Question intonation in Russian. How to ask and understand questions like a native?

It is really impressive when a foreigner speaks like a native Russian.

Let’s discuss a very important topic – how to ask and understand questions in Russian.

The way Russians ask questions is different from the way English speakers do.

I will also show you how to answer a question correctly to avoid misunderstanding.

I remember when I started teaching Russian, I noticed 2 big difficulties with my foreign students, even advanced students.

Asking is more important than answering

  1. My foreign students were quite good at answering questions, but they were totally confused with asking.

And the real life is not a lesson – to feel free in a real conversation you need to ask questions more then you need to answer them.
Russian culture is the culture of questions. All Russians are a little bit philosophers. We have long freezing winters, long nights and short days and short summers, so we need to be philosophers and we need to joke to feel  warmer. Russians are always ironic.

We think that a person is smart when he (or she) is able to ask good intelligent questions.

The famous Russian questions are

Кто виноват?

Что делать?

Что будет с Родиной и с нами?

В чём сила, брат?

Сколько денег нужно для счастья? How much money is needed for happiness?

And the Russian  answer is «Кому как!» It depends on the person.

Understand Russian question intonation

  1. The second difficulty with my foreign students was that they did not understand a question when asked like in a real Russian conversation. 

For example, if I ask «Как давно ты учишь русский язык?» most learners of Russian will understand this because it sounds like “How long have you been learning Russian?”.

But the problem is that we never say so. To sound like a Russian you need to skip the word How (Как) and ты (you).

Как давно ты  учишь русский?

Давно учишь русский? This sounds Russian.

If I say this sentence with narrative intonation it will be translated as “You’ve been learning Russian for a long time”.

But the same words in the same order with question intonation make a question which means: How long have you been learning Russian?

Давно учишь русский?

And the answer should be Да, 2 года. Или Нет, 5 минут. Do not answer in short: Да или Нет. This sounds rude. This sounds like Get lost. I don’t want to talk to you. This question requires explanation.
Далеко живёшь ? Where do you live? (How far do you live?)

Далеко собрался? (Или далёко собрался?) Where are you going to?

So, to sound like a native Russian you need to be a philosopher, you need to be ironic and the last but not the least you need to be lazy – you need to skip interrogative particles and other unnecessary words if possible.

(Sometimes you can’t just skip particles).

Train your ear for the music of Russian

You may have noticed that intonation in Russian questions is very important. This is true. To be good at Russian you need to understand the music of Russian. Not paying enough attention to intonation leads to misunderstanding.

In this post you can find audio examples on how intonation changes the meaning in Russian:

To summarize, a simple narrative sentence can turn in to a question when asked with a different intonation. And which is more fun, the same words in the same order may form different questions depending on the stress.

Find examples through the link above.

Short answers to take time

And there is also a trick that allows you to take time while considering a detailed answer:

Где ты был? – Много где. В Америке, в Европе, в Азии, в Италии, на Кубе…

Или «Мало где.» Только в Сибири и на Байкале.

У тебя есть деньги? Do you have the money – Смотря сколько. Смотря на что 🙂 (It depends)

Всё ли понятно друзья? Is it all clear?

Ask me a question in the comments.



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