Top 10 Most Common Mistakes When Learning Russian

By OptiLingo

With these tips, you can avoid making the most common mistakes in Russian.

Russian is known to be a truly beautiful language, and even though learning it comes with a challenge, it’s a pleasant one. But it’s always good to be prepared. There are lots of little intricacies to get familiar with when learning any foreign language, and this guide is here to attempt to break down and explain a few of those 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 fist most common mistake to avoid any undesired confusion on your way.

1. Incorrect usage of the formal and informal way of communication

In Russian there are two ways to address people – formal and informal, and it’s not just about using some extra polite phrases, it’s reflected in the choice of the words, their forms and endings. It’s a new concept for the native English speakers, which makes the incorrect choice of the informal and formal way of communication one of the most common mistakes made by people who learn the Russian language.

To make it short, while in English the word to address people is always “you”, in Russian the choice of the 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 opposite, to strangers you should always say “Вы”, unless they are kids or you are at the friends’ party. The same applies to people whom you meet at work, to the doctors, professors, taxi drivers, hotel staff and anyone else in the formal setting. The change will be reflected not only in the choice of “ты” or “Вы”, but also in the forms of the verbs to be used with, in ways to greet people, to ask how they are doing and so on, which leads to many mistakes associated with this differentiation.

One of the most common mistakes is saying informal “Привет” as a greeting 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 the hotel, restaurant, business meeting etc. use the formal greeting “Здравствуйте” or you can always say “Доброеутро” (“Good morning”), “Добрыйдень” (“Good afternoon”) and “Добрыйвечер” (“Good evening”) depending on the time of the day. The same applies to saying “Пока” as “Goodbye” 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 the Russian company.

Also, keep in mind that asking “Как дела?” (“How are you?”) when someone is not a close friend is another common mistake. Unlike 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!

2. Confusion between the words which sound similar

Every language has words which sound similar and Russian is not an exception. Because Russian uses a different alphabet than English, at first it seems that many words sound almost the same which leads to multiple mistakes and often the funny ones. With just some practice it becomes much easier to differentiate the words, but you can start get prepared right away. Here are some words which are the most common to confuse:

  • “Девушка” (a young woman), “дедушка” (an old man / grandfather), “бабушка” (an old woman / grandfather) – even though these words might sound similar, they are absolutely different and using the wrong one can offend a person, because no young girl wants to be called as an old lady and no old man wants to be called as a young woman.
  • “Машина” (a car) and “мужчина” (a man) – if you want to say “I have a car”, you should say “Уменяестьмашина”, because if you say “Уменяестьмужчина” which means “I have a man”, it might cause some serious confusion.

Besides these common mistakes, Russian have tones of other words which are quite similar in how they sound, while meaning absolutely different things: “кот” and “код” (“cat” and “code”), “река” and “рука” (“hand” and “river”), “стул” and “стол” (“chair” and “table”), “подлинный” and “длинный” (“authentic” and “long”), “страна” and “странно” (“country” and “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 very soon it will not be a mystery for you.

3.  Mistakes in verbs conjugation

Mistakes related to verbs conjugation are definitely among the most common mistakes. In English, verbs are also conjugated, just not as much as in Russian, that’s why at first it’s not so easy to remember all the correct forms. For example, if to take a verb “работать” (“to work”), in English the change will be reflected only for “he” and “she” – “he works” and “she works”, which comes just to the two possible forms in Present Tense, whereas Russian will have six possible forms, and it’s not to mention past and future forms of the verbs.

Very often people who start learning the Russian language say something like “ялюбит” which is the same as saying “I loves”, or saying “оналюбить” similar to “she love”, while the correct way to say “I love” is “ялюблю” and “she loves” – “оналюбит”.

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 chose the right one depending on the situation, but you should also 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 saying “ясказала” (“I said”) or “ядумала” (“I thought”) when a man is speaking, because “сказала” and “думала” are the feminine past forms of the verbs “сказать” and “думать” (“to say” and “to think”). The same applies to the situation when a woman uses masculine forms of the verbs. Amanshouldsay “я сказал” / “я думал” andawoman – “я сказала” / “я думала”.

But don’t be afraid of such funny mistakes – learning while laughing is always effective.

4. Choosing the wrong verb

Even though Russian has only three time tenses – Past, Present and Future, it has some special ways to cover the missing tenses which English has. Those who start 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 it’s often said. There are verbs “ужинать” and ”поужинать”, they both mean “to have dinner”, but have a different meaning. This is known as imperfective and perfective aspects of the verb. “Ужинать” is used to describe having a dinner in general or on a regular basis, while “поужинать” means to have a dinner one specific time. There are many verbs like that and it often causes 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 the verbs will have one equivalent, in Russian there will be a difference in the meaning.

5. Not inflecting the words or doing it in a wrong way

In Russian, most of the words including nouns, adjectives, most numerals and other parts of speech often have a change in the ending depending on using the singular or plural forms of the words, on the gender of the used words and on the six of so-called grammatical cases of the Russian language (while English has only three). This gives many possible forms and endings for most of the words and is a common source of errors.

There are some similar changes in English. For example, when you say “my sister’s dog” and add that “s” in the end, it also happens due to the grammatical case. But because English has much less such variations, it’s natural to make mistakes when learning and speaking Russian. If to take this phrase, the right way to say it would be “собакамоейсестры”, even though “sister” is “сестра” there will be a change in the ending as well as the change of 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”. Examples are endless because so are the variations, but with practice you will be surprised that you can actually choose the correct ending even without thinking about it.

6. Mixing up gender

As you already know, in comparison with English, nouns in Russian can be one of the three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. It gets trickier with the fact that words which describe nouns also have to be changed depending on their gender.

In English, in the phrases “beautiful car” and “beautiful house” the word “beautiful” sound the same. In Russian it’s different: “красиваямашина”, but “красивыйдом” – it happens because “машина” is a feminine noun and “дом” is a masculine noun. It might lead to some quite funny mistakes such as saying “красивыйженщина”, which is in a sense talking about a woman like about a man. Or saying “мойработа” when it has to be “мояработа” (my job ) and “мойжена” when it should be “мояжена” (my wife). Even though usually it doesn’t create some double meaning when said in the wrong way, it sounds very funny in Russian. So don’t be afraid of such mistakes, but try to remember the gender of the word in the very first place and change the words which describe it accordingly.

7.  Pronunciation mistakes

Pronunciation is something to be mastered only with time and practice, but you can get better in it much faster by avoiding the most common pronunciation mistakes in the Russian language:

  • Not pronouncing unstressed “о” as “а”

In Russian, when the letter “о” is unstressed in a word, it has to be pronounced as “а”. Yes, you cannot just know when “о” is stressed or when it’s unstressed, and 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” should be pronounced as “harasho” and not as “horosho” (good), “спасибó” as “spasiba” and not as “spasibo” (thank you), “покá” as “paka” and not as “poka” (bye), “молокó” as “malako” and not as “moloko”, and the list goes on.

  • Incorrect pronunciation of the unvoiced “в”

In Russian, when letter “в” is followed by another consonant, it has to be pronounced as “unvoiced”, or in other words, as letter “ф” (“f”). For example, “вчера” (yesterday) is often pronounced in the wrong way 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), “вторник” (Tuesday), etc. – the first “в” shouldn’t be pronounced as clear “в”, but more as “ф”.

  • Incorrect pronunciation of the new sounds for the English speakers

Russian has letters such as “щ”, “ы” and “р” which are hard to pronounce correctly for someone who has just started to learn Russian. Very often foreigners who start speaking Russian don’t roll “р” as they should, or roll it too much similar to Russian, pronounce “ы” simply as “и” without making it a deep sound which should be formed in a throat, and pronouncing 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 has to be deep coming from your throat so you even feel its trembling. Words “ты”, “вы”, “мы” (we), “ещё” (more), “сыр” (cheese), “работа” (word) are good to practice letters “ы”, “щ” and “р”.

  • Robot-like pronunciation

As in English you don’t say separately “in a car”, and pronounce it like if it was a one word, the same applies when speaking Russian[The Best Way to Speak Russian]. The common mistake is to make a pause between every word which leads to a robot-like pronunciation. To avoid it, just try to pronounce prepositions and negative particle “не” together with a word. So if you don’t want something, “нехочу” (don’t want) should be said as “nehachu”, and not like “ne — hachu” with a pause in between, and if you are in the café – “вкафе”, it’s “vkafe” and not “v — kafe”.

  • Incorrect pronunciation of some exceptional combination of letters

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 cause lots of confusion is “сч” which should be pronounced simply as “щ”, for example – “счёт” (bill) should be pronounced as “щот”. And the last incredibly common mistake is pronouncing “что” (what) as “chto”, while it should be “што”. If you say it right, asking “Чтоэто?” (What is it?) won’t be a problem for you.

8.  Confusion with numbers

Learning numbers is a challenge for every language, but 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 some pattern. However, some numbers cause lots of confusion and mistakes related to them:

  • saying “двенадцать” (12) instead of “девятнадцать” (19) and vice versa
  • confusion between “тринадцать” (13) and “тридцать” (30)
  • choosing “пятнадцать” (15) instead of “пятьдесят” (50)

And it applies to pretty much all numbers that sound similar. The other common mistake is forgetting about declension of numbers. For example, saying “двабутылки” while it has to be “двебутылки” (two bottles), “c триложки” which should be “стремяложками” (with three spoons), etc. Numerals have lots of different forms in Russian, so no wonder it causes many mistakes, but it’s like playing the numbers game and with time you will win for sure.

9.  Choosing the right preposition

Many mistakes when speaking Russian are caused by the incorrect choice of the preposition or by using it where you shouldn’t. The more you speak, the more you remember which prepositions are right to say in specific phrases and where you should omit them at all.

The common phrases often said wrong are “Яедумашина” which should be “Яедунамашине” (I’m driving a car) which is like saying “I’m driving on a car”, because preposition “на” is “on” in Russian; “яиграютеннис” which has to be “яиграювтеннис” (I play tennis) which  literally translates as “I play in tennis”, because using preposition “в” is used for all the games; saying “напонедельник”, “насубботу” when it has to be “впонедельник” and “всубботу” (on Monday and on Saturday) which is basically saying “in Monday” and “in Saturday”. The verb “to wait for” will be used in Russian without any preposition – “яждутебя” (literally – “I wait you”), and the same applies to many other verbs which in English require using a preposition.

10.  Phrases with common mistakes

Lastly, there are just some phrases which are very often pronounced in a wrong way. Here are some of them:

  • “мне нравится” (Ilike) – “я люблю” (I love)

Almost every foreigner make a mistake related to these two phrases, and mix them ending saying “мнелюблю” or “янравится” which sounds almost like you like yourself. It should be either “I like” – “мненравится”, or “I love” – “ялюблю”, and even though in English both of these phrases uses “I”, in Russian these phrases have to be distinguished, otherwise, you might not be understood.

  • “married” vs “женат”

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 it is saying that he is married to another man, and the same about a woman saying “яжената” – it’s like she is married to another woman. So make sure to choose the verb which really applies to you.

Learning to recognize when you make mistakes and knowing how to correct yourself to speak the Russian language properly will make sure you are well on your way to mastery of the language. And if you find yourself making some of the mistakes listed throughout this guide, it’s only a good reason to smile because without them you cannot improve. Keep striving for perfection and eventually, you will feel what a pleasure it is to speak this beautiful language.