What Americans Think When They Hear Common English Mistakes

by Guest Post - Posts (68). Posted Wednesday, July 13th, 2011 at 4:14 pm

This guest post was originally written for our Russian sister blog, Альма-матер. The writer is an American student, Matthew Kupfer (who’s also currently a VOA intern!). He talks about some common mistakes made by Russian speakers when they’re learning English – and explains what Americans hear when they hear those mistakes:

I’ve spent a few months studying in St. Petersburg, Russia and volunteering in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I met many Russian-speaking students of the English language. Although I can’t claim to be an expert or linguist of Russian or English, I have noticed a large number of common mistakes made by people from countries of the former USSR speaking English, many of which will put a smile on the face of any American.

I strongly understand the problems and difficulties of learning a foreign language because I have studied the Russian language for three years. So, I have created a short list of four common mistakes for those who want to improve their English.

Incorrect: I feel myself bad.
Correct: I feel bad.

This is probably the most common mistake made by Russian-speakers, who literally translate the phrase “Я чувствую себя плохо” (I feel myself bad) into English. However, using the word “myself” in this context suggests you are physically touching your own body and determining from this how you feel. Of course, English-speakers understand what you mean, but this mistake still sounds funny.

To correctly use this phrase, Russian-speakers should try to remember that the English way of saying how one feels resembles an ungrammatical version of the Russian phrase: “Я чувствую плохо” (literally, “I feel bad”).

Incorrect: -How did the picture turn out? –Normal!
Correct: -How did the picture turn out? –Good!

Imagine yourself in this situation: you ask your American friend to photograph you, and, when he asks how the photograph turned out, you—like a good Russian-speaker—answer “normal!” But American English-speakers and Russian-speakers use the word “normal” differently: for Russian-speakers, “normal” means “without a problem,” “satisfactory,” and even “good.” However, in English such an answer suggests mediocrity. When we—Americans—hear that the photograph turned out “normal,” we think that it should be better. Therefore, in these situations, it’s better to say “good” than “normal.”

Incorrect: The woman fell in love in the man.
Correct: The woman fell in love with the man.

This is probably the strangest mistake made by Russians, and it may even seem inappropriate to English-speakers.

In the phrase “The woman fell in love in the man,” the preposition “in” suggests a geographic location where the act of falling in love takes place. For example, we can also say “The woman fell in love in the park.”

However, the correct phrase would be “The woman fell in love with the man. In this case, the word with shows the object of the woman’s love.

To correctly express this idea, remember that in English we say that someone falls in love “with someone,” not “in” or “into someone” (as is said in Russian).

Incorrect: How do you call it?
Correct: What do you call it?

This mistake is commonly made by Russians literally translating the phrase “Как это назвать?” (How do you call it/How is it called) from their language to English. However, this mistake is very common among speakers of other languages too, and Americans who hear this phrase can immediately recognize that the person standing before them is a foreigner.

An American with a sense of humor might answer: “Open your mouth, move your tongue, and simultaneously pronounce the word.” The reason for this is that in English, the word “how” suggests the physical process of carrying out the action, whereas “what” suggests that the name of the object (in this case “it”).

Luckily, correcting this mistake is not hard—just learn to say “What is it called?” in the place of “How is it called?”

Thanks to Matthew for taking the time to share his advice – and to translate it from Russian to English so we could share it with you.

Submit your own stories about learning English or coming to the U.S. using the form below, or email jstahl@voanews.com.

One Response to “What Americans Think When They Hear Common English Mistakes”

  1. [...] week we shared a post from VOA intern Matthew Kopfer, who talked about common mistakes Russians make when learning English, and why some of them are [...]

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