It seems that very few English speakers have actually mastered the Russian language as adult learners. There are many examples of English learners becoming fluent in the language, almost to the point of becoming indistinguishable from a native speaker. I know a few such people myself. However I have never met any learner who was fluent in Russian, unless they started from another Slavic language. Have you?

Let's look at some famous Russianists. Was the late Stephen Cohen actually fluent in Russian? Although the New York Times described Cohen as one of the foremost Russia experts, supposedly "fluent" in Russian, why was he still speaking through an interpreter in English on all the Russian TV interviews that I could find on YouTube? I could not find an interview with him in Russian.

I managed to find a video of the American political scientist Gilbert Doctorow speaking on a Russian TV channel, which is pretty impressive, but his grandfather is ethnically Russian, so I'm not sure if he had exposure as a kid (and the genes). But Doctorow spent more than 30 years (!!) working with Russian business and government, and even had meetings in the Kremlin.

Do you know a native English speaker who actually mastered Russian to an almost-native level (definition of C2)? How long did it take? How did you do it?

I've been learning Russian for about a year, and I've reached the B1 stage where I can have hour-long conversations in broken bits and pieces, far from fluent, but enough to keep the taxi driver entertained, for example.

What I'm wondering is, for those of you who started learning Russian to use it in a serious context: business, government, or full-time work, how many years of full-time study did it take before you considered yourself "fluent" in the language?

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    I noticed exactly the same thing about Stephen Cohen after seeing his obituary. I mentioned it to a native speaker, who suggested that at least on certain Russian TV programs Cohen was on, he may have been concerned to discuss political issues quite carefully, so he could have wanted to use English to be sure of not making an error. The few times he did speak Russian, it was grammatically correct with an accent. Perhaps, since Cohen was trained during the Cold War, he had more practice reading Russian than speaking it (even if being in Princeton/NY gave him ready access to native speakers).
    – KCd
    Oct 25, 2020 at 7:22
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    Yes, I have seen quite a lot of non-Slavic language speakers who became fluent in Russian, but not native-level. They speak fluently but with an accent. Take Stalin, for instance.
    – Anixx
    Oct 26, 2020 at 12:51

1 Answer 1


I'm not native russian, my native language is Yakutian, till high school I was learning Russian as 2nd language (so-called National School Program). For sure we do have a lot of russian sources on TV/Radio/neighbours, etc, but still I had some problems with pronunciation and some idioms, since main language was my native one.

Real problems with russian language I had in university, I mean I could understand everything, but still had problems with pronunciation. Nevertheless, I from time to time I had problems with slang words, like: пацан, полкаться, чмо, etc.

After university I noticed that I'm fluent with russian - in native level, without accent.

But even now from time to time, I found that I'm making mistakes with syllable stresses :)

Concerning experience of other people: I know several people who mastering russian really well and spent a years learning language. One of them canadian slavic professor from Toronto, just example: when we were listening russian song, he could understand only 50% of verses and missing other 50% - mainly because of hidden meaning, idioms, etc. Other guy, italian businessman from Milano, he started to learn Russian in high school, living in Moscow about 10 years, but stuck with phrase: флаг в руки и барабан на шею - again idioms. Both has specific accent (english and italian respectively)

So my estimation: 5 years is enough to be fluent in Russian, provided that one is deep inside russian-speaking society. About accent - 99% still would have accent, I think special talent necessary to rid off accent.

But from the other hand you won't be really fluent in native level - I mean never :)

  • well, it seems to me nobody can claim that they are 100% fluent, me, for instance, have no idea what "полкаться" mean ) Also, you guys rock - it's amazing how Yakutian language is in a very good state - many people are L1 speakers - not something we see with many other languages in Russia.
    – shabunc Mod
    Jan 13, 2021 at 23:30
  • @shabunc I think "полкаться" is just misspelled "толкаться". But then again, I'm not claiming I know all Russian words: Dal's dictionary mentions "полкать", for example, which I didn't know until today.
    – il--ya
    Jan 20, 2022 at 5:51
  • полкать is one of typically siberian words. Nowadays it means a bit different than in Dal's dictionary. Usual meaning is "search smth as a rule unsuccessful search"
    – Barmaley
    Jan 20, 2022 at 7:08

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