Why Won’t Russians Answer Me In Russian? (Part II) Posted by Maria on Apr 20, 2015 in Russian for beginners, when in Russia
We are continuing from last week’s post on why some Russians will seemingly give you the cold shoulder and won’t answer you in Russian. We looked at how certain pronunciation gaffes can obscure understanding. There are also social and interpersonal reasons for the person’s reluctance to respond to you in Russian.
Hungry for Practice
As many have pointed out, sometimes the person you are talking to is so eager to practice their English (French, German, Spanish, Japanese…) with you that they would rather speak that language. Part of it could be a status/belonging sign — “See, I speak the language of the expats, so I’m hip and I belong with them.”
However, more likely, you are one of the few foreigners they will meet over their lifetime, especially outside the capital cities (столи́цы) of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The number of foreign visitors has gone down in the last couple of years. It is both an exotic event and a potentially one-off opportunity to talk to a real, living native speaker of the language they are learning!
The takeaway: Try to relate to their feelings by thinking about your own desire to practice Russian. A mutually beneficial way to communicate in both your and their language is to participate in a language exchange, or tandem.
Don’t Expect You To Know Russian
Your average Russian may be surprised to hear you speak Russian. Don’t take this personally — they don’t think you are stupid or mocking their language. They have likely never heard a person from your country be fluent in Russian.
Perhaps they think you just learned a couple words, so when you give them your enthusiastic “Приве́т!” they may give you a short friendly response, giggle (хихи́кают) awkwardly, and switch back to English (перехо́дят на англи́йский).
The takeaway: Russians don’t switch back to English because they think your Russian is bad — they probably switch to English because every other foreigner they’ve met didn’t speak Russian. It’s not hard to convince them otherwise (убеди́ть их в обра́тном), though. Even something as basic as “Я немно́го говорю́ по-ру́сски” or “Я учи́л ру́сский язы́к в университе́те” will make you fluent in their eyes because it’s beyond what they’ve ever heard from a non-Russian.
Honorary Russian Speaker
If you live outside of Russia, perhaps you run into Russians at social functions. It’s natural you may try to speak to them in their language. Have you ever been in this situation only to have them awkwardly answer in English? Why would they snub you like that? Do they think your Russian is not good enough?
From what I’ve seen, sometimes speakers of Russian are shy about being singled out as such at an event where non-Russian speakers are present. They don’t want to be speaking a language most people around them don’t understand (I am talking about Russians living abroad, not about the tourist couple you saw in Turkey who had no qualms speaking Russian among people who couldn’t understand it). Moreover, speaking any foreign language in front of others often turns into a party trick (“Say something in Russian!”), and the person may not feel like being the entertainment for the night.
The takeaway: Try talking to that person in a more private conversation, when no non-speakers of Russian are present. Language meetups are also a good idea.
What has your experience been like when speaking to Russian? Were they willing to talk Russian?
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As Saratov’s token Britisher for the last 20 years I relate most strongly to last weeks comments. More than once I have heard. “Philip your Russian has improved greatly. Please repeat that in English.” I have better conversations with Russians who do not speak English than the ones who do. I started learning Russian at 55. I will never understand the replies accurately but I make myself understood. I usually get compliments on my accent. People sometimes think I am Russian, until I get the stress wrong.
@Philip Owen Philip, thank you for commenting. “Token Britisher” — I like that! So, people will compliment your Russian but ask you to repeat in English because they can’t understand the Russian? Or want to practice English?
I see how for some Russians fluent in English, the choice of language becomes a matter of status, power play, or a political statement. However, most Russians are not fluent in English or any other foreign language, so maybe that’s what saved you the drama? Then again, it may be nice to be able to fall back on English if there is a particularly tricky concept to explain.
I’ve certainly seen learners from abroad who spoke very fluent Russian. Many of them have lived in Russia or been married to a Russian. It gives me hope that no language is impossible to learn, after all!
I have wondered about this for years, mostly just considering it a matter of ego. Thank you for the insight.
@Chris Chris, yes, I suppose you could say that. There is a variety of motivations, so I shred the ones I’ve felt/seen people act according to.
Thank you for your comment and hope to see you on this blog soon!