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Problems for English Learners in Russia

Problems for English Learners in Russia | ITTT | TEFL Blog

People from different countries inevitably face problems when they are trying to learn English. Russia is no exception. Let’s have a quick look at some typical problems that my fellow countrymen face.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Sergei S. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.


As you may know, Russian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, and some may think that it can cause problems. In reality, the Russians are fine with understanding the Latin alphabet and can easily pronounce each letter. However, the Devil is in the details. When it comes to speaking it becomes problematic to pronounce [θ] and [ð] sounds properly. Many Russians transform it into [s] or [z], and sometimes even into [f] and [v]. For example, the word “three” can easily become “free” or “see” when you are hearing it from Russian-speaking people. Another common mistake is replacing long vowels with short vowels because there are no long and short vowels in Russian. Many Russians would pronounce words “ship” and “sheep” or “bad” and “bed” the same way. English teachers must show the right way to pronounce these problematic sounds and include more drilling.

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Russian nouns have grammatical gender. Every noun can be either masculine, feminine or neuter. Beginner students of all ages are often confused when they find out that in English a table is not “he” and a book is not “she”. They can easily use the wrong pronoun in a sentence because they thought of it in Russian.

Some languages don’t have articles at all and Russian is one of them. It is very hard to understand how to use articles without making mistakes when you don’t know what an article is. There is nothing similar in your mother tongue.

Another source of mistakes is the verb “to be”. It used to be a part of Russian a few centuries ago, but nowadays it is omitted in the present tense. The verb “to be” in Russian means “to exist” or “to be present”. “I am a doctor” in English becomes “I doctor” in Russian. Forgetting to include “am”, “are”, and “is” in their speech is a typical mistake for my compatriots.

Absence of grammatical gender, articles and the verb “to be” become less problematic the longer you practice English. But there is one area that is responsible for the majority of mistakes. It is the English tense system.

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The Russian and English verb systems express meaning differently. In Russian, there are only three tenses: past, present, and future. But there is also the notion of aspect. All actions are either completed (perfective aspect) or uncompleted (imperfective aspect). Perfect and progressive tenses, as understood in English, do not exist. Understanding a progressive tense is less challenging because the action in progress can exist in all three Russian tenses thanks to the imperfective aspect. But Russian speaking people mistakenly use a simple tense instead of a progressive one (because in Russian they sound the same).

Understanding a perfect tense is way harder, especially its present form. The perfective aspect makes it impossible for something to be completed in the present tense, it has either been completed before the moment of speaking or will be completed later. And in Russian, the exact time of completion is irrelevant from a grammatical point of view, which makes it challenging to understand past and future perfect tenses. A typical English learner from Russia almost exclusively uses past simple and past continuous, present simple and present continuous, future simple and future continuous. The addition of perfect tense is only possible for upper-level students who can understand the way native speakers think.

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These were some typical problems that English learners in Russia face. So don’t be surprised to hear from a Russian something like this: “I bought a car. She red. I think (pronounced like sink/fink) I will driving her tomorrow.”

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