My family moved to Moscow when I was three years old. While we found plenty of other English-speakers to associate with, much of our interaction was in Russian. My father was fluent, and my brother and I quickly picked up the language as we learned it on the streets and in school. We frequently translated for our mother, who was tasked with the rather daunting job of buying groceries for a family of four while not speaking any Russian.
All in all, I lived in Russia for six of the most formative years my life before moving back to the US for my junior year of high school. We lived in other places too, but I spent more time in Russia than anywhere else. At that point, I sometimes felt more comfortable using Russian than my native English, and my father and I made a point of speaking Russian together.
When I got to college, I realized that the Russian my classmates were learning was not the Russian I knew. It wasn’t glaring differences of vocabulary or ignorance of grammatical rules, but a simple lack of knowledge of practical tenets of spoken Russian that my new friends lacked.
Where I had excitedly expected to be able to converse with these classmates just like I had with my Russian friends back in Moscow, I quickly discovered that being able to pass an advanced Russian language course at a US college did not necessarily prepare a student for the rigorous task of actually holding a conversation in Russian.
In retrospect, I realize that I was over eager and held lofty expectations of my peers’ skill. However, I still feel that university language professors are doing their students a great disservice by not filling them in on a few simple facts about spoken Russian. I’ll tell you what I told my Russian-studying friends, and I hope it will help you when you visit Russia or have to rely on your Russian conversational abilities.
1. We don’t use pronouns with verbs (unless we have to).
In English, separating the pronouns from verbs can make a sentence undecipherable. This is because several forms of the verb might be matched to the same conjugation. However, in Russian, conjugated verb forms are generally unique to each pronoun. Here’s an example.
In Russian, present tense conjugation of the verb читать (to read) breaks down like this:
1st Person Singular (I) – я чита́ю
2nd Person Singular (Informal you) – ты чита́ешь
3rd Person Singular (He/She/It) – он/она /оно чита́ет
1st Person Plural (We) – мы чита́ем
2nd Person Plural (Plural or formal you) – вы чита́ете
3rd Person Plural (They) – они чита́ют
However, if we look at the conjugation for the same verb in English, we get this:
I – read
You – read
He/She/It – reads
We – read
They – read
While the Russian conjugated forms are largely unique with the exception of the 3rd person singular, that same form is the only one that changes in English. While it is important to note that there are exceptions to every rule – usually several in Russian – this is a well established difference between the two languages.
Keeping this general characteristic of Russian verb conjugation in mind, it is easy to understand why Russian speakers typically forego the use of pronouns. Why should you go to the trouble of saying “they are eating” when conjugating the verb into the necessary 3rd person plural form tells the listener who is performing the action? With most verbs, pronoun usage is unnecessary, and Russians aren’t the type to waste words or time.
Of course, there are numerous situations in which pronouns enhance the clarity of the what is being said. If you want to place emphasis on who is performing the action, or if there is more than one person or action being performed, you might use pronouns for the sake of clarity.
2. Don’t waste time
Like I said before, Russians hate to have their time wasted. You may have plenty of time to think through the various grammatical intricacies of your answers in class, but a conversation partner is not going to stick around while you try to make your answer grammatically perfect. When in doubt, just answer. A few grammatical errors here and there will not keep a native Russian speaker from understanding you. Which brings us to my third tip…
3. Russians are more than willing to help you learn
We know Russian is hard. We know how much work it takes to be understood. So most Russian speakers will not mind giving you pointers or helping you with your Russian. However, to Russians, helping frequently translates to “correcting”. This might be a problem if you are the type of person who interprets correction as criticism, if you don’t believe in wrong answers, or just don’t like being corrected.
4. Listen and practice as much as you can
Watch Russian-language movies. Listen to Russian-language broadcasts and music. For a US-based radio station, try DANU radio. Its a Russian-language station that broadcasts out of Miami, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. it also streams 24/7 on their website and on the IHeartRadio app as RUSA Russian American Radio. There also are a number of Russian news sources whose broadcasts you can watch. You may not understand everything, but just listening will improve your pronunciation. Listening to Russian-language broadcasts and media has another benefit though…
5. The more you listen, the more easily you will pick up on patterns
If you have studied Russian at all, you know that the grammatical cases have rules and formulaic endings that you tack onto the ends of words. As Mark from Russian Accelerator points out, there are at least 10 different ways just to say your name depending on what case the sentence requires you to use. You can memorize the right endings for the different cases, but their conversational usage will slip into place much more naturally if you listen to as much spoken Russian as you can. You won’t have to think about converting книга into книгу in the accusative case because you will know from listening to native speakers that that’s just what the word sounds like in that sentence.