Russian Language Mistakes Everyone Makes
If I had a rouble for every time I made mistakes that led to cringing embarrassment of epic, Bridget Jones’ proportion, I’d probably be able to buy all the snacks from the Liden & Denz vending machine. There are just so many funny, and altogether common mistakes we all make when learning Russian. Such is the nature of learning a foreign language. The slip-ups make you remember not to make the same mistakes again. So, like a good Bridget Jones film, I’m following up on James’ article about language slip-ups with this sequel article. As James said, though, practice makes perfect!
Don’t stress, but always remember to stress the stress.
Ok – so in my defence this is a mistake that pretty much every learner of Russian makes when learning the language. I’m talking about stress (ударение). Stress in Russian is the sound in the word that is emphasised, and depending on what vowel you emphasise, it can have a BIG, MASSIVE difference on the word’s meaning. For example, the words for ‘lock’ and ‘castle’ are both helpfully written as ‘замок’, but замок is lock, and замок is castle.
That’s not the worst, however. I had been out shopping, and I decided to treat myself to something that was slightly expensive. At the counter, I wanted to say; “I’m paying by card” «я плачу картой», but what I ended up saying was “I will cry”; «я плачу…». To be fair, though, depending on the context that might have worked, but that’s beyond the point. The woman behind the counter raised an eyebrow and sniggered to herself whilst I bumbled an explanation about being foreign. It gets better, though.
Let’s take the word «писать». It means “to write”, yeah? Can’t go wrong with that at all, no? You know the past tense form is «писал», right? So simple, had it not been for the fact that «писал» is also the past tense for “to pee”. So, me and my big fat mouth said to my host that I had wet myself when I wanted to say I was writing a letter. My host burst out laughing and has never let me forget it, cracking jokes here and there about me wetting myself every time she sees me writing at my desk. So, moral of the story, learn your ударения. But don’t stress if you get it wrong, you might just brighten up a Russian’s day.
Putting your foot in it with false-friends
As with every language, you have those words that look like something that closely resembles what you think it means. In reality, it carries a completely different connotation that can land you in a pretty sticky situation. Exhibit number 2: false friends. One day, I was having a fairly deep conversation with a friend of mine about problems in her family, namely an argument she had had with her Dad. Being the caring, comforting friend that I am, I thought I said that I thought her dad was a kind, sympathetic man, so all would be well, in the end. But instead of the reaction I may have expected, I got a strange look that was a mix between confusion and a death-stare. Instead of saying he was «сочувственный» or «добрый», I said that her father was good-looking, «симпатичный». Awkward.
«Это банк?», «Я знаю.»
This was probably the simplest and silliest slip-up I have made thus far in Russia – getting the intonation right when asking a question. You may be forgiven if the sentence is a bit longer, so only with time can you improve on this. But if it’s a short question, merely giving the right tone can make the difference between asking a question and saying a statement of fact. For example, there should be a tonal difference between «это книга» (our statement) and «это книга?» (our question). I blame stress for what happened to me on the first day of my year abroad. I needed to get cash, and I ‘asked’ a Russian if they knew the building in front of us was a bank. The man turned to the bank, looked at it for a while, and looked back at me and replied with the same, deadpan expression «я знаю». I know. I guess either way my question was answered, though…