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Spotlight on Russian

About the Russian Language

Status and Speakers

Russian is the most widely spoken member of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family (National Virtual Translation Center [NVTC], 2007; Russian Language, 2007). This family also includes close Eastern Slavic cousins Belarusian and Ukrainian, as well as Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Serbian, and others. Russian is thought to be the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia (Russian Language, 2007; Slavic Languages, 2007). Once the official language of the Russian Empire and subsequently an official language throughout the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), it continues to be a lingua franca for the region, used routinely in matters of commerce and diplomacy (, 2007; NVTC, 2007). It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations (United Nations, 2007), indicating and cementing its status as an international language of political and economic importance. The United States has recently restated its belief in the importance of Russian language competency to international matters of commerce, diplomacy, and understanding by naming Russian a “critical need foreign language” in the National Security Language Initiative (U.S. Department of State, n.d.).

Though estimates vary, there is thought to be a worldwide population of approximately 150 million first language speakers of Russian and 270 million Russian speakers in total (Crystal, 1987; Gordon, 2005). Naturally, this population is more concentrated in certain areas than in others: Russian is the sole official language of Russia and an official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan as well (, 2004; NVTC, 2007). It is also spoken in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uruguay, the United States, and Uzbekistan (Gordon, 2005). The 2000 U.S. census indicates that there are over 700,000 Russian speakers in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). The Modern Language Association provides an interactive language map that displays Russian-language-speaker population data by geographic area within the United States.

The Russian Alphabet

Russian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, which was developed in about the 10th century. It is based largely on the Greek alphabet but includes additional letters to represent sounds that do not occur in Greek. Old Church Slavonic, the predecessor of modern Russian, is still used for liturgical purposes and often uses an older form of the Cyrillic alphabet. Modern Russian, however, uses a standard set of Cyrillic letters that has been redefined over the centuries with the evolution of the spoken language (Ager, 2007). There are now 33 letters in the Russian alphabet, some of which are formed quite differently in the common cursive form (known as the italic) than in the printed form. Twenty letters are consonants, one (Й) is a semi-vowel that most commonly operates and is therefore widely recognized as a consonant, ten are vowels (identified in red below), and two (the hard sign Ъ and soft sign Ь) have no sound associated with them, but rather modify the sounds of adjacent letters in a word.

This is the print form of the Russian alphabet:

Аа Бб Вв Гг Дд Ее Ёё Жж Зз Ии Йй Кк Лл Мм Нн Оо Пп
Рр Сс Тт Уу Фф Хх Цц Чч Шш Щщ Ъъ Ыы Ьь Ээ Юю Яя

To see a comparison of the print and italic forms of the Russian Cyrillic letters and hear each of the letters pronounced, visit’s The Russian Alphabet. For a list of Russian phrases with accompanying audio, visit Omniglot’s Useful Russian Phrases.

Russian Language Education

Though Russian has been categorized as one of the less commonly taught languages (LCTL) in the United States, CAL’s 1997 national survey of foreign language instruction in Grades K-12 revealed that it is among the top 10 languages taught in U.S. schools, with programs operating at both the elementary and secondary school levels since at least the 1980s (Rhodes & Branaman, 1999). The survey also revealed a statistically significant increase in the number of Russian language programs in the decade from 1987 to 1997. The executive summary of the survey report offers further detail and useful graphs. It will be interesting to see how these trends in Russian language education have continued to evolve, information that will be available in the report of the next decennial survey, which is underway. (See Spotlight on Russian Activities and Resources for more detail on the current survey.) An online search of the LCTL Course Offerings database (Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, n.d.) indicates that there is substantial Russian language instruction at the university level as well, with more than 780 North American programs having submitted Russian language program information to the database as of September 2007.

In terms of Russian language education beyond North American borders, the National Virtual Translation Center (2007, ¶ 8) reports that

Education in Russian is still a popular choice for many of the first and second language speakers of Russian in the former Soviet republics. For instance, 75% of the public school students in Belarus, 40% in Kazakhstan, and over 20% in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova receive their education entirely or primarily in Russian.

For information about CAL's activities and resources related to the Russian language and Russian language education, read Spotlight on Russian Activities and Resources.

Return to Spotlight on Language.


Ager, S. (2007). Cyrillic alphabet (Кириллица). Retrieved September 11, 2007, from Omniglot: Writing Systems and Languages of the World Web site:

Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. (n.d.). LCTL course offerings. Retrieved September 17, 2007, from CARLA Web site:

Crystal, D. (1987). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gordon, R. G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.) [Electronic version]. Dallas, TX.: SIL International. Retrieved September 11, 2007, from (2004). Russian language facts. Retrieved September 11, 2007, from

National Virtual Translation Center. (2007). Russian. Retrieved September 11, 2007, from Languages of the World Web site:

Rhodes, N. C., & Branaman, L. E. (1999). Foreign language instruction in the United States: A national survey of elementary and secondary schools. Washington, DC and McHenry, IL : Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Russian language. (2007, September 14). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved September 17, 2007, from

Slavic Languages. (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved September 11, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

United Nations. (2007). United Nations member states. Retrieved September 11, 2007, from United Nations Web site:

U.S. Census Bureau. (2003, February 25). Table 5. Detailed list of languages spoken at home for the population 5 years and over by state: 2000. In Summary tables on language use and English ability: 2000 (PHC-T-20). Retrieved September 11, 2007, from U.S. Census Bureau Web site:

U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). National security language initiative. Retrieved September 17, 2007, from


Compiled by Cate Coburn, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC.

External references and links do not constitute endorsement by CAL. External links are correct as of September 17, 2007.