The Slavic languages unite the Balkans, parts of central and eastern Europe, and the entirety of Russia. Slavic languages have a rich linguistic history and though Russian might be the first Slavic language to come to mind, there are many more that should be explored. What are the Slavic languages and which are the best to learn? Here’s everything you need to know so you can start learning a new foreign language!
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The Slavic languages are believed to have descended from Proto-Slavic which itself stems from Proto-Indo-European. Proto-Slavic was the common language of all Slavic people, or Slavs, as late as the 8th or 9th century A.D. However, the various Slavic varieties then shortly began to emerge as separate Slavic languages.
Slavic languages are spoken by almost 400 million people mostly in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia (Siberia). They are divided into three subgroups: East, West, and South, which together account for more than 20 languages. The Slavic languages are typically marked by tricky pronunciations and by having a case system.
Russian is probably the first language you think of when it comes to the Slavic language family. Russian is spoken by 145 million people in Russia and a total of nearly 268 million people worldwide. This makes Russian top of the list as the most spoken language in Europe!
For a native English speaker, learning Russian can be a bit daunting considering a new writing system and the Cyrillic alphabet. However, Russian is a great language to learn for those particularly interested in literature, as Russian literature is some of the most acclaimed in the world.
Ukrainian has 32.6 million native speakers in the Ukraine and over a further 2 million around the world. Ukrainian is most mutually intelligible with Belarusian but also has some mutual intelligibility with Russian. Polish has also heavily influenced the Ukrainian language, where some overlapping vocabulary can be noticed.
Ukrainian language learners will face challenges similar to those posed by other Slavic languages: a case system, tricky grammar rules, and some difficult pronunciations. However, many consider it to be a truly beautiful language.
Belarusian is spoken by over 2 million people in Belarus and another 300,000 around the world. Isn’t Belarus home to over 9 million people though? Well, that’s because 70% of the Belarusian population actually speak Russian.
Belarusian and Russian are fairly mutually intelligible and share similar grammatical structures, so communication in the country doesn't pose much of a challenge. Belarusian has three major dialects (Central Belarusan, Northeast Belarusan, and Southwest Belarusan) and uses the Cyrillic script.
Due to the overlap between Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian, these languages are commonly learned together.
Czech is spoken by over 10 million people in the Czech Republic and nearly a further 3 million around the world. It is a popular Slavic language to learn as it uses the Latin alphabet. However, like most Slavic languages, its tricky pronunciations, and the dreaded case system can pose quite a challenge. These obstacles probably don’t intimidate you though, if you’re already looking to learn a Slavic language!
Slovak is spoken by 5 million people in Slovakia and more than 2 million more people around the world. The Slovak language uses the Latin alphabet and is closely related to Czech. Consequently, Czech and Slovak are commonly learned together.
There are over 37 million speakers of Polish within Poland and over a further 3 million speakers spread across the world. Polish is more specifically part of the Lechitic Family. Though it isn’t the only member of the Lechitic group, it’s certainly the most well known.
Polish is a language of interest for language learners because not only is it one of the most widely spoken Slavic languages but it also uses the Latin alphabet. This makes it a little less daunting for English speakers to start learning than other Slavic languages.
Other West Slavic languages include Lower Sorbian, Upper Sorbian, and Kashubian.
There are over 7 million Bulgarian speakers in Bulgaria and 1 million more across the globe.
Bulgarian uses the old Proto-Slavic verb system and the Cyrillic alphabet which can be intimidating for some language learners. On the plus side, however, though Bulgarian technically has a case system, it does not use markings (endings) or infinitive verbs!
Serbo-Croatian is known as a pluricentric language with four mutually intelligible standard varieties, namely Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. The individual forms are considered to be dialects of the same language, with the division between them being largely political. Serbo-Croatian is spoken by over 15 million people.
There are limited lexical and/or grammatical differences between the varieties however, one notable difference would be their use of the alphabet. Serbian, for example, uses both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Bosnian mostly uses the Latin alphabet along with Croatian, and as the Montenegrin language develops, there’s a preference for the Latin alphabet.
Slovene or Slovenian is spoken by almost 2 million people in Slovenia and nearly a further 200,000 around the world. It is one of the newer Slavic languages, and one of the most diverse, owing to its wide array of different dialects. The number of Slovene dialects can, therefore, make it difficult for speakers to understand one another.
Though it possesses some difficult pronunciations, tricky grammar rules, and using the case system, Slovene still has its appeal with the language’s uniqueness setting it apart.
With all that being said…
If you’re looking to communicate with the most amount of people or have a love for literature, Russian is the best Slavic to learn. If you’re looking for the easiest Slavic language to learn, we would suggest Bulgarian with the lack of grammatical cases. The most beautiful Slavic language is Czech in our opinion, although this choice is, of course, very subjective.
There you have it!