Why Won’t Russians Answer Me In Russian? (Part I)

Posted on 16. Apr, 2015 by in Russian phonetics, when in Russia

group of young people talking

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


This is what people will think of if you say доро́га instead of до́рого (image from Unsplash)

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.


This is definitely a кошка (image from Pixabay)

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!

Economic Struggles of Russian People

Posted on 15. Apr, 2015 by in Culture, History, News, Russian life, when in Russia

Try to imagine this scenario: the price of many goods and services you’ve come to depend on have increased by at least a third, food costs in many cases have doubled, while your salary has stayed the same; there is talk at work of going to a three-day work week or closing down all together. For so many in Russia, this is not something they have to imagine because it is a stark reality with no end in sight ever since the Russian ruble went into a downward spiral.

With much of the world dealing with economic hardships, perhaps you are also reeling from the economic downturn, it may be difficult to empathize with the plight of others. You don’t have to be an economics professor to understand the situation, but since we live in an interdependent world, we may all be affected in one way or another.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor of economics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, recently stated that the Russian government has been forced to make budget cuts of up to 10 percent across the board – except for the military of course. He went on to say that the main cause has been the decrease in the price of oil, along with sanctions from the West.

Those living on pensions are also nervous because the government has had to borrow money from pension funds to “plug budget holes” for a second year according to The Moscow Times. Some of my relatives are worried about losing their pensions or having them decreased. With the rising costs of food and necessities combined with the fear of losing your income, you can imagine how scary the situation is. Many of these retired citizens are too old to work and could not likely find work if they chose to do so.

As one that is an optimist, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the positive in this situation. Russian people have proven time and again just how resilient they can be so I don’t doubt that they will survive this crisis. That old saying “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” holds true and hopefully continues to do so.

On the bright sight, the ruble has been doing better in the last two weeks, so hopefully Russia is on its way to full recovery.


Married With Children: Family in Russia

Posted on 13. Apr, 2015 by in Russian life


Image from Pixabay

Family is one of these things that we often assume to be universal all around the world. Especially thinking about industrialis/zed countries like Russia, people from other such nations expect a typical family to be similar to what they are used to. This, of course, may not be true in all cases. It is hard to generalize, but here are some traits shared by many Russian families.


bride and groom

Image from Pixabay

One of the first things people from abroad notice is how early Russians marry. The mean age at first marriage (сре́дний во́зраст вступле́ния в пе́рвый брак) was around 27 for men and 25 for women in 2011. While lower than for most nations in Europe, these numbers represent an upward trend from 24 and 22 years of age, respectively, in 1980.

There is still societal pressure to marry, especially on women,  before they turn 25, 30, or some other age after which the speaker feels the woman will be an “old maid” (ста́рая де́ва). At the same time, divorce (разво́д) rates are fairly high in Russia.


Large families are uncommon in Russia. An average Russian woman has 1.61 children. The average first-time mother is 27.6 years old at the birth of her child. This age, too, is rising comparing to earlier decades.

The government has been struggling to push some incentives for people to have more children, but only 3 percent of all Russian families have more than 2 children. A family with three or more minor children gets the official status of a “multi-child family” (многоде́тная семья) and is entitled to various benefits.

Extended Family

An important difference between many industrialis/zed nations and Russia is that living with your parents is still very much acceptable in Russia. Moving out to go to university or start working is not an obligatory rite of passage, unless you have a compelling reason to do so — for instance, if your university is in a different city.

Housing scarcity in the USSR may be part of the reason. However, living with your parents is socially acceptable and even desirable, although this trend is changing in large cities. Marriage and childbirth does not necessarily change the dynamic, either. The newlyweds (молодожёны) often move in with one of the couple’s parents and raise children under the same roof. Of course, many married couples yearn to have a place of their own.

At the same time, that means that grandparents are very much involved in raising their grandchildren. They don’t just come down for the holidays and bring gifts for the kids. They watch the children when the parents are working, cook for them, and share the chores with the parents. Children and grandchildren are expected to take care of the older generation in their final years. Putting your grandma in a nursing home (дом престаре́лых) is frowned upon — probably also because Russian nursing homes are not a place you want to be.

How does this compare to your expectations of or experience with Russian families? Are there things that are similar between families in Russia and your country? For more family-related vocabulary, see this post.