How hard is it for a Dutchman to learn Russian?

Personal archive
Arie Helderman is a Dutch guy who learned Russian, because he met a Russian girl while studying in university. Here, he explains how he learned Russian and what struggles he faced.

It was 2016 and I had been learning Russian for a couple of months. Together with my girlfriend, we were sitting in a cafe in Crimea having lunch. While eating, a middle aged man came up to me and said:

Это очень хорошо что ты учишь русский - it’s very good that you’re learning Russian.

I said: Спасибо, а почему? - thanks, but why?

He said with a smile and a wink: Потому, что скоро вся Европа будет говорить по-русски! - because soon the whole of Europe will be speaking Russian!

Oh, those Russian jokes!

So, why would a Dutch guy start learning Russian?

Arie at the Moscow State University

I never expected to be speaking Russian. But everything changed after I met a Russian girl at university. We started dating and, after a couple of months, she asked me if I would want to travel to Russia for two weeks in summer to see her parents.

We traveled to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tver and Crimea. And here were some of my first impressions:

  • Everything is huge in Moscow
  • Lots of tasty weird mayonnaise salads
  • Russians are very hospitable
  • White nights in St. Petersburg are beautiful
  • St. Petersburg looks awfully much like a mixture of Moscow and Amsterdam
  • Russian beaches are packed in summer
  • Russian houses smell like dill
A bike tour in the Moscow Region

Needless to say, my first time in Russia wasn’t the last time. My girlfriend and I are still together. We live in the Netherlands. But, we still travel about twice per year to Russia. During that time, I haven’t stopped learning Russian. So, by now, I think I know a thing or two about the language.

Is Russian easy to learn?

Many people that want to learn Russian complain about how difficult the language is. Now, this is understandable, as you’ve got six difficult cases, verbs of motion and a new (Cyrillic) alphabet.

Arie in the city of Vladimir

But, in my experience, Russian isn’t that difficult to learn. Because there are many aspects of Russian that make the language easier to learn. For example:

The lack of articles: If you’ve ever tried learning a language such as French or German, you know how insidiously difficult it can be to remember all the little articles. There are no obvious rules whether it’s ‘le’ or ‘la’ in French, and you have to remember an extra useless word for each noun that you learn.

But what about Russian? Russian does not have any articles. And this means that you cannot make any mistakes here. This helps foreigners a lot when they want to sound like a native spweaker.

Flexible word order: Russian uses cases to show the function of each noun in a sentence. This means that you don’t need a strict word order (such as in most Germanic or Latin languages), to make a coherent sentence.

Arie at the Baikal

This is great for Russian students, as it frees up a lot of brainpower. You can start speaking a sentence with the first word that comes to your mind. And while you’re pronouncing the first word, think of the second word. When learning other languages, you need to form a complete sentence before opening your mouth. This makes your speech sound a lot more fluent and dynamic when you try to speak Russian.

You MUST speak Russian in Russia: Since the level of English isn’t that high in Russia, you’re basically forced to learn Russian, if you plan on spending significant time in Russia. This may sound harsh, but it’s a benefit in disguise.

In the Netherlands, where I’m from, we speak English well. That means that foreigners who live there do not have a need to learn Dutch. So, unfortunately, many end up not speaking Dutch, even after having lived in the country for years.

With Russian, it’s the opposite. It’s impossible not to speak Russian if you spend years (or just months) in Russia.

Benefits of learning Russian

On the Red Square

If you’re thinking of learning Russian, I recommend you give it a try. Like I mentioned above, it’s not as difficult as it seems. And there are plenty of benefits that you get when learning Russian:

  • you can experience the real Russia, and not just like a tourist
  • you can read Russian classical literature in its original language
  • you broaden your perspective of the world and get a new view on your own culture and language
  • your memory and verbal skills improve
  • you can impress your friends and colleagues when you speak Russian

Advice for those who want to learn Russian

Arie in St. Petersburg

Even though Russian is not as difficult as many believe, it’s not easy. While you may be able to have basic conversations after several weeks or months of learning, becoming fluent in Russian is something that will take years.

Here’s my advice if you’re aiming for Russian fluency:

  • speak as much as possible
  • grammar is important, but you don’t need perfect grammar in order to be understood
  • focus on learning a lot of new words, as Russian does not have many cognates with other (non-Slavic) languages
  • make sure to spend plenty of time watching Russian movies and series to improve your understanding of spoken Russian


Fake police car

While in Russia, I got a lot of compliments that my Russian didn’t sound bad for a foreigner. So, when I came home I decided to start a website where I help other foreigners to learn Russian. Later, as part of that project, I uploaded a video where I spoke Russian to YouTube to practice my own Russian.

But, after a couple of months, the YouTube algorithm started showing these practice videos to Russian people. And suddenly, there were thousands of Russians watching them. Now, several years later, I have more than 100,000 subscribers watching me speak Russian, which is something I never expected.

Here is the most watched video, in which I speak about 11 things that surprised me as a foreigner in Russia, enjoy:

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