Russian is known to be a truly beautiful language, and even though learning it can be a challenge, it’s a pleasant one. But it’s always good to be prepared.
There are lots of little intricacies when learning any foreign language, and it’s important to familiarize yourself with them in order to avoid some of the common mistakes that many English speakers make. This guide is here to help with that process by breaking down and explaining a few of those intricacies in simple ways that are easy to follow and remember.
It’ll take time and practice, but once you get the gist of the Russian language, you’ll be able to survive on your own when you take your next trip to Moscow. So, let’s start with the first most common mistake to help you avoid any unnecessary confusion along the way.
In Russian, there are two forms used to address people: formal and informal.Addressing someone formally is not just about using some extra polite phrases, but it’s reflected in the choice of words, their forms, and their endings. This is a new concept for native English speakers, which makes choosing the wrong form of address one of the most common mistakes made by people learning the Russian language.
To make it short, while in English the word to address people is always “you,” in Russian the choice of word depends on whether the setting is formal or informal. The informal way to say “you” is “ты,” which should be used when addressing friends, family members, and children. On the other hand, to strangers, you should always say “Вы,” unless they are kids or you are at the friends’ party. The same applies to people you meet at work, doctors, professors, taxi drivers, hotel staff, and anyone else in a formal or professional setting. The change will be reflected not only in the choice of “ты” or “Вы” but also in the verb forms they are used with, in ways to greet people and ask how they are doing, and so on, which leads to many mistakes associated with this differentiation.
One of the most common mistakes is using the informal greeting “Привет” when it’s not appropriate. It’s okay to say “Привет” to someone you know well, but in all other cases, it can be taken the wrong way, especially with the older generation. In a hotel, restaurant, business meeting, etc., use the formal greeting “Здравствуйте.” You can also always say “Доброеутро” (Good morning), “Добрыйдень” (Good afternoon),or “Добрыйвечер” (Good evening), depending on the time of the day. To say “Goodbye,” use “Пока” in the informal setting and “Досвидания” in the formal. A common mistake is to say “Досвидания” to a close friend and “Пока” to some boss in a Russian company.
Asking “Как дела?” (How are you?) when someone is not a close friend is another common mistake. Unlike in English, “Как дела?” is not a casual greeting in Russian. Instead, most Russians will feel like you’re trying to pry, and your Russian acquaintance will spend a few seconds desperately trying to remember who you are and why you feel comfortable enough to ask about personal matters. But don’t worry; people will be willing to forgive you simply because you’re trying to speak Russian!
Every language has words that sound similar, and Russian is no exception. Because Russian uses a different alphabet than English, many words may sound almost the same to you at first, which can lead to many mistakes (and often very funny ones). With just a little practice, it becomes much easier to differentiate between words. Here are some of the most commonly confused words in Russian:
Besides these common mistakes, Russian has tons of other words that are quite similar in how they sound while meaning absolutely different things: “кот” (cat) and “код” (code), “река” (hand) and “рука” (river), “стул” (chair) and “стол” (table), “подлинный” (authentic) and “длинный” (long), “страна” (country) and “странно” (strange), etc. The list is endless, and even though using the wrong word might lead to saying something strange or funny, don’t worry.Just keep practicing, and it will keep getting easier.
Mistakes related to verb conjugation are definitely among the most common errors. In English, verbs are also conjugated, just not as much as in Russian, which is why it can be difficult at first to remember all the correct forms. For example, take the verb “работать” (to work).In English, the change will be reflected only in “he,” “she,” and “it” (“he works,” “she works,” “it works”); all other subjects (“I,” “you,” “we,” and “they”)use the conjugated form “work.” That means that in English, the verb “to work” has only two possible forms when conjugated in the present tense, whereas in Russian it has six possible forms—and that doesn’t even include the forms in past and future tenses.
Very often, people who start learning the Russian language say something like “ялюбит,” which is the same as saying “I loves,” when the correct way to say “I love” is “ялюблю.” Similarly, when trying to say “she loves,” or “оналюбит,”one might make the mistake of saying “оналюбить,” or “she love.”
Mistakes become even more frequent when it comes to using the right form of the verb for the informal and formal “you”—“ты” and “Вы.” Let’s say you choose the right one depending on the situation, but you still need to choose the right form of the verb. For example, “What do you think?” can be either “Чтотыдумаешь?” or “ЧтоВыдумаете?” and not something like “Чтотыдумаете” or “чтоВыдумаешь.”
Funny mistakes include a man saying “ясказала” (I said) or “ядумала” (I thought), because “сказала” and “думала” are the feminine past forms of the verbs “сказать” (to say) and“думать” (to think). The same applies when a woman uses masculine forms of the verbs. Amanshouldsay “ясказал” / “ядумал” andawomanshould say “ясказала” / “ядумала.”
But don’t be afraid of such funny mistakes—learning while laughing is always effective.
Even though Russian verbs have only three time tenses—past, present, and future—it has some special ways to make up for the additional tenses that English has. Understandably, those who have just started learning Russian often choose the wrong verb.
For example, if you want to say “Let’s have a dinner,” the right way is “Давайпоужинаем” and not “Давайужинаем” as is often said. The verbs “ужинать” and “поужинать” both mean “to have dinner” but have different meanings. This difference is due to something called the imperfective and perfective aspects of the verb. “Ужинать” is used to describe having dinner in general or on a regular basis (imperfective), while “поужинать” means to have dinner one specific time (perfective). There are many verbs like this, and they often cause confusion: “делать” and “сделать” (to do), “готовить” and “приготовить” (to cook), “ехать” and “поехать” (to drive or to go somewhere), “думать” and “подумать” (to think), “читать” and “прочитать” (to read), and many others. Even though in English these pairs of verbs usually have only one equivalent, in Russian, they have two slightly different meanings.
Most of the words in Russian, including nouns, adjectives, most numerals, and other parts of speech, often have different endings depending on the form (singular or plural), on the gender, and on the so-called “grammatical case”(Russian has six, while English has only three). This means there are many possible forms and endings for most words and is therefore a common source of errors.
There are some similar changes in English. For example, when you say “my sister’s dog” and add that apostrophe and “s” at the end, it is due to the grammatical case (possessive). But because English has fewer variations, it’s natural to make mistakes when learning and speaking Russian. In Russian, the right way to say this phrase would be “собакамоейсестры.” Even though “sister” is “сестра,” the ending of the word changes, as does the word “my” (“моя”). For such cases, it’s common to hear anything from “собакамоясестра” (almost like saying “dog – my sister”) or “собакамоейсестра” said with the wrong endings.
“Milk” is “молоко” in Russian, and “sugar” is “сахар,” but “coffee with milk and sugar” is “кофесмолокомисахаром.” Saying “кофесмолокоисахар” in the coffee shop is a common mistake, even though you still likely will be understood. “I am from America” is “ЯизАмерики,” often said by mistake as “ЯизАмерика.” The examples are endless because so are the variations, but with plenty of practice,you will actually start to choose the correct ending without even thinking about it.
As you already know, nouns in Russian can be one of the three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Adjectives also have to be changed depending on the gender of the word they’re describing.
In English, in the phrases “beautiful car” and “beautiful house,” the word “beautiful” sounds the same. In Russian, you would say “красиваямашина” and “красивыйдом.” Each word requires a different form of the adjective because “машина” is a feminine noun and “дом” is a masculine noun. This might lead to some funny mistakes,like saying “красивыйженщина,” which is basically talking about a woman like you’re talking about a man. You might also say “мойработа” when it should be “мояработа” (my job) or “мойжена” when it should be “мояжена” (my wife). While such phrases usually don’t have some double meaning when said the wrong way, they do sound very funny in Russian. So don’t be afraid of such mistakes, but try to remember the gender of a word when you first learn it, and don’t forget to change the words that describe it accordingly.
Pronunciation can only be mastered with time and practice, but you can get better at it much faster by avoiding the most common pronunciation mistakes in the Russian language:
In Russian, when the letter “о” is unstressed in a word, it has to be pronounced as “а.” Of course, as a beginner, you cannot just know when “о” is stressed or unstressed; this knowledge comes only with practice. However, if the stress is marked so you know where it is, you should read every unstressed “о” as “а.” Here are some very common mistakes: “хорошо́” (good) should be pronounced as “harasho” and not as “horosho,” “спасибó” (thank you) as “spasiba” and not as “spasibo,” “покá” (bye) as “paka” and not as “poka,” “молокó” as “malako” and not as “moloko,” and the list goes on.
In Russian, when the letter “в” is followed by another consonant, it has to be pronounced as “unvoiced,” or in other words, as the letter “ф” (“f”). For example, “вчера” (yesterday) is often incorrectly pronounced as “vchera,” which is almost impossible to pronounce—even for a native Russian speaker. The correct pronunciation of this word is “fchera.” The same applies to the words “всё” (everything), “все” (everyone), “всегда” (always), and “вторник” (Tuesday), among others; the first “в” shouldn’t be pronounced as a clear “в,” but more as “ф.”
Russian has letters such as “щ,” “ы,” and “р,” which are hard to pronounce correctly for someone who has just started learning Russian. Very often, foreigners who start speaking Russian. don’t roll the letter “р” as they should, or they roll it too much, like they’re speaking Spanish.Other mistakes include pronouncing “ы” simply as “и” without making it a deep sound formed in the throat, and pronouncing the letter “щ” as “s-ch.” The word “ты” (you) is probably the most mispronounced word in Russian.It shouldn’t be just “ti.” The sound should be deep and come from your throat, so you can even feel its trembling. The words “ты,” “вы,” “мы” (we), “ещё” (more), “сыр” (cheese), and “работа” (word) are good for practicing the letters “ы,” “щ,” and “р.”
One of the most common mistakes is pronouncing the Russian combinations of letters “ого” and “его” as “ogo” and “ego.” The letter “г” in such cases should be read as “в.” For example, “his” is “его” in Russian and should be pronounced as “jevo,” not “jego,” and in the phrase “бутылкакрасноговина” (a bottle of red wine), the letter “г” in the word “красного” is pronounced as “в”—“krasnava.”
The other combination of letters that causes lots of confusion is “сч,” which should be pronounced simply as “щ.” For example, “счёт” (bill) should be pronounced as “щот.” Last,an incredibly common mistake is pronouncing “что” (what) as “chto” when it should be “што.”
Learning numbers is a challenge in every language; for most of us, it wasn’t easy even when we were learning numbers in our native language. In Russian, numbers are quite easy to remember, because most of the time they follow a pattern. However, some numbers do cause a lot of confusion, which of course leads to many mistakes:
Such mix-ups occur with pretty much all numbers that sound similar. The other common mistake is forgetting about declension of numbers. For example, you might say “двабутылки” instead of “двебутылки” (two bottles), “c триложки” when it should be “стремяложками” (with three spoons), etc. Numerals have lots of different forms in Russian, so it’s no wonder they cause so many mistakes.
Many mistakes when speaking Russian are caused by the incorrect choice or use of a preposition. The more you speak, the more you’ll remember which prepositions are right to say in specific phrases and where you should omit them entirely.
Here are some common phrases often said incorrectly in Russian:“Яедунамашине” (I’m driving a car) is sometimes said as “Яедумашина,” which is like saying “I’m driving on a car,” because the preposition “на” means “on.” The phrase “яиграютеннис,” which literally translates as “I play in tennis,” should actually be “яиграювтеннис” (I play tennis), because the preposition “в” is used for all games.Saying “напонедельник”and “насубботу” when it should be “впонедельник” and “всубботу” is basically like saying “in Monday” and “in Saturday” rather than “on Monday” and “on Saturday.”Unlike in English, the verb “to wait for” is used in Russian without any preposition—“яждутебя” (literally, “I wait you”)—and the same applies to many other verbs that require prepositions in English.
Lastly, there are some additional phrases that are very often pronounced the wrong way. Here are some examples:
Almost every foreigner makes a mistake related to these two phrases.Mixing them by saying “мнелюблю” or “янравится” makes it sound almost like you like yourself. It should be either “I like” (“мненравится”) or “I love” (“ялюблю”), and even though both of these phrases use “I” in English, in Russian,they have to be distinguished—otherwise, you might not be understood.
In English, both men and women say “I am married” or “I am not married.” In Russian, men have to say “яженат” or “янеженат” if they are not married, while women need to use another word (“язамужем” or “янезамужем”). If a man says “язамужем,” basically he is saying that he is married to another man, and the same applies to a woman saying “яжената”—it’s like she is married to another woman. So when using these phrases, make sure to choose the verb that really applies to you.
Learning to recognize when you make mistakes and knowing how to correct yourself to speak the Russian language properly will ensure that you are well on your way to mastering the language. And if you find yourself making some of the mistakes listed in this guide, you can smile and take comfort in knowing that without them, you cannot improve. Keep striving for perfection, and eventually, you will feel what a pleasure it is to speak this beautiful language.