Saturday, February 19, 2011

My Russian Language Skills (or lack thereof)

So I've been in Russia almost 6 months now and my ability to speak Russian has soared compared to when I first arrive in September.  I can carry, kind of, conversations in Russian and I can, kind of, understand when people talk to me.

But there's still a larger-than-I'd-like-percentage of time spent being completely misunderstood and/or not understanding what is going on at all. And since I'm probably (read: definitely) not putting in an enough effort towards my language, I've found coping mechanisms to deal with these awkward situations and I here present different situations and how to get through them, enjoy.

Problem: You want to say something in Russian, but don't really have the words to pull it off.

  • Solution: Mumble like a motherf***** and try to get some semblance of the sounds you want. Chances are that the Russian person will either understand you (how? I don't know) or think said something else and respond to that. Either way you're off the hook.

Problem: You know what you want say and say it, but it isn't understood because apparently your mouth is full of some form excrement. What do you do?

  • Solution: I refer you to the previous problem, mumble like a motherf***** rather than trying to say it correctly.  Usually by trying to say it correctly, you seemingly end up saying it incorrectly, but by slurring your words together like you knocked back a bottle of vodka and are in the middle of eating a banana, somehow it sounds better and the message gets through.

Problem: Someone is speaking to you with such a words per minute rate, you'd swear they were in Bone Thugs N Harmony and you catch zero of what they said to you.
     Solution: This is a complex problem and has multiple answers. Let's begin.
  • Solution 1: If the person is nice and you don't think they'd mind, just stare at them like they're an alien and cock your head to the side like a dog. In my experience, this usually conveys complete stupidity on your part and will, if they're nice, elicit a smile, maybe a joke at your expense and either slower, less complex Russian or English, both of which seem to work.
  • Solution 2: If the person is mean, just not nod your head and say yes or no. This will get you somewhere, but depending on your answer, may not get you where you want to be. Attempt at your own risk.
    • *Note: you can attempt solution1 here, but remember this person is mean and this could very well result in your getting yelled at, scolded and not getting what you want.*
  • Solution 3: If it sounds like it's a question that they're asking you, again just go with a yes or no. You again attempt this at your own risk because you may get your self into a whole lot of something you don't wanna be in or you may not. If you're at a store, you might not get what you were hoping for. Again, I leave it to your discretion.  
  • Solution 4: If what the person says isn't a question and you know this, but still have no f***ing clue what the hell they're talking about, then I like to do one of two things:
    • Drop a "yeah?" to sort of reaffirm whatever they're saying. Russians are good at talking and these reaffirmations seem to satisfy them as a response and they'll usually keep on going, none the wiser you're as clueless as a baboon in the Pacific. But you're safe...for the time being.
    • Or you can give a nice long 'ooohhhh' which again reaffirms whatever it is they're saying, but completely masks your ineptitude.  This answer, however, in my experience is more likely to lead to them asking you a follow-up question, so be careful.
Problem: Someone comes up to you and is obviously going to either a) rob you; b) check your documents or c) ask you to do something you most certainly don't want to do (like clean the kitchen) and you want to avoid these at all costs.
  • -In case a) if you can run, perhaps giving a swift kick to the nuts first because the people walking around you are not likely to give a shit whether you're getting robbed or not.
  • -In case b) Say you don't speak Russian, hand the nice officer your passport and whatever else he may want and hope he doesn't ask you to give him money.  In this case it's also better to be super white, that seems to help.
  • -In case c) This often happens to me in my dorm. Someone, whom I've never seen nor met,          comes knocking on my door wanting something.  I like to go the opossum route in this case and lie on my, turn any music off, hope to God that my door is locked and sit patient until they go away thus avoiding having to clean the kitchen at 11:30 at night.
Problem: You're speaking to a room of people and are required to speak Russian, but you don't have the actual skills to do it in Russian.  Here is where being a ninja comes in handy and here's what you do.

  • Solution: Show lots of pictures, ask for questions and if all else fails, throw a smoke screen up and slip out of wherever you are and go quietly into that dark night......

So, Dear Readers, if you find yourself in Russia (or if you're already here) and you just don't know what to do and you want to break down and cry because people seem mean and yell and you don't understand what they're saying and vice versa, just follow this simple guidelines and you'll be fitting in in no time! Good speaking!


  1. this is so good -- very comprehensive! i do all of these things too... some of these solutions are a little risky, but context really helps you know if a long "ahhhhh" or "yes/no" is better. another strategy i use to soften up mean people is to first apologize for my terrible spanish, then say something i know how to say very comfortably and then what i need to say. somehow it works every time.

  2. Another tried-and-true strategy I use is when someone pauses in their incomprehensible speech and looks at me expectantly, I nod and say интересно, which implies neither agreement nor dissent and usually leaves them feeling that I think they are interesting.

  3. @Mary - Good call on apologizing. I don't think I've ever tried that in the beginning, usually just somewhere in the middle after my lack of skills has already abandoned me.

    @Adam - haha I do that as well! Works like charm. I'll also occasionally drop a 'ну...' like I'm going to say something else, but then not. That usually confuses them I think and they drop it.