Russian is spoken by over 150 million people, mainly in Russia itself and the countries of the former USSR.
It is part of the Slavonic branch of the Indo-European language family and as such is very different indeed from English. This article looks at those differences and how they affect Russian mother tongue speakers when they come to learn English.
A certain amount of Russian vocabulary comes from the same root as English, i.e. Latin and Greek and you’ll find a lot of words the same:
атмосфера > atmosphere
космос > cosmos
NB once the Russian alphabet is converted to English, these are almost identical
And with English being an almost global language, Russian has imported a number of English words, especially recently and to do with technology:
компьютер > computer
интернет > internet
On the other side of the coin, English has also borrowed from Russian:
agitprop, bolshevik, balaclava, bridge*, commisar, cosmonaut, dacha, glasnost, kalashnikov, kgb, mammoth, menchevik, pavlova, perestroika, pogrom, politburo, sable, samovar, soviet, troika, tsar, vodka
* the game
And where would Sean Connery have been without beluga caviar, vodka, SMERSH and spetsnaz?
The Russian Alphabet vs the English Alphabet
One of the most obvious differences between English and Russian is the alphabet. Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet (derived from the Greek) and in comparison to the English alphabet:
- some letters look and sound the same, e.g. A, E, K, M, O, T
- some letters look the same but sound very different, e.g. B (sounds like English V), H (sounds like English N)
- some letters look different but sound alike, e.g. Ф (sounds like English F), Ю (sounds like English U)
- some letters look and sound like nothing in English, e.g. Ы (which sounds like nothing English has)
With beginners you’ll need to spend time on the alphabet, working carefully with the class. As usual, work from what is known to what is unknown so begin with letters that Russian has in common with English and move on from there.
Normally it’s not a huge problem for Russian speakers to get to grips with the English alphabet, however. But, and this is important, it must also be remembered that Russian is generally speaking a phonetic language whereas English, of course, is not. This has to be explicitly stated and you will find Russian mt students having problems reading English; one approach here of course is to introduce language aurally before letting the class see it written down.
Russian does not have the difference between long and short vowel sounds which we do in English. In addition while English has some 20 vowel sounds (including diphthongs) Russian has just 5. This means you will need to spend time helping with pronunciation; make sure to make use of plenty of diagrams to explain the exact position of the mouth as well as activities involving minimal pairs to help them both differentiate between sounds and then produce the various different vowel sounds of English.
In addition you may well come across problems with these sounds:
- /θ/ and /ð/ which don’t exist in Russian
- /w/ and /v/ which are often confused
- /ŋ/ which is often problematic
Intonation can also cause issues.
Unlike English, Russian has a very flexible word order. Whereas in English we follow the usual SVO sentence order and show differences by the use of modals and auxiliaries or following fairly strict word order (e.g. forming a question with VSO) in Russian there is a lot more room for movement.
Changes in gender, number and function, etc, are shown by affixes and conjugations so it is relatively easy to change the order of words in an utterance but keep the same meaning. (Almost impossible in English.)
When teaching about sentence structure, therefore, it is useful to emphasize the more rigid nature of English – keep referring to word order and make sure your Russian students know this is not negotiable.
Verbs cause problems as the Russian verb system is very different from English.
For a start they do not use auxiliaries so you will often find Russian mt students omitting the auxiliary all together.
* I not seen him.
* Why you do this to me?
* an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence shows it is ungrammatical
In addition there is no progressive form so where we might say:
I was walking in the park when I saw the most amazing sight.
A Russian mt speaker might say:
* I walked in the park when I saw the most amazing sight.
Finally Russian does not have a copula:
I am very happy today.
* I very happy today.
This can obviously be taught but it’s often one of those errors which take a lot of work to remedy.
Russian nouns are one of 3 genders. Thus you will often hear Russian mt speakers talking about inanimate objects as him or her; this does not usually cause too much of a problem once it’s been explained as in English grammatical gender is fairly straightforward.
Russian also does not have articles. This can cause a great many problems even to advanced students as the whole concept of articles is alien and new and takes a great deal of work to master.
I am a doctor.
* I doctor.
Teaching English in Russia – general guide to finding work and teaching in Russia
Teaching in Russia – a blog from two ICAL TEFL graduates teaching in Russia