Russian Language Blog

Thank you! Please check your inbox for your confirmation email.
You must click the link in the email to verify your request.

Why Won’t Russians Answer Me In Russian? (Part I) Posted by on Apr 16, 2015 in Russian phonetics, when in Russia

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.

group of young people talking

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

road

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.

cat

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!

Tags: ,
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


Comments:

  1. Signe:

    Interesting. Suggest you to visit Latvia – they will talk to you ONLY in Russian.

    • Maria:

      @Signe Signe, ha, I didn’t know that. Well, that could be a good thing for someone who wants to practice Russian, right?
      I’m always super wary about assuming people in the former “Eastern bloc” will know/speak Russian, so I always address Czechs/Poles, etc. in English. Then again, I am in the minority of Russians who are fortunate to speak fluent English. Most Russians (living in Russia) don’t, so their choice of language is very limited.

  2. Cheryl B:

    This is sooo great, sooo important.
    I am lucky to have learned my Russian in a university where pronunciation — and inflection — were emphasized from the beginning.
    Which is why, although my vocabulary has shrunk with time & lack of.practice, if I do get to speak a little with a native speaker, the Russian almost immediately asks where I am from, or how did I learn Russian.
    My inflection is still good, though occasionally I still mangle a word.
    Practice, practice, practice!

    • Maria:

      @Cheryl B Cheryl, that sounds like a solid way to master pronunciation. And Russians will likely be excited to hear anyone speak Russian, even with the occasional error, but you don’t want your mispronunciation to obscure the meaning of what you’re saying. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  3. Cheryl B:

    I should maybe add that many of my instructors were native speakers, and others had near-native fluency. We practiced listening and repeating until we had it down, and were graded on an oral exam on our fluency and pronunciation.

  4. Travis:

    I’ve never had a chance to use my very limited Russian with a native speaker, and I must say that this post almost makes me afraid to! I am looking forward to reading the next part, as I have a hard time believing this first part is really the problem. While pronunciation and stress may make it harder to understand someone, I feel that context of words can easily resolve the situation. Instead, it sounds to me like Russians can tell from the accent and poor pronunciation that you aren’t a native speaker, and rather than embracing your attempt, use “word stress” as an excuse to ignore you and pretend they couldn’t understand.

    I hear English pronounced differently than I speak it on a regular basis. Sometimes it is because they are from a different area of the country. Sometimes they’re from another country that speaks English. Sometime English is their second language. Sometimes they’re just toddlers learning words. Sometimes it’s because someone is talking while chewing gum or food. Sometimes it’s because there is a lot of loud background noise making it hard to hear every nuance of the word (or entire words!). However, in almost all of those cases, I can still figure out what is being said, not because I heard the word stress, but because of the context of the words around it and the situation in general.

    • Maria:

      @Travis Travis, thank you for your comment. I sure hope I didn’t put you off learning Russian. You are right that some of the reasons are psychological, like people want to practice English with you, which I will cover in my next post. However, if someone genuinely doesn’t know English, they may not be able to make the mental adjustments necessary to make out what you are saying just because they don’t know what “distortion” you are applying to the phrase, so they can’t “reverse” it — for lack of a better metaphor. This being said, they will likely keep asking you and try to find an understanding. If anything, Russians are more likely to pester international visitors than snub them, especially ones from the conventional “West.”

  5. Niladri Bhuyan:

    Hey Maria, I was searching for Russian languages and news and had a chance to reviwe your blog which seems to be interesting to me.

    I have a coupel of Russian friends whom I met in India and had a chance to learn few words. In the long run I want to visit Russia for 2018 FIFA World Cup to be held in your country.

    Can you help me with the very basic words and sentces which people generally use in their day to day life as in :

    1) Asking for directions?
    2) How long is it going to take ?

    etc. etc and many more.

    Any help and knowledge from you will be highly appreciated

    Thanks,
    Niladri Bhuyan

  6. Niladri Bhuyan:

    Excuse any typo earlier:)

  7. Brian McKenzie:

    I was lucky enough to go to a University where they had a full house dedicated to specifically study Russian (UofW – Jackson School – Rysskuu Dom) We had 4 hours of class every day – but in the house – it was full immersion. Russian 24/7 If you were caught speaking english – it was a demerit… 3 demerits and you were in front of the house council – and they could decide to kick you out of the house; it happened on several occasions.

    I have found that it is easier to talk to a Russian / Ukrainian than Americans. America will only give you face time if they find you attractive or if you can do something for them; there is not a conversation to be had. They would rather text, facebook, or tweet you than actually ‘talk’ to you.
    No intentions of going back to the US. Moscow is Next – then Sochi.

  8. Yogesh:

    Приве́т Мариа. Меня зовут Йогеш. Я индиец, но сейчас я живу в Куала Лумпуре. Я футболист. Я изучаю русский язык на 8 месяцев. Очень трудно и сложно. Но мне нравится русский язык. Я изучаю русский язык, потому что несколько раз я путешествую в центральной Азии на работу – Казахстан, Кыргызстан, таджикистан, и так далее. там, они говорят по русски со мной. Но, иногда я думаю, я делаю много ошибок. Я уверен, но боюсь тоже. что мне делать? во вторых, как вы думаете, грамматика важно? моя учительница говорит это очень важно. я смущен. помогите мне пожалуйста.

    • Maria:

      @Yogesh Добрый день, Йогеш! Я думаю, что люды рады, что вы хоть немного говорите по-русски! Не переживайте о грамматике: она придет с практикой. Успехов!