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Basic Russian Grammar for Beginners

By Yann, published on 29/01/2019 We Love Prof - IN > Languages > Russian > How To Navigate Russian Grammar

Eager to start learning Russian and find out more about the land of the Tsars, maybe even take a trip to Moscow or St. Petersburg? Learn to read Tolstoy or Pushkin or other greats of Russian literature in the original language?

Wonderful! This Slavic language is spoken by about 154 million people worldwide, and while at first, it may seem daunting to learn a whole new alphabet, Russian grammar, while quite different from English in many ways, is in others also much simpler.

So once you have mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and learned a few basic Russian words and phrases, it’s time to study the core of the Russian sentences and how to build them – and how to continue your Russian lessons and make learning Russian fun!

Verbs in Russian

Of course, nouns and pronouns are important in any language, but the main part of the sentence is the verb. It is what everything else hinges upon who is doing it to whom or what (subject and object – nominative and accusative respectively), what these people or things are like (adjectives) and how, when or why they are doing it (adverb).

Identifying Russian verbs

In the infinitive, Russian verbs can be identified by their ending: -ТЬ when preceded by vowels and -ТИ when following a consonant. However, it is important to note that the infinitive ending is generally dropped and replaced by other endings when the verb is conjugated.

First and Second Conjugation

Russian verb conjugation differentiates between two groups of verbs: the first and the second conjugation. There are irregular verbs in Russian, but they are usually considered irregular because of changes in their stem (the first part of the verb) when conjugating – they usually still belong to the first or second conjugation.

The verbs of the first conjugation end in:

  • -ать
  • -ять
  • -еть
  • -овать
  • -нуть

The verbs of the second conjugation end in -ить.

Tenses in Russian

The good news is that, while nouns and pronouns are more complicated in Russian, since they are declined, verbs – especially Russian verb tenses – are bit easier to navigate. Russian doesn’t have as many tenses as English – where English has several past and present tenses (such as simple past, past progressive, past perfect, past perfect progressive etc.), Russian only has one tense for the past, one for the present and two for the future, depending on whether the verb is perfective or not.

Grammar basics are important when learning Russian. First you have to learn the Russian alphabet. Then, you need to learn all about nouns and verbs! Photo credit: Nick Sherman on Visualhunt.com

Some Basic Russian Verbs

While verb conjugation is much simpler in Russian grammar than in English, you might be slightly bewildered about anything else to do with Russian verbs. Here are some examples of common Russian verbs and verb types to help you get started on learning to speak Russian.

Perfective vs. Imperfective

While many languages use the same verb for a perfective or imperfective meaning, making it clear which is meant by prepositions or other grammar rules such as giving them a perfect and imperfect present tense or past tense, Russian usually has two different verbs. It doesn’t help that these verbs often have the same etymological stem – meaning they evolved from the same root word – so that they look very similar, making learning Russian vocabulary that much harder.

But what is the difference between the perfective and imperfective?

  • The imperfective aspect is used when a verb describes an action currently taking place, one with no clear beginning or end, an unfinished action or one that takes place repetitively.
  • The perfective aspect is used to show an action that is concluded or that only happened once.

Because almost every action has both a perfective and imperfective verb in Russian, it is a good idea to learn them in pairs when making up your vocabulary flashcards.

Russian verbs of motion

Just as Russian speakers differentiate between perfective and imperfective, they also use different verbs depending on whether a motion goes only in one direction or several:

  • Determined or unidirectional verbs are used when the movement is from one place to another, only happens once, or is currently happening.
  • Undetermined or pluridirectional verbs are used if the movement is uncoordinated (I meandered aimlessly), goes in several directions (walk around the block), is a back-and-forth movement that only happened once or is habitual.

Again, it’s a good idea to learn determined and undetermined verbs together so you know just what word to use when you want to say “walk”!

The verb “to be”

As in many other languages, the verb “to be” in Russian has its own set of rules. Unlike many other languages, it is used as an auxiliary verb only rarely, for example for one of the future tenses.

Fortunately, it is generally left out in sentences in the present tense in colloquial speech, though you will find it in written Russian if it’s a very proper text.

Building Russian Sentences

The good news is: if you stick to the usual English sentence structure of Subject + Verb + Direct Object, chances are you will be doing everything right when you speak Russian.

However, there are some exceptions:

  • You can put an indirect object either before or after the direct object – because Russian nouns are declined, you will always know if a noun is a direct object (accusative case) or an indirect object (dative case)
  • If either object is a pronoun, it comes before the verb.

So, now that we have learned this basic fact of Russian sentence structure and you feel ready to tackle Russian newspapers and movies, beginners need to know this important fact:

Subject+Verb+Object is not a rule in Russian, but a suggestion. Like many languages that use cases (as you will find out if you learn German or Greek), parts of a sentence can be moved around for emphasis.

The meaning remains clear since the words’ grammatical role is determined by their case.

In Russian, the important information is given at the end of the sentence, so whatever you want to emphasise when giving information should be shunted to the back.

Russian sentences have their own rules. Happiness is just around the corner: building Russian sentences is important for learning to speak Russian fluently. Photo credit: Dmitry Kolesnikov on VisualHunt.com

Asking questions in Russian

Asking a question when speaking Russian is fairly simple. You need to remember:

  • If it is a yes or no question, don’t change the word order – simply raise your voice at the end of the sentence in conversation or put a question mark when writing (yes they exist in the Russian alphabet).
  • If it is a question asking for more information, put the question word at the beginning of the sentence.

Using Games to Learn Russian

Of course, when learning the Russian language, if you want to get past a beginner level to intermediate level or even advanced, you will have to learn the grammar rules and memorize vocabulary, maybe even buy some textbooks.

All of which can be very boring.

Fortunately, there are a variety of learning games for Russian that can help you practise basic elements of the language:

  • Russian numbers
  • Telling time in Russian
  • Saying hello in Russian and other basic words and phrases
  • The days of the week
  • Aspects of grammar such as prepositions, personal pronouns, genitive declension etc…

Many sites for learning a language online such as Duolingo have exercises and quizzes for practising your language skills. Most apps for learning a foreign language do it through short language lessons and fun exercises.

However, there are a number of other games you can play to help you learn Russian language!

Games to play alone

There are some games you can play to help you study Russian. You can make a memory game with flashcards – instead of writing the English word on one side and the Russian equivalent on the other, write each term on a separate card. Make fifteen to twenty pairs (you can make more and change them out) and set them face down before you. At each turn, you uncover two cards. If the two cards match, put them away. If they don’t, turn them over again. The goal is to clear the table before you. You can also play this with two or more people (if you have more than two, you will need twenty to thirty cards).

Another game you can play by yourself to learn Russian vocabulary is to buy lifestyle magazines (think Home and Gardens or something similar) and name all the objects in the pictures. Keep a Russian-English dictionary handy to learn even more terms!

You can use the same magazine or a travel magazine and describe the scenes. You can do it generally (”this shows a beach with people swimming and lying in the sun.”) or specifically (”There is a table next to the sofa. It has a potted plant on it. To the left of the potted plant is a remote control.”) This lets you practise Russian phrases and various grammatical elements of Russian.

Describe Russian magazines to practise your Russian. You can practise your Russian with magazines – they don’t even have to be in Russian! Photo credit: silvertine on Visual Hunt

Games to play with other people

Possibly the best (and most fun) way of practising your Russian with like-minded friends is a version of charades. You will need a series of terms for people to guess and for each term, a series of words that cannot be used or shown. There are several versions of charades, and you need at least four people for two teams to play them:

  • Classic charades. One team picks the term and the other is divided into an actor (or two) that have to act out something to help their teammate(s) guess it. They cannot talk and there might be some objects they can’t use in their improvisation.
  • Taboo. There are several versions of this with slightly different names, but the gist is that you have to describe the term without using certain keywords. This is probably the best for learning a language and some versions even come in Russian so you don’t need to make the cards yourself (although that is a good language exercise all by itself.)
  • Pictionary. The same idea, but the term has to be conveyed by drawing (no writing allowed). This is also available commercially.

Find Russian Lessons Near You

The best way to learn the basics of a language is to take a language course. That way, you have someone in front of you of whom you can ask questions. Of course, you can alternate Russian courses with lessons in Russian online or as an app to get the best of both worlds – autonomous (and often free) learning modules you can fit into your schedule anytime. But should you prefer group classes or private lessons? And how do I find Russian lessons near me?

Pros and cons of learning at a language school vs. private tutors

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where they offer Russian courses at a language institute or community college, you have a choice: learn a new language there or take private lessons. You will have the most options in the greater London area, but there are numerous other opportunities throughout Britain.

So what should you choose?

AspectGroup lessons Private tutor
Timeforce you to take time to learn - great if you always have an excuse for rescheduling. adapt to your schedule if your job doesn’t leave you time off at the same time every week.
TeachingStrict curriculums and set exercises. Wonderful if you tend to go off on tangents when learning.Adaptable curriculum that lets you advance at your own pace. Perfect if you find learning a language difficult.
Feedback. You can learn from the questions other students ask - the ones you didn’t realise you needed to ask, too.Your teacher will help you ferret out and work on your weak points.
Motivation.Other students are in the boat as you. You will have a support structure and study buddies if you revise best in a group.Your teacher will notice a lack of motivation and help you overcome it by adapting their teaching style or offering a mix of games and study.
Missing a lesson.You’ll have to catch up! No need to make up that lesson since it simply didn’t take place. Continue where you left off when you see your Russian tutor again.

Learn to read Russian. With the help of Russian language tutors, you can learn how to read this sign. Photo credit: Ilya Khuroshvili on VisualHunt

Finding Russian teachers

Assuming you live somewhere where Russian is not a popular language to learn and you need a private tutor. Where can you find one?

Here are a few tips:

  • Is there a university near you? If so, you can look for Russian private tutors either at the Russian faculty if they have one, or simply go around campus putting up leaflets looking for a Russian native speaker. Russians studying in the UK may be eager to earn a few extra pounds by teaching you their language and culture!
  • Is there a Russian community in your town or near it? Look for Russian Orthodox churches online and contact them to see if it’s all right for you to put a leaflet on their message board, or if the priest might recommend someone to you.
  • Or look online! Here at Superprof, we have hundreds of Russian tutors eager to give you private lessons at home or via Skype.

With these tips, you are primed and ready to take the leap and improve your listening comprehension and accent at a more advanced level, perhaps even with language immersion or a trip to Russia!

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