How to learn languages by speaking English Part 1: Russian

Having English as your native language can be both a good and a bad thing. The main advantage is that in most places in the world, there is a strong chance that there will be someone who speaks some form of English, which makes travel and business ten times easier. However, the disadvantage is that often people will be reluctant to let you practise your language skills, and often if you make even the slightest hiccup they’ll smile sweetly and say something along the lines of “Maybe prefer you speaking English?”

This is the first part of a series of posts on how to turn those situations to your advantage. By looking at the way in which people from other countries speak English, I’m going to show you how this is useful for your language learning, and will actually help you with your progress.

As ‘international English’ has gradually become a thing, increasingly I find that what’s happening is that a lot of people speak English like they would their mother tongue. They substitute the words with their English ‘equivalents’, but much of their original language remains in their speech. Native English-speakers have gotten used to this, however, and as a result don’t always notice mistakes any more. However, next time this happens to you, don’t get offended, just start listening very carefully. How are they pronouncing their vowels? Are there any strange consonants that stick out to you? What kind of grammar are they using, and do you notice any strange expressions or constructions?

Just a reminder, we all make mistakes in every language we speak. I think this is the best way to learn: the more disastrous the mistake, the less likely you are to do it again. The point of this series is not to poke fun at anyone who is making the effort to study a foreign language, but to show English speakers how these mistakes betray aspects of their target language. Now let’s take a look at how to apply this with our first example:

Russian is a very beautiful language, with a very old and fascinating culture and history.

Russian

For various reasons, Russian English is one of the most startling and incomprehensible of all the forms that the language takes around the world. As a country, Russia is still fairly isolated and English is hardly spoken at all outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The differences between Russian and English are enormous, and to speak either language well, you have to radically alter the way you think.

Russian is very different to English. The two languages have very few words in common, which makes it difficult to learn them.

Russian English can be very difficult to follow for non-Russian speakers. This betrays a lot of the intricacies of the Russian language. Many Russians retain a quite distinctive, Russian intonation pattern, and stereotypically quite a strong accent.

KEY: Italics = literal translation

  1. Very good spend time is a very literal, but fairly common translation of the Russian set expression ‘очень хорошо проведённое время’. This is used (and in English misused) as follows: “Вчера вечером мы с Светланой сходили в театр. Это было очень хорошо проведённое время.” – Last night Svetlana and I went to the theatre. It was very good spend time.
    The phrase literally means ‘it was time that was spent very well’, which effectively means ‘it was nice’ or ‘it was fun’. However, that is not the set expression, so get used to saying that.
  2. Russian language is often how you will hear Russians referring to the language they speak. In fact, they will often talk about any language like this: English language, French language, Italian language, etc. In Russian this sounds completely natural: В университете я изучал английский язык (At university I studied English language). Why? Because as in English, in Russian languages are adjectives, and therefore must be coupled with the noun they are describing, i.e. English language (английский язык).
    While in most cases Russians will probably understand what you mean if you miss off the ‘язык’, there are some where you might cause some confusion. If you want to say ‘Russian is beautiful’, simply saying ‘Русский красивый’ is not enough; it does not make sense to construct a sentence of just two adjectives, and Russians will probably be listening out for a noun. To make yourself clear, you must say ‘Русский язык красивый’.
  3. To me for myself is another eccentricity that you may hear. Russian has a way of expressing concisely what English does in very long phrases. This is due to its very strong case system. For example, look at how you can say the following: “What do you think about Moscow?” – Как вам Москва? (How to you Moscow?)
    Personal pronouns in the dative case mean literally ‘to me‘/’for me’ and therefore can express opinions. Russians are then very disappointed that this mechanism does not exist in English, and may express opinions by saying something like: To me/For myself it is very nice (Мне это очень приятно).

    Like many Slavic languages, Russian does not have any articles. It also does not a from for the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense.

  4. Articles are entirely absent from Russian. You simply cannot make clear whether an object is definite or indefinite in the way that you can in other western European languages. As a result, you will often hear them being missed out in English: “I have sister, she sits at table, she writes letter to Grandfather, but he not receive it.” – “У меня есть сестра, она сидит у стола, она пишит дедушке письмо, но он его не получит.”
    Again, this makes perfect sense in Russian, but in English sounds unmistakably Russian, and extremely unnatural.
  5. I am boring for you. The one defeated me at first. I couldn’t work out what it could possibly mean. I came across it in a sentence similar to this one: “I am so boring for you. Every day I am boring. I wake up, I am boring. I eat lunch, I am boring. I go to sleep, I am boring. Boring, boring, boring! I wish only that you return to Russia, and then no more I am boring.”
    Needless to say, once again this is a direct translation of a set phrase. This is how it would look in Russian: “Я очень скучаю по тебе. Каждый день я скучаю. Просыпаясь я скучаю. Обедая я скучаю. Засыпаясь я скучаю. Скучаю, скучаю, скучаю! Только надеюсь, что ты скоро вернёшься в Россию, и тогда больше не буду скучать.”
    The verb ‘скучать’, has two meanings: the first is to be bored, with the derivative phrase ‘мне скучно’ (I am bored), the second meaning (скучать по + dative) is to miss someone. In this case, it seems that the latter dictionary entry might have been more accurate.

So there are a few examples. If you can think of any more, please leave a comment at the bottom of this post, I’d love to hear them too! In the meantime, всего хорошего!