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I have tried to translate into Russian the sentence:

I am studying the Russian language on the side.

I.e., I just occasionally spend time on it.

Google Translate says:

Я изучаю русский язык на стороне.

However, I was told by a native speaker of Russian that "на стороне" in this context is not correct, and that "на стороне" is used instead in contexts such as a love affair that a spouse may have "on the side".

However, I have seen examples of "на стороне" such as:

Нет ничего плохого в заработке на стороне.

Он тут подыскивал работёнку на стороне.

... which native speakers said are fine.

QUESTIONS:

What is the essential difference between making money or working on the side, and studying a language on the side?

Were the additional examples I provided okay because there was some negative connotation to the mentioned activity?

What are possible correct ways to translate my original sentence?

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What is the essential difference between making money or working on the side, and studying a language on the side?

To do/have something on the side is used for concealed and undesirable things only. When you make money «on side», it means some second, unofficial work, hidden from your employer to avoid salary cuts.

However, there is nothing shameful or dangerous in learning the second language.

Were the additional examples I provided okay because there was some negative connotation to the mentioned activity?

The examples are fine; their meaning is covered above.

What are possible correct ways to translate my original sentence?

Probably, «я изучаю русский язык, но медленно» (“I study Russian, but in a slow pace”) or «я эпизодически изучаю русский язык» (“I occasionally study Russian”). Note that there is no unambiguous distinction between simple and perfect tenses in Russian.

  • Спасибо всем! :) – rapt Aug 9 at 21:20
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In Russian, "На стороне" can be used for to characterize secondary employment or source of income, but not any activity in general.

There is no direct equivalent for "on the side" in general case. Following constructs are commonly used: "параллельно", "попутно", "в свободное время", "понемногу", "а еще" etc.

  • +1 for “попутно” and “понемногу”. – Arhad-the-dev Jul 31 at 17:56
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Interestingly, I've never heard 'on the side' being used in the sense you've used it for, so I had to look it up and Cambridge Dictionary claims that its purely an American English usage. Brits don't use it in this sense.

"on the side"
​
- in addition to your main job:
  He makes a little money on the side by cleaning windows in his spare time.
​
- secretly:
  I think he has another woman on the side (= a relationship with a woman who is not his wife).
​
- mainly US (of food in a restaurant) served on another plate, or on the side of the plate:
  I'd like a salad with the dressing on the side (= with the dressing served separately from the salad), please.
  I'll have a omelette with fries on the side, please.

"on the side" in American English:
​
- in addition:
  He drives a bus, but he’s a tour guide on the side.
​
- Food that is served on the side is served separate from other food:
  I’ll have the salad with the dressing on the side.

In Russian you could say: "в свободное от работы время" or just "в свободное время", other variants: "в качестве хобби", "понемногу" (Я тут понемногу изучаю русский язык), "в качестве развлечения" (but careful, they are not 100% interchangeable and have their subtleties).

What is the essential difference between making money or working on the side, and studying a language on the side?

Why should there be any? Or even - who decides which difference is essential and which isn't? Different languages use different idioms and that's the way it is. As you can see even Brits consider this difference (money making vs studying) essential enough.

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You could say «Я изучаю русский язык побочно», meaning approximately "not as my main activity or goal".

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изучаю как хобби / в качестве хобби will be apt if your "main" language isn't being studied as just another hobby.

The particularities which apply to the usage of на стороне are the same as those existing in any other language and which stem from established phraseology. Some phrases are simply acceptable and idiomatic in certain specific contexts, which may change over time.

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Suggestion to translate this idea: Я изучаю русский язык, но (просто) так, без фанатизма.

"просто так" suggests you do it not very seriously just for you. "без фанатизма" is a phrase sometimes used (in quite colloquial context) to say you won't insist very seriously on something, you do it without making a big deal of it.

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In the conversational Russian, the words "потихоньку" or "потихонечку" are appropriate:

"я потихоньку изучаю русский язык", "я потихонечку готовлюсь к поступлению в универ".

Another solution is to use "походя": "Изучаю я русский, но как-то походя."

As for the wording "на стороне", it is usually employed to denote either an additional income:

"у меня есть небольшой доход на стороне",

or an extramarital affair:

"у меня затеялся романчик на стороне", "я заимел ребёнка на стороне".

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