sufficient knowledge of the correct forms of words and internalise them. Gradually, your understanding of how the various aspects of Russian grammar work and relate to one another will develop and you’ll speak better Russian!

If despite all of this, you’re comfortable speaking like a cave dweller, more power to you. Just know that it will be grating to the ears of native speakers who will likely have to suffer in silence as they hear you butcher their language simply because you didn’t want to take the time to learn at the very least, the core of Russian grammar: the case declension system, verb conjugation, verbal aspect, prepositions and knowledge of prefixes.

If nothing in this article has convinced you that learning Russian grammar would be a worthwhile investment, perhaps consider learning a Slavic language such as Bulgarian, which is free of the cumbersome case system that makes Russian such a challenge of English speakers. You’ll still get to boast to your friends that you can read Cyrillic!

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