So we’ve all probably been there. You spend a lot of time learning a language and finally get to a point where you can understand some spoken phrases and form coherent responses. You run into a native speaker and happily start talking Russian (or whatever language you’re learning) to them — only to get a blank look or a response in English.
One can’t help thinking, “Is my accent so bad? Do they want to remind me that I’m a foreigner? Do they just want to practice their English with me?”
Word Stress Making a Word Unrecognizable
Have you ever tried saying something very basic to a Russian only to get a quizzical look in response and to hear them repeat something completely different from what you thought you were saying? Chances are, your word stress was off. “What’s the big deal?” you might say. “Why do they have to be such sticklers about word stress — it only changed which vowel gets the most oomph; they can still understand what I mean.” However, you need to remember that word stress also changes the way unstressed vowels are pronounced — so, an о starts sounding like an а (or, more precisely, and “uh”), and a е starts sounding like an и.
This gets even more confusing when the word with the “wrong” stress actually sounds like another existing word. Maybe you are trying to say “That’s expensive,” but you end us saying “EHtah duhROguh” instead of the correct “э́то до́рого.” Well, that sounds like “э́то доро́га” or “э́та доро́га” (“this is a road” or “this road”), and your Russian buddy is thoroughly confused. Other common pronunciation problems are described in an earlier post.
Saying It Like A Word In Your Language
Another way to alter the sound of a Russian word beyond recognition is to write it out in Latin letters and then read it as if it were a word in English or another European (Roman-alphabet-based) language. There are definite benefits to transliteration, or writing out words in the Roman script (although I contend learning a finite number of letters in a non-Latin alphabet is not as daunting a task as many make it out to be; Hebrew only took me about a week — but I digress). However, once we see a word in “our” script, we are tempted to read it as if it were in our language. Equating Russian letters to their Latin counterparts poses the same danger — so, “a is an a,” “у is a u,” etc.
One instance I can think of is a British teacher I had in my university in Russia. Talking about the Russian city Пермь (which I hesitate to transliterate as Perm’), he would pronounce it like the English word “perm.” While I and other Russians who speak English know how the English word is spelled and, consequently, what he tried to say, to a non-English-speaking Russian, the word will sound like “пём,” which is not very similar to the way “Пермь” sounds.
Another example comes from a student I once had in an American university. This young man had learned some Russian in a military program, which placed a lot of emphasis on vocabulary and not so much on pronunciation. One time, he left me puzzled by saying what sounded to me like, “У меня́ есть ка́шка.” Now, the word ка́шка is either a diminutive of ка́ша (oatmeal, porridge) or a type of clover. Neither of these made sense in the context until I realized he was trying to say “У меня́ есть ко́шка” but was pronouncing the “о” the way the English letter “o” is pronounced by some speakers of American English. The resulting phrase meant something quite different from what he had in mind.
I will continue this discussion next week, with Part II concentrating on the social and interpersonal reasons for being reluctant to speak Russian with learners. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!