Jon Stewart of The Daily Show made a funny and correct assessment of why Russian speakers sound “evil” in English, although they may not have any bad intentions.

“I wonder if Russia has been our (US) enemy for so many years because everything they say just sounds evil. Maybe it’s all been a misunderstanding of tone and syntax,” comedian Jon Stewart comments on Russian President Medvedev’s statement to President Obama at the recent nuclear summit in South Korea. (The two leaders thought their microphones weren’t on.)

Unfortunately, Russian speakers can sound very harsh in English, especially when they don’t use the definite and indefinite articles correctly and say “I want apple” instead of “I want an apple”. This is why paying attention to details and getting into the music and flow of your target language is important, or else you may sound like a Neanderthal without realizing it.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti-Russian, let it be known that I’m a native Russian speaker and I know all to well how Russian speakers sound like to English ears. I’ve witnessed more misunderstanding and miscommunications between Americans and Russians than I care to remember precisely because of the directness of Russian speakers in the way they communicate in English and their incorrect usage of the English language.

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  1. I know very well what you mean. I am also a native Russian speaker but I have spent almost all my life in Germany so I know how Russian speakers like sound to German ears. My mother, for example, is often accused of being harsh and direct.

    • That’s interesting since Americans think Germans can be harsh and direct in English. So that means that Russian speakers must really stand out in German.

      I think each language has something that’s difficult for non-natives to grasp. The subjunctive tense baffles English speakers learning languages with that tense. The indefinite and definite article in English is a major obstacle for Russian speakers, even those who have spent decades in English speaking countries. It’s hard for Russian speakers to realize that these distinctions in English are integral to the language and can make them sound like brutes.

  2. Susanna, do you care to comment on the reverse?  Is there anything English native speakers tend tog et really wrong in Russian?  I am asking because I am taking a short Russian study in hopes of refreshing what I learned in high school  Thank you.

    • English speakers mostly have trouble with the strong rolled Russian “r” and the soft vowels. Find songs you like and pay attention to these sounds. People from Southern California and Australia tend to end their sentences as though they are questions. If this is the case for you, don’t do the same in Russian. It sounds bad and very weird.

    • Also, pay attention to your nasal sounds in Russian. Your nose will literally vibrate when you are pronouncing the sounds correctly. The hard and soft consonants are typically difficult for non-Russian speakers.

  3. A lot of it was the cold war. As an old guy who grew up in the 60s, every characterization of a Russian speaker had a harsh, guttural semblance to the Nazi Germans, intended to ensure complete hatred of everything Russian. I was shocked to listen to native Russians with their humble, gentle demeanor and light phrasing that sounded more like French than a madman bent on destroying the planet. Shock turned into dismay as realization of being lied to by the American government set in.

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