Learning Russian After English

Posted on 04. May, 2015 by in language

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, credited with shaping the modern English language (Internet Archive Book Images)

We are continuing last week’s discussion of how learning a different second language first may have helped — or impeded — you in learning Russian. Since English is the most commonly studied foreign language, it’s only natural we discuss it next. I would guess for speakers of other European languages Russian may seem infinitely more complex than English. Is there anything at all learning English as a second language first will prepare you for?


Seemingly Random Word Stress

If your first language has a fairly regular word stress (ударе́ние) pattern, English is a good segue to unpredictable word stress. Ostensibly, there are stress patterns to help you predict the emphasis in English, but you could spend as much time memorizing them than just memorizing the words with the correct accent.

Russian is similar in that there are patterns and fairly detailed descriptions, but you are better off listening to spoken Russian and practicing it rather than trying to memorize the patterns.


restaurant table and menuMany people who commented on the previous post in this series noticed that Russian makes English/French/German/insert your European language here all look like dialects of each other. While this may be true thanks to closer vocabulary and grammar ties among these languages, Russian still has plenty of borrowed vocabulary for you to build on. A lot of science vocabulary comes from Latin and Greek, e.g., матема́тика (mathematics), теоре́ма (theorem), радиа́ция (radiation), etc.

Furthermore, Russian shares with English many French loanwords, which can be understood by someone who learned English, e.g., туале́т (toilet), рестора́н (restaurant), меню́ (menu). Finally, scores of recent loanwords pertaining to technology and business come from English and should be easy to parse — ме́неджер (manager), файл (a computer file), контра́кт (a contract; initially Latin, of course).

We may take these things for granted and think these words a but a drop in the sea of unfamiliar Russian vocabulary. Consider, for comparison, languages like Chinese, Hebrew, or Arabic, which don’t use cognates for words like “sculpture” or “electricity” — whereas Russian does: “скульпту́ра” and “электри́чество,” respectively.


False Friends

Facebook iconAs my co-blogger Jenya pointed out, some of the English loanwords in Russian either mean something different from the English sense or have acquired an additional flare not present in English — for example, ко́лледж in Russian refers to a vocational school (cf. “community college” in the US), whereas in English, this often refers to any university or a division of one. The same goes to many of the recently borrowed words from the business realm, like “диза́йн,” which only refers to the looks and packaging of products and not so much to their function and usability.

Moreover, the word stress tends to be different for these words in Russian — the last syllable is usually stressed in words like “бойфре́нд,” “Фейсбу́к,” and “уике́нд.”

Grammatical Markers in Words

It’s not always obvious from English words what part of speech they are and what role they play in the sentence. Some examples of where it is obvious is the -ed ending for past-tense verbs and -ly for adverbs. Many words, like “care” can be either a verb or a noun, and we can only tell from the context of the phrase which it is. Moreover, nouns can be use to modify (describe) other nouns in English, like “theatre stage” (meaning “the stage in a theatre”).

In most cases, Russian does have a morphological marker indicating the part of speech of the word, for example, the ending (or suffix, but we won’t get technical) -ить in люби́ть shows us it’s the verb “to love” as opposed to the noun “любо́вь” (love). What that also means is that you cannot simply put two nouns together, like you would in English, to have one describe the other. In the “theatre stage” example, you would likely say “театра́льная сце́на” or, more colloquially, “сце́на теа́тра.” In other words, if you first language is more synthetic, meaning it has explicit indicators for parts of speech, you may want to rely on that rather than English.

I would like to ask all the speakers of English as a second language — did knowing English help you at all with your Russian studies? Or was Russian a whole new level? Native English speakers are welcome to comment, too.

Learning Russian After Spanish

Posted on 27. Apr, 2015 by in language

Spanish book

I’ve often heard that after learning one foreign language every additional language becomes progressively easier. I suppose there may be truth to it in that you internalize certain principles common to many languages and develop good study and research habits. However, your first foreign language can also mislead you in your efforts to learn further languages. You may realize there are false friends and discover that the rules of one language don’t work for another. I would like to post a series of entries about learning Russian as a second foreign language.

Since Spanish is the most commonly taught language in the US, we’ll start with it. This first post will have to be based on my conjecture and the experiences of learners-of-Russian-after-Spanish I’ve met. I plan to expand this series and talk about learning Russian after English and after French, and I would love to hear your experiences. How did your first foreign language help you learn Russian? In what ways did it not prepare you?


Rolled R’s and Crisp Vowels

showerIf you had any instruction or practice in Spanish phonetics, you may have an easier time distinguishing and pronouncing Russian sounds than if you hadn’t. One example is the Р /R/ sound. Just like Spanish, Russian uses the rolled R, also called alveolar trill. Technically, your tongue touches a different spot in your mouth for Spanish vs Russian, but the sounds are close enough to help you sound convincing. If you can’t roll your Rs — no worries, people will understand you with any other R (but not an Л /L/ sound).

Same goes for vowel sounds for the Russian letters о, е, or у — if you can say them in Spanish, you are unlikely to make them sound like the English oh, ay, or ooh. Most of these won’t impede communication, in any case — although it is amusing to hear “douche” instead of “душ” (shower).

Grammatical Gender

If you know Spanish, you will not be surprised by the fact that nouns and adjectives have a grammatical gender and can be feminine or masculine. It will then not sound outlandish that we say “си́нее не́бо” (blue sky), “си́няя птица” (blue bird), or “си́ний забо́р” (blue fence).

However, the genders don’t align between Russian and Spanish, so you will understand the concept but will still learn the gender of nouns separately in Russian. Moreover, verbs in Russian can have gender, too, for example in the past tense: И́ра смотре́ла фильм (Ira /girl’s name/ was watching a film) vs Ко́стя смотре́л ток-шо́у (Kostya /a guy’s name/ was watching a talk show).


Underarticulated Consonants

water dropI think anyone who tried learning a second foreign language may have applied the rules of the foreign language they learned first to it. One thing I have noticed about learners whose first foreign language was Spanish is the way they would often pronounce consonants. Spanish uses what’s called “approximant consonants,” meaning parts of your mouth don’t come together all the way to make the sound. For example, “d” between vowels is pronounced closer to the “th” sound in “this.”

People who internalized this principle from Spanish will say Russian words according to it, although their native language is actually closer to Russian! I remember my husband, who is a native speaker of English, trying to say the word вода́ (water) and saying something like “βаTHA” — the beta being an underarticulated “v” sound. In fact, you can pronounce this word pretty accurately as “vuhDAH,” with “v” and “d” sounding similar to English.

Adjectives After Nouns

grapesFinally, Spanish sentence structure may interfere with your Russian sentences. In most cases, adjectives come before nouns in Russian. For example, you would probably say “спе́лый виногра́д,” not “виноград спелый″ (the latter sounds like a complete sentence saying the grapes are ripe). Adjectives may occasionally follow nouns for emphasis or for aesthetic purposes, like “кот учёный″ (learnëd cat in Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila), but that is not typical for casual or official speech.

Is there anything you would like to add to these observation? What has your experience been like?

These Six English Loanwords Don’t Mean What You Think in Russian

Posted on 22. Apr, 2015 by in Culture, language, Nouns and their grammar, Reading Together, Russian for beginners, Russian life, when in Russia


The fact that loan words are present in nearly every language is well-known to most people. It is fairly clear that Russian language has been affected by this practice more than some other languages. Whether certain rulers of the past, certain technologies of the present, or globalization are to blame is a topic of a separate conversation. In this post I would like to focus on seven pesky American/English words that might play tricks on you if you don’t use them properly in Russian.

1. Джип (from American Jeep) – If you think this words means a certain SUV brand, think again. Джип is what Russians collectively call any and all SUVs. The word Kleenex, which is commonly used in the States to describe any brand of tissue can be used as an analogy. Just like Kleenex, the word Jeep wasn’t just borrowed, it underwent a lexical change in the process.

2. Скотч (from American Scotch tape) – in American English you would say Scotch tape, or tape, if you are in fact talking about general-purpose tape; in Russian, all general-purpose tape (small, medium, or large) is called скотч regardless of the brand. What we observe here is another lexical change.

3. Коттедж (from English cottage) – I am not sure how this English word got its Russian flare but one thing is clear: коттедж in Russian is a large well-built house located in suburban or urban area, it is a house that belongs to someone who is well-to-do.

4. Стринги (from American G-string) – somehow the “G” part of the word got lost in translation while the rest of the word settled into a perpetual plural form: Russians say стринг-и (plural), perhaps by analogy with трусы (underwear in Russian, which is also always plural).

5. Клип (from English clip or video clip) – while the word клип in Russian has a pretty wide application, one case of its usage is certainly language specific. In Russian, if you are referring to the official video for a song, you would call it клип, or видеоклип but not video.

6. Митинг (from English meeting) – while in English this word simply means a gathering of two or more people for any reason whatsoever, in Russian, митинг has a distinctive political color to it. Митирг in Russian means a gathering of a large group of people, usually outside, with the purpose of discussing or defending certain political ideas or interests.

Over the years, hundreds of English words made it into the Russian language but most of them managed to preserve their original meaning. If you know of any other words you would like to add to this list, be my guest. This American fellow certainly feels pretty strongly about the use of certain English words in Russian. If nothing else, he is pretty entertaining – J.

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