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I am doing these days a lot of collaborative writing with a colleague born and raised in Russia, and now working in the US. He has a very good English and yet, as we circulated various texts, I noticed that he tends to drop the definite article, the, more than is acceptable. I attributed that to a trend of his native language.

Because I will continue working with him for some time, I hope to be aware of other such possible errors influenced by his mother tongue (especially because I'm not a native English speaker either!). So, what are common errors (or shibboleths) of native Russian speakers when they write in English?

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Russian is a very flexible language. Its complexity allows one to put words in a sentence in just about any order. There are 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1 = 120 valid permutations of "I ate green apple yesterday", although some sound more weird than others. Run-on sentences are not a big deal - they are allowed. In fact, one can express a sentence "It is getting dark" with just a single word, and it is a valid sentence. The words from Latin made their way into many languages, but sometime their meanings have changed. –  Job Mar 20 '11 at 2:18
    
i am from Bosnia -- our language is related to Russian. same thing happens because we do not use noun articles (a/the), therefore it is rather difficult for us to relate to them in English and use them properly –  amphibient Sep 28 '12 at 0:06
    
I'd sugest that you invite him the other way round ie. always use the article - it's the minor error and easier to correct. In fact, in Russian there is no article and the verb To be is ussually omitted. (Forgive my poor expression; I am not a native english speaker too) –  user37187 Feb 6 '13 at 17:26
    
My wife is Polish. She has a BA from a Canadian university with English as the language of instruction. She still has problems with articles. I find she has a tendency to overuse them. –  Chris Cudmore Feb 6 '13 at 19:32
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8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

A, an and the are all dropped. Using past tense with did (in my experience almost all non-native do this until they learn not to). Sometimes using she instead of he. Word order is not as important in Russian as in English. Missing prepositions

Russians I have met who have large vocabularies tend to stress words with more than two syllables in an idiosyncratic manner since they likely only ever read the words.
I have the same problem on rare occasions where I know a word, know how to use it but guess the pronunciation since I got it from literature.

More here

http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/russian.htm

For example beginning learners often omit the auxiliary in questions or negatives: How you do that? / I no have it. The present simple is commonly used where the progressive form or perfect is needed: She has a bath now / How long are you in Germany?. In comparison with Russian the modal verb system in English is very complex. Mistakes such as Must you to work on Friday? / I will not can come, etc. are common among beginners. The lack of a copula in Russian leads to errors such as She good teacher.

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Conversely, they may insert extraneous articles as a hypercorrection. –  Mechanical snail May 23 '12 at 4:10
    
@Mechanicalsnail: Such as? –  mplungjan May 23 '12 at 5:37
    
Not that I specifically recall a Russian saying this, but: "I'm at the home right now." for "I'm at home right now." –  Mechanical snail May 23 '12 at 5:47
    
Right, thanks.. –  mplungjan May 23 '12 at 5:56
    
@Mechanicalsnail "I am at the home" sounds more Indian than Russian to me, and I've been exposed to a lot of Russians speaking bad English. –  kotekzot Jun 14 '12 at 9:15
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Aside from the items pointed above, a well-educated native russian speaker often writes (and speaks) in incredibly long, almost Hemingway-ish, compound sentences, where you can barely remember what the beginning of the sentence was about. I'm not sure if it's primarily the influence of russian prose, or something about the language itself which causes the brain to produce the long sentences.

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+1 It is certainly true for well-educated ones. Our famous writers used to write sentences half a page long. Even for native speakers it is too much sometimes. –  Edwin Ross Mar 19 '11 at 20:01
    
Guilty as charged! I believe Tolstoi was a particularly heinous repeat offender. –  kotekzot Jun 14 '12 at 9:21
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Russian and English languages have somewhat different structure of verb tenses. For native speakers of Russian it can often be difficult to correctly use perfect tense forms due to the influence of their mother tongue.
The grammatical concepts behind the correct usage of English perfect tenses can be very confusing to Russian speakers, so they tend to replace it with Simple Past tense for example (in case of Present Perfect or Past Perfect), or just fail to use it appropriately.

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I am from Russia and I work at an international company so my colleagues and I have to use English all the time. There are really some common errors. The most difficult for us is to use articles properly. There are nothing similar to them in our native language. That is why we often use them where they are not needed and vice versa.

The second difficult part is using of prepositions. We tend to use those that we would use in our language if they were translated. For example, instead of at office we tend to say in office, instead of to London we often say in London. There are many other examples.

We don't have gerund in our language, so sometimes it is difficult for us to use it properly.

I can not agree with mplungjan that word order is not so important. It is important in any language and in Russian you can too change the meaning of a sentence if you change word order. Not always though, but in English it does not happen every time either.

There is also a rather big problem with sequence of tenses. In our language we do not have to do it. That is why we misuse perfect tense and even past tense forms often.

These are the most often encountered mistakes that I can spot when I talk to or read something from a native Russian speaker.

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Almost all my closest colleagues are from the former soviet union. The order of the words in a sentence seem to a non-Russian speaker to at least have a different importance since I see this very often. Perhaps the person wanted to make a point in his native tongue, but the end effect was an incorrect sentence. –  mplungjan Mar 19 '11 at 17:48
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It does not have a different importance, it is just different. If you take a simple question in Russian meaning Do you love me? and change word order slightly you can end up with Is it me whom you love? –  Edwin Ross Mar 19 '11 at 18:09
    
That is what I meant. So the Russian will change the order but not the tense, making it like At you me love? (just an example, not correct of course) –  mplungjan Mar 19 '11 at 22:21
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One thing that nobody seemed to mention is punctuation. It is of paramount importance in Russian, because it brings intonation across.

Here is a famous example from an old Soviet cartoon that is based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen in which a little princess is asked to sign a decree of execution. Pay attention to the position of the comma.

  • Казнить, нельзя помиловать!

    This means :

    Execute this person! Cannot pardon him!

  • Казнить нельзя, помиловать!

    This means :

    Do not execute this person! Pardon him!

I guess you could argue that you can do the same in English like so:

Execute cannot, pardon! vs Execute, cannot pardon!

And this would make sense to an attentive English speaker, but punctuation tends to be not emphasized as much as spelling; as a result it will most likely be ignored or at the very least be ambiguous. I was just trying to illustrate the point that punctuation is so important that they made a cartoon for little children about it :-)

In fact it's so important that in Russia, Russian Language teachers usually give 2 grades for some written assignments: one for grammar and the other one for punctuation (it wasn't uncommon for me to get 5/3 ( or A/C in American equivalent) (I'm not a bad speller, but sometimes I can't get those punctuations signs right even if my life depended on it :-) )

To relate to this question though: you will notice that Russian speakers that finished at least 9 classes or high school in Russia will tend to use a lot more of , ; : " etc to bring extra nuances across, especially in run-on sentences because it's ingrained in the way language is taught. I see it with my Dad a lot. I've lived in the US for more than a decade now myself and I still tend to put commas in front of "that" in the middle of the sentence.

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+1: I never knew that about Russian. Here's a link that shows why punctuation is important (in English). –  oosterwal Mar 31 '11 at 20:32
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Hi. Not really equivalent examples. The one you used, shows what difference it makes when you group words into sentences using punctuation. That's true pretty much for any Indo-European language. What I was trying to illustrate is that in one little sentence one little comma makes the difference in Russian ( and most Slavic languages for that matter). In English we would rely more on structure of the sentence, order of the words and separating into multiple sentences. These are not axioms thou, I'm talking about generalities here. All that said - it's a cool example. –  Nick Gorbikoff Apr 6 '11 at 22:36
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As previously mentioned, Russian doesn't use articles (a, the), so Russian speakers use them - or don't - by guesswork, and often get them wrong.

What I haven't seen anyone else mention, however, is that the present tense of to be (I am, thou art†, he is, we are, you are, they are) is rarely (if ever) used in Russian. As a result, again, Russian speakers sometimes make surprising mistakes in this area. (My favorite: "Is there is...?")

In speech, of course, there are at least three major pitfalls: Russian lacks a "th" sound - foreign words that are imported into Russian tend to get substituted with "f" or "t". When speaking English, "th" tends to turn into "s" or "z". If you're feeling especially cruel, ask your Russian colleague to say "thither". (Of course, a lot of Americans also have trouble with that one.)

Russian also doesn't have an equivalent to English "h" - the Russian letter х, pronounced like the "ch" in loch, is not equivalent - so foreign (mostly German) words imported into Russian usually substitute "g". Russians speaking English will, at first, turn all of their aitches into gees; later on, some learn to pronounce an English h, while others convert h's into х's - the source of the infamous "kheavy Roossian excent".

Finally, several of the "short" English vowel sounds - the a in "at", i in "in", and u in "up" - don't exist in Russian, while Russian has at least one vowel sound (ы) that doesn't exist in English. (Hence "excent" instead of "accent".)


†Yes, I know - we don't actually use "thou" anymore. Russians do, however (ты) and so I mentioned it for completeness.

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Thanks for the very useful examples and explanations!

Actually I am still keep "fighting" with English articles after my at least 15 years of good English experience. I tend to drop them in order to avoid using them wrong. I remember very good how my collegues and my chief cursed my disability to use articles when editing my English texts (looking for and fixing mostly only articles). The idea of articles in English (and in German, French, too) seems very weird to my Russian mind. Why one need articles at all? There are much more logical words"this", "that", "these" in English language as in Russian (and many other languages). If we need to pinpoint the object (stress which one exactly) then we use these words in Russian: "this car". Otherwise we Russians just do not care to show that some "car" exist only in one piece (it's damn clear already since it's not "cars") like one should do it in English stressing "a car" or "une voiture" in French.

I wonder what happens in the old times in English (and other Germanic languages) to force people use article instead of logical "this", "that", "these" words?

Surprisingly it works much better for me with Swedish articles. May be because they are not so strict about the articles, may be because Swedish article always connected with the different ending of the word. They say and write not just "a car — the car" but "en bil (often droping "en") - den ha:r bilen". This somehow more complicated but in some strange way concentrate me more on the certain object. Here is the link with professional explanation about Swedish approach: http://www.thelocal.se/blogs/theswedishteacher/2012/04/11/denna-or-den-har/

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Well if you wonder what happened in the old times, look up the etymology of the and a. The former is the word "that", and the latter comes from the word "one". I.e. "the apple" is simply "that apple", and "an apple" is "one apple". So English is not that different from Russian, actually. –  RegDwigнt Feb 21 '13 at 9:37
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Here´s a conversation I had with my Russian colleague, who speaks English well:

me: Is Jane on board with this plan?

Russian: Jane's not on the board now. Didn't you know that?

me: No, I mean, does Jane agree with us on this?

Russian: What? What are you talking about?

me: "on board" means "is she on the same boat (page, etc) with us?"

To her, the word "the" should carry no significant change in meaning. She didn't 'get it' on an intuitive level, despite years of successful study of English.

Human languages gather their own logic. Shall we discuss 'verbs of motion' in Russian, for example? Why, if I am 200 miles outside of Moscow, do I have to specify whether I'm walking or going by a vehicle when I say, "I'm going to Moscow tomorrow." Isn't it obvious I won't be walking?

I'm enjoying learning Russian, because I'm uncovering the hidden logic in it. It's a beautiful language.

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