You are coming to Russia, you want to communicate with lots of people or you are just eager to understand Russian culture… Either way you’ll face the same difficulties.
1. The first and the most obvious problem is the Russian alphabet. Russian is written in a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet, which has 33 letters and is loosely based on the Greek alphabet. Most of the letters correspond to sounds that English speakers are familiar with, but there are some strange letters that make it difficult to learn: the difference between «ш» (sh) and «щ» (shch') , pronunciation of such sounds as «ы» (roughly y), hard «ж» (zh), «х» (kh), soft «л» (l') and «р» (r) along with «ь» and «ъ», which are silent but influence the way other letters are pronounced. That seems to be pretty simple for native speakers but it is the point that can confuse every foreigner.Lovely example – a short easy russian word «чушь» (that means nonsense) can be transcribed like [chush’ ]
2. Next point is about linking verbs. In English we all know «to be», in French «être» and in Russian… it is «есть» [est’]. The only problem is the fact that it disappears in the present tense, but it still exists in the other tenses (Я __ студент / I am a student but Я был студентом / I was a student). Moreover, it can be mixed up with another Russian word that means «to eat». For example, «Я хочу есть» means «I want to eat».And there is a joke about it: «Пить есть, есть нет» which can be translated as «there is something to drink but there is nothing to eat».
3. Word order. «What can happen here?» – You may ask. In English, the word order plays an important role because it shows how different parts of the sentence relate to one another. However, Russian word order is very flexible as everything is shown by the endings of the words, and it gives an opportunity to change the word order to express the ideas better. For example,Мария едет в Москву. - Maria goes to Moscow. (The emphasis is on the word Москва/Moscow) В Москву едет Мария. – It is Maria who goes to Moscow. (the emphasis is on the person) В Москву Мария едет. - To Moscow Maria goes. (It has an emphasis on the fact that she is in the process of going)
4. There is a joke about the French language that they write «Liverpool» but read it as Manchester. However, there is such an interesting phenomenon as colloquial language in Russian! Russian colloquial speech is highly efficient and leaves out many pieces of information that English speakers consider important; look at the expression «что ты?» which is an incredulous way of saying «what are you talking about?» but is composed only of the words «what» and «you.» Don't be discouraged, familiarity with the colloquial language will happen through time.
5. English grammar doesn’t have such a phenomena as genders and cases. But in Russian there are genders to make up for an absence of articles. Each noun has its own gender and it is important to memorize it. Most of them are quite logical but still create difficulties. Moreover, you always should understand which case to use and make sure that the entire chain of verbs, nouns and adjectives has the correct endings. It may seem exhausting, but it's a matter of habit.
6. There are a lot of funny situations linked with homonyms in the Russian language. Just imagine that you want to say «О, крошка!» («Oh, baby!»), but it sounds really close to «окрошка» (cold kvass soup with vegetables and meat). So be careful with stress and pauses in sentences!
7. Writing in Russian is one of the most challenging things for foreigners. In words like «шиншилла», «лишили», «дышишь» there are so many repetitions of bends that you really have to count them! Russian cursive can make you cry even more often than grammar.
8. An Oxford philosopher of language J. L. Austin once noted that there are many languages where a double negative makes a positive, but none in which a double positive makes a negative. From the audience, Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser replied, «Yeah, yeah.» So in Russian you can use a double negative and sometimes it makes a positive («Не могу не согласиться с твоими аргументами» — «I can’t not agree with your arguments»). Sometimes it still makes it negative («Я никогда не скажу ему о своих чувствах» — «I will never tell him about my feelings»). And sometimes Russians mix everything together as «Да нет, конечно» («Yes no, of course»).
Phew, there are a lot of mysteries in Russian language!
9. In English the word «you» is used for kids and adults, friends and a boss. In Russian, you should use «ты» in informal and «вы» in formal speech. And when you talk with a group of people, «вы» is also used. Every person in Russia has been in an embarrassing situation when they really don’t know which word is appropriate. It’s a huge dilemma: using «ты» while risking to look too familiar or using «вы» and risking to look too formal.
10. All over the world when people want to express their sympathy they use phrases like «my little sunshine» («моё солнышко») and «my little kitten» («мой котёнок»). But if you want to say something cute to Russians, use «моя рыбка» («my little fish») and make sure that everybody starts smiling.
So, good luck learning this wonderful but challenging language, моя рыбка!
Authors: Anastasia Filatova, Olga Petrushina
Editor: Irina Klimova
Proofreader: Patrick Rolph