It could be your pronunciation or any number of social reasons
So we’ve all probably been there. You spend a lot of time learning a language and finally get to a point where you can understand some spoken phrases and form coherent responses. You run into a native speaker and happily start talking Russian (or whatever language you’re learning) to them — only to get a blank look or a response in English.
One can’t help thinking, “Is my accent so bad? Do they want to remind me that I’m a foreigner? Do they just want to practice their English with me?”
Word Stress Making a Word Unrecognizable
Have you ever tried saying something very basic to a Russian only to get a quizzical look in response and to hear them repeat something completely different from what you thought you were saying? Chances are, your word stress was off. “What’s the big deal?” you might say. “Why do they have to be such sticklers about word stress — it only changed which vowel gets the most oomph; they can still understand what I mean.” However, you need to remember that word stress also changes the way unstressed vowels are pronounced — so, an о starts sounding like an а (or, more precisely, and “uh”), and a е starts sounding like an и.
This gets even more confusing when the word with the “wrong” stress actually sounds like another existing word. Maybe you are trying to say “That’s expensive,” but you end us saying “EHtah duhROguh” instead of the correct “э́то до́рого.” Well, that sounds like “э́то доро́га” or “э́та доро́га” (“this is a road” or “this road”), and your Russian buddy is thoroughly confused. Other common pronunciation problems are described in an earlier post.
Saying It Like A Word In Your Language
Another way to alter the sound of a Russian word beyond recognition is to write it out in Latin letters and then read it as if it were a word in English or another European (Roman-alphabet-based) language. There are definite benefits to transliteration, or writing out words in the Roman script (although I contend learning a finite number of letters in a non-Latin alphabet is not as daunting a task as many make it out to be; Hebrew only took me about a week — but I digress). However, once we see a word in “our” script, we are tempted to read it as if it were in our language. Equating Russian letters to their Latin counterparts poses the same danger — so, “a is an a,” “у is a u,” etc.
One instance I can think of is a British teacher I had in my university in Russia. Talking about the Russian city Пермь (which I hesitate to transliterate as Perm’), he would pronounce it like the English word “perm.” While I and other Russians who speak English know how the English word is spelled and, consequently, what he tried to say, to a non-English-speaking Russian, the word will sound like “пём,” which is not very similar to the way “Пермь” sounds.
Another example comes from a student I once had in an American university. This young man had learned some Russian in a military program, which placed a lot of emphasis on vocabulary and not so much on pronunciation. One time, he left me puzzled by saying what sounded to me like, “У меня́ есть ка́шка.” Now, the word ка́шка is either a diminutive of ка́ша (oatmeal, porridge) or a type of clover. Neither of these made sense in the context until I realized he was trying to say “У меня́ есть ко́шка” but was pronouncing the “о” the way the English letter “o” is pronounced by some speakers of American English. The resulting phrase meant something quite different from what he had in mind.
Social and interpersonal reasons
Continuing on why some Russians will seemingly give you the cold shoulder and won’t answer you in Russian. We looked at how certain pronunciation gaffes can obscure understanding. There are also social and interpersonal reasons for the person’s reluctance to respond to you in Russian.
Hungry for Practice
As many have pointed out, sometimes the person you are talking to is so eager to practice their English (French, German, Spanish, Japanese…) with you that they would rather speak that language. Part of it could be a status/belonging sign — “See, I speak the language of the expats, so I’m hip and I belong with them.”
However, more likely, you are one of the few foreigners they will meet over their lifetime, especially outside the capital cities (столи́цы) of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The number of foreign visitors has gone down in the last couple of years. It is both an exotic event and a potentially one-off opportunity to talk to a real, living native speaker of the language they are learning!
The takeaway: Try to relate to their feelings by thinking about your own desire to practice Russian. A mutually beneficial way to communicate in both your and their language is to participate in a language exchange, or tandem.
Don’t Expect You To Know Russian
Your average Russian may be surprised to hear you speak Russian. Don’t take this personally — they don’t think you are stupid or mocking their language. They have likely never heard a person from your country be fluent in Russian.
Perhaps they think you just learned a couple words, so when you give them your enthusiastic “Приве́т!” they may give you a short friendly response, giggle (хихи́кают) awkwardly, and switch back to English (перехо́дят на англи́йский).
The takeaway: Russians don’t switch back to English because they think your Russian is bad — they probably switch to English because every other foreigner they’ve met didn’t speak Russian. It’s not hard to convince them otherwise (убеди́ть их в обра́тном), though. Even something as basic as “Я немно́го говорю́ по-ру́сски” or “Я учи́л ру́сский язы́к в университе́те” will make you fluent in their eyes because it’s beyond what they’ve ever heard from a non-Russian.
Honorary Russian Speaker
If you live outside of Russia, perhaps you run into Russians at social functions. It’s natural you may try to speak to them in their language. Have you ever been in this situation only to have them awkwardly answer in English? Why would they snub you like that? Do they think your Russian is not good enough?
From what I’ve seen, sometimes speakers of Russian are shy about being singled out as such at an event where non-Russian speakers are present. They don’t want to be speaking a language most people around them don’t understand (I am talking about Russians living abroad, not about the tourist couple you saw in Turkey who had no qualms speaking Russian among people who couldn’t understand it). Moreover, speaking any foreign language in front of others often turns into a party trick (“Say something in Russian!”), and the person may not feel like being the entertainment for the night.
The takeaway: Try talking to that person in a more private conversation, when no non-speakers of Russian are present. Language meetups are also a good idea.
What has your experience been like when speaking to Russian? Were they willing to talk Russian?