Why is English Hard for Russian Speakers? (And Teaching Tips)

Answering why English is hard for anyone lies in the difficulty of English itself. English is an amalgamation of several languages. It has romance, Latin, and Germanic language roots as well as borrows words from other languages. The patterns in English nearly always have exceptions. However, the problem is not just in the borrowing of words or structure. English and Russian also have very different pronunciation rules.

English Vs. Russian Pronunciation

Slavic languages such as Russian can have vastly different tongue and mouth positions when compared to English pronunciations. When you also factor in the dialect of the person teaching English to a native Russian speaker, it can be even more challenging to learn the meaning and syntax of the language.

According to the University of San Diego[1], Russian has fewer vowel sounds and does not utilize the different long and short sounds that English makes. Having a different mouth position for speaking can get confusing when so many English words have similar spellings, sounds, or meanings.

Likewise, International TEFL and TESOL Training notes that Russian often mutes the final sounds of words. However, doing that in English means that you have created a different word. Mad and mat begin to sound the same.

Russia Beyond[2] equates it to not being able to hear English sounds. Rather than not being able to hear them, as Russians’ ears are no different from American or British, we might consider that they don’t know how to hear them rather than they can’t.

Since so many English sounds do not exist in Russian, the similar-sounding phonemes can be challenging to decipher. Native English speakers have spent their whole lives listening for these sounds, so they are more clearly recognized.

However, issues move beyond simple pronunciation. After all, reading and writing are also a part of English language learning. It can, perhaps, be the most challenging.

Popular Dialects

One of the unique aspects of English is that it is spoken in multiple countries worldwide. While there are travelers from other countries maintaining their native languages, English and Mandarin Chinese are two of the most widely spoken languages.

Both of these languages have billions of speakers worldwide. With so many speakers, pronunciation becomes a problem again. Speakers of American Dialects of English versus British English can get confusing.

The use of vowels and ending sounds can be very different for learners of English. Southern American English and Midwestern American English can almost sound like two different languages.

Pronunciation is not just challenging because there is a difference in Russian and English usage of phonemes, but it is nearly impossible to begin to understand speakers of other dialects. 

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English Grammar

Every language has its preferred syntax, grammar, and structure. English tends to be more rigid in its syntax and structure. Some grammar rules are less rigid, but in all, English tends to like things the same way each time. Russian, on the other hand, tends to have a more fluid structure.

The meaning and purpose of words change depending on the needs of the speaker or writer. This can be challenging for someone to move between when learning languages. The rules can seem difficult to obey.

Why is English Difficult for Russian Speakers.

This is challenging for many English Language Learners, regardless of their first language. English articles are used to tell specifics. For example, a tree and the tree mean something entirely different.

For speakers of other languages, their articles often remain the same, whether you mean a specific tree or any tree. The context of the conversation will help speakers or readers determine specificity.

English Vs. Russian Alphabet

The Russian and English alphabets are very different. While Russians learning English may become accustomed to seeing the new alphabet, the lettering systems are different, making it challenging to decipher. It is a small challenge that can be overcome, but it may take some readers and writers a while to master.

English Vs. Russian Spelling

Speaking of the alphabet, English spelling is absurd at times. Words that look the same are pronounced differently, yet words that appear different have similar sounds.

Learning to spell in English is nearly impossible for some native English speakers; when beginning with a system that has a different alphabet like Russian, it can be maddening.

Opportunity

Many people learning a second language are still surrounded by people who speak their native language. Practice improves the ability to hear those subtle vowel changes, learn the spelling rules, and decipher similar rules.

However, if we spend our time on our native language, learning a new language becomes excruciatingly difficult.

Slang and Popular Usage

In the 80s and 90s, parents teased their children for using words like bad to mean good. Stupid has also been used to emphasize the intensity of something. “He is stupid smart” is an oxymoron, but it is often used to mean he is brilliant.

Every language has its own weird usages if you consider the meaning of words. However, in English, the dialect can be an issue again. In Australian English dialects, mate often means friend. However, in other dialects, it often means lover or significant other. These distinctions can be challenging when speaking to a variety of native English speakers.

With social media platforms becoming so popular, there are often users from multiple countries in one group or application. Then, if two people are having a conversation from different dialects, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings occur.

Other Notes

Likewise, a popular article from Buzzfeed covered why English is so complicated, and one of the examples they show is a British and American using the word “quite” as an adjective. In American usage, this would mean “very” or incredibly. He’s quite handsome would mean that a person was beautiful. However, British slang usage is that it means very little.

The same sentence becomes he’s not very good-looking. For a person learning the language, that is mind-blowing. For a person who knows the language, it can also be frustrating. Two people can be having vastly different conversations and not know it.

The same is true for idioms. People no longer like to say that someone died. Instead, they say “passed on,” “passed over,” “passed,” “kicked the bucket,” or “she is no longer with us” as though someone has merely left. For someone not familiar with the language, this can be incredibly confusing.

Tips To Help Russian Speakers Learn English.

  • Russian speakers may have issues with certain sounds in English. these include /v/ and /w/, vowels, most of them can cause problems. Russian only has 5 to 6 vowels and English has 20. It is no surprising they may find difficultly We have phonics materials all over this site but if you are teaching young children or middle school then this pack will help loads!
  • P and B can be easily confused so extra practice is likely to be needed and can
  • /th/ sounds also have this issue and can come out sounding like /Z/ (other Slavic languages also have this issue as well.
  • There are differences between Russian and English intonation patterns. We have a pack of speaking lessons that address tone and pronunciation that can help with this. We also have 15 activities listed in this post here, that you can pick and choose to help your Russian students practice English

We convey only 7% of the meaning in words, 38% in paralinguistic means, i.e. intonation, rhythm, pauses, and 55% – facial expressions and gestures.

International Tefl Blog

Final Thoughts

Learning English is challenging for anyone. When beginning with a language like Russian, listeners are not accustomed to the sounds, so trying to become a speaker feels impossible. Likewise, there are so many exceptions to grammar and spellings that it can be difficult to learn to speak clearly.

Many Russian native speakers never learn to speak fluent English because of these challenges. Each language has slang and idioms that make learning even more difficult, but English can have several for one simple phrase.

All is not lost, however. Those interested in speaking the language can submerge themselves in the language and surround themselves with native speakers. Do not worry about perfection at first. The more you listen and speak with others, the better you will become. Even native speakers struggle understanding sometimes. You are not alone.


[1] https://sites.sandiego.edu/esl/russian/

[2] https://www.rbth.com/education/326271-how-russians-learn-english

One Comment on “Why is English Hard for Russian Speakers? (And Teaching Tips)

  1. Pingback: Can a Non Native Speaker Teach English? - Making English Fun

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