Aug 28, 2012

Russian and German: Which Is Easier?

written by Kelly Smithson

It was interesting for me in college to hear other native English speakers with knowledge of both Russian and German compare the two foreign languages in terms of difficulty. I was surprised to find that someone actually considered Russian to be easier than German. Even as a native German speaker, I disagree.

Aside from the obvious fact that the German alphabet uses Latin letters, making it easy to learn compared to the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet, German is easier to pronounce than Russian because it is a phonetic language. In German, you can put a stress on the wrong syllable of a word and still end up with the same word in terms of pronunciation and meaning. Russian pronunciation, on the other hand, largely depends on stress. This is particularly true of the letters “а,” “е,” and “о.” Generally, depending on where the stress in a word falls, “a” is pronounced as “ah” or “uh”; “e” is pronounced as “yeh,” “yee/ee,” or “i”; and “o” is pronounced as “oh,” “ah,” or “uh.” Stress in Russian is also important for meaning. The word “замок,” for example, means “castle” with the stress on the first syllable and “lock” with the stress on the second syllable. As if that was not complicated enough, there are many instances in Russian where the stress shifts to another syllable from one case to another and between the singular and plural.

Another element missing from German that makes Russian more difficult is verbal aspect, which is different from tense. In German, tense simply emphasizes the time of an action. While tense in Russian indicates the same, verbs in that language come in two separate forms (aspects) in the past and future tenses to emphasize the difference between ongoing, repeated, and reversed actions on the one hand and completed actions on the other. While many perfective verbs in Russian (used to denote completed actions) do not differ much in form from their imperfective counterparts (used to denote ongoing, repeated, and reversed actions), there are cases where these verb forms are entirely different from one another. For example, the perfective form of (infinitive) “брать” (“to take”) is “взять.” In German, the present perfect tense (present tense auxiliary verb + past participle of the main verb) is used more often than the simple past tense to describe events in the past; the latter tense is reserved primarily for literary narration. Thus, the present perfect tense can be rendered into English as the simple past, past emphatic, and present perfect tenses. To note the completion of an act when it is not already clear from the context, you simply add an appropriate prefix to the participle.

One might assume that native German speakers do not know how hard German is as a foreign language. This is understandable. However, that is not the case with me. After all, my mother is a German-speaking American. She came from a conservative Southern family with no foreign language background, yet she ended up speaking German fluently with only a slight non-American accent. While she found German grammar difficult enough at the beginning of her studies to consider dropping the language, she overcame the related barriers with only one exception – gender. I am convinced that she would have had a lot more trouble learning Russian. To me, the fact that to this day she only has difficulty with one aspect of German grammar (which has not kept her from communicating efficiently with native Germans) ultimately proves that German is easier than Russian.

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