The "Recognizability Factor" as a Tool
for Teaching ESL to Russian-Speaking Adults

Eva Lopatkin Easton

The purpose of this paper is to find recognizable connections between the lexis of Russian and English, based on semantic and phonological similarities. These connections are then organized into patterns, which Russian-speaking ESL learners can use to recognize lexical items (words) more easily.

The first section outlines the purpose of this paper and explains how the material was selected and organized.

The second section follows the Russian language through its history, showing language contacts between Russian and other languages, contacts which have resulted in mutually recognizable lexical items in Russian and English.

Section three outlines the history of language contacts through lists of words which came into the Russian language from foreign sources at specific times in the history of the language. The citation lists are taken from specialists in Russian lexicology.

The fourth section offers teachers and students four tables: (1) foreign affixes (prefixes and suffixes) used by both languages; (2) basic phonological substitutions between Russian and English, as reflected in orthography; (3) a list of indeclinable nouns; and (4) a list of words with double consonants.

Using the information in these tables, along with the lists of history citations, teachers and learners can learn to recognize lexical similiarities between Russian and English, and increase the comprehensible input which learners need to improve their language abilities.


Transliteration Table


A. Purpose

B. Choice of Material

C. Definition of Linguistic Terms

1. Language Contact

2. Borrowing

3. Loan Word

4. Foreign Word

5. Neologism

6. False Cognate



A. Loanwords of the 18th century and earlier:

1. 1550-1800: Huettl-Worth

2. 1584-1656: Poltoratskaya

3. 1682-1725: Bond

B. Loanwords of the 19th century

1. 1820s-1830s: Filin

2. 1870s-1917: Filin

C. Loanwords of the 20th century

1. 1917 and after: Krysyn

2. 1992: Khazanova

3. 1992: Schmemann

4. 1993: Gallagher


A. Affixation:

1. Prefixes

2. Suffixes

B. Phonological Substitutions

C. Indeclineable Nouns

D. Double Consonants





A. Purpose

This paper looks at the lexis (vocabulary) of Russian and English and finds that there is enough similarity between the two languages that Russian-speaking students would find it useful for learning English if these connections were brought to their attention.

An adult Russian ESL student generally perceives that there is a great distance from Russian to English, but a realization of how many words there are in common between current Russian and English can offer a learner a "bridge" to the new language. Russians are taught in their schools that their language has a large number of internationalisms, but there is an even larger "bridge" between Russian and English than many learners realize. Kellerman (1978, p. 40) proposes that such an understanding can affect a "student's effort and success" since language transfer is more likely, the narrower the learner's perceived distance between the L1 and the L2.

It's useful for teachers as well, to recognize that this perceived distance between Russian and English is not as great as the exotic Cyrillic alphabet might lead them to believe. A study of lexical items shows that these two distant descendents of Indo-European have certain historical influences in common; they especially have in common a number of procedures for acquiring and forming new words. With this information, teachers can help students lessen their fear of this perceived distance.

The similarities discussed in this paper are based on a search for phonological and semantic resemblance. Ringbom (1983, p. 207, 210; 1987, p. 35) stresses the importance of similiarity in phonology and semantics because students learn words more easily when they can attach a new word in their L2 to a word they know in their L1. Learners assume translation equivalence in order to make their job easier. Blum and Levenston (1978) come to the same conclusion, from observing the opposite phenomenon; they say that learners actually avoid words that have no semantic equivalent in the mother tongue. Gass (1988, p. 99) also talks about the importance of "semantic equivalents" as a "foundation on which learners can build their L2 knowledge." In addition, Carter (1987, p. 155) and Ilson (1983) discuss how students can use cognates as learning tools.

Current communicative methods may frown on explicit teaching of similarities, but Cohen (1987, p. 53) reminds us that learners search for equivalents and translate from the L2 no matter how much teachers preach against it; offering learners metalinguistic information about equivalents in lexical items simply makes it official. Learners use "hooks" no matter how much teachers try to avoid them in a communicatively-based classroom (Carter & McCarthy 1988).

Pelc (1993) suggests that "a methodology grounded in part in the application of ('explicit linguistic knowledge') enhances the second language learning process." Even Krashen (1989, p. 448) writes about "skillbuilding...outside the language acquisition device" saying that "learning appears to have some impact (p. 454)."

As a tool for skillbuilding, this paper offers a systematic look at the history of the Russian language, specifically the source of foreign influence on the lexis. It offers, as well, a beginning outline in similarity of patterns of affixation and phonology. Agreement as to importance of a systematic approach comes from various quarters. Giacobbe & Cammarota (1986) suggest that a systematic approach in acquiring L2 lexis seems to show more success than a non-systematic one. Norbury (1967, p. 2) emphasizes that "without systematic learning, there is no guarantee that serious gaps have been avoided." Gass (1988, p. 96) stresses the importance of having information to be able to improve "predictive and anticipatory skills." And last but not least, Kerim-Zade & Pavlov (1990, p. 388) strongly argue for teaching the "systematic properties of the lexicon."

Information about these "systematic properties" can help the teacher in the classroom. When Russian-speakers are learning English, they look for a "system" to tie the languages together and they expect the Amerian ESL teacher to know linguistics well enough to help them. Russians I have met particularly like discussions of lexical similarities. Many know etymology, Latin and Greek roots of international words, since this is the way they were taught Russian; as a result, they expect a language teacher to know these things about English.

In the Soviet Union (and now in Russia) lexicology, the study of vocabulary, has been considered an important element of linguistics (Weinreich 1980). Soviet books and articles on lexicology are abundant and readily available, though there is criticism from Western linguists that they aren't scholarly enough (Weinreich 1980, p. xi). Unfortunately (in my opinion), Saussure's (1986, pp. 133-134) call for the importance of lexicology has been all but ignored among American linguists.

If "the study of vocabulary (in linguistics) bears the marks of halfhearted improvision" (Weinreich 1980, p. 315), then it's no surprise that, when it comes to teaching language, "vocabulary has been the poor relation (Carter 1987, p. 145, p. 170), taught in a haphazard manner at best (Gass 1988, p. 95). It's unfortunate, since the Soviet material (ideological indoctrination aside) offers a goldmine of information for researching "systematic properties" which could be put to use in teaching lexis. After all, the importance of vocabulary can't be understated; you can't communicate without it.

The popularity of the communicative method has left the "teaching" of specific linguistic information on the sidelines, but in order for ESL teachers to help students recognize new L2 words, the teachers need to know the linguistic information themselves. Learners can't do it all on their own, according to Heien (1984, p. 52), who shows that language learners, even 4th year language students, do not automatically recognize similiarities which seem obvious to teachers; learners need to have these associations brought to their attention. Cohen & Aphek (1981, p. 234) reach the same conclusion.

This paper is a small step in looking for such similiarities, with obviously no claim to completeness. The paper was written out of personal curiosity and a desire to bring some information to the attention of teachers who might find it useful for their students.

B. Choice of Material

Since the purpose of this paper is to find lexical units appropriate for current Russian ESL students, this paper cites only words in use today which a native-speaker of standard Russian would recognize. All the words, with a few exceptions, are listed in widely-used Soviet dictionaries published in Moscow since 1987: Rodionova, Z.B. & Filatov, V.P. 1989; Smirnitskij, A.I. 1987; Zhdanov, I.F. 1991. The exceptions are words which are too new in the Russian language to be listed in a dictionary, for example "rey-bani" (Ray-Ban sunglasses) and "enkormen" (anchorman), cited in a recent New York Times article (Schmemann 1992, p. 24), or Russian labor camp slang, which is of special interest, but hardly likely to be included in an official Soviet dictionary.

The material in this paper was selected using the following criteria:

  1. Lexical items are written in modern Russian orthography only, in the form or spelling used today. Historical linguistic development of words is interesting, but is not part of the goal of this paper.
  2. Words have been chosen for some recognizability factor, that is, the Russian and English resemble each other in orthography and phonology, and in most cases, in meaning. There are examples of false cognates included as well, but they are noted. Naturally, complete phonological equivalence is not possible, as there is no such thing. A Russian does not form the letter "r" in the exact way an English-speaker would, for example. And absolutely no claim to full semantic equivalence is being made. This paper doesn't begin to, nor can it, address the cultural, historical, or pragmatic components of meaning.
  3. There are many nouns presented, mainly because the research materials cite more nouns as loan-words than any other form. When more than one form appeared at the same time, it was easier to list the simpler one - the noun. However, if the first appearance is a form other than a noun, that form is cited.
  4. Russian words have case endings which English words do not. In this paper, words are cited in the nominate singular form only, except in cases where the noun exists only in the plural form.
  5. Words cited are almost all from standard Russian, "the language of educated urban residents, in particular those of Moscow (Comrie & Stone 1978, pp. 10-11)." As a rule, Russians have a "negative attitude towards substandard or regional usage (Thomas 1988, p. 103)" and want to learn only standard forms.

C. Definition of Linguistic Terms

Anyone interested in the theory of language contact begins by reading the experts in the field, Uriel Weinreich (1953) and Einar Haugen (1950). Since then, the field has continued to be dominated by European linguists, gauging by the material on the bookshelves. The most prolific of the current European writers on language contact are Hakan Ringbom (1983; 1985; 1987) and Sander Rot (1991).

In the description of the history of Russian language contacts, this paper uses certain linguistic terminology, listed and defined below:

  1. Language Contact: When people of different ethnic groups and languages interrelate, we have language contact. This interrelationship can be personal, economic, political, written or oral, direct or indirect. Contact with another language doesn't necessarily guarantee the acceptance of that language. Social factors are also involved, such as psychological resistance. After World War II, for example, Polish-speakers in general fought against Soviet domination by not learning in school the Russian required by their new communist government.
  2. Borrowing: The term borrowing is used to refer to the instance of implantation of a foreign element in the receiving language, whether it is phonological, grammatical, or lexical. Borrowings can be whole words, "dispetcher" (dispatcher), or individual morphemes, "-graf" (-graph). The lexical borrowings in this paper come from two sources:
    1. words which Russian borrowed from English directly, particularly during the 20th century, "kafeterii" (cafeteria);
    2. words, usually Latin- or Greek-based, which the two languages have in common, but which did not originate in either--biologiya (bilogy)--so-called internationalisms. They exist in most West European languages. Two areas with many internationalisms are 1) technology, "astronomiya" (astronomy), and 2) politics, "demokratiya" (democracy).
  3. Loanword: When the borrowing is a lexical unit, it is called a loanword. Heien (1984, p. 84) defines them as "words whose common feature is lack of a Russian root." Loanwords are important to the goal of this paper because they "mirror the phonemes of the foreign language (Lehmann 1962, p. 213). Usually loanwords adjust their external form to the rules of grammar and phonetics of the receiving language; otherwise they are generally considered foreign words. However, Krysin (1965, pp. 111-112) shows that, in Russian, there are commonly-used words which haven't assimilated 1) phonetically, "kolledzh" (college), or 2) grammatically, such as the indeclineable word "menyu" (menu).
  4. Foreign Word: Linguists generally define foreign words as words whose external form preserves the spelling of the source language, or words whose foreign origin is still felt by speakers of the borrowing language, as in "kimono." However, as the definition of a loanword shows, this is not necessarily so clear-cut in Russian, and as a result, this paper makes no attempt to make such a clear distinction. Lexicologists themselves don't always agree into which category to place a lexical item.
  5. Neologism: Neologisms are "words that have appeared in a language in connection with new phenomena, new concepts,...but which have not yet entered into the active vocabularies of a significant portion of the native speakers of the language (Woodhouse 1972, p. 225)." The word "nigilist" (nihilist) [<Latin "nihil" (nothing)] was first used in an essay in 1829 (Shanskii 1971, p. 128); it was popularized in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1962), through his depiction of the radical doctor of the 1860's, Bazarov.
  6. False Cognate: Russians call them false friends.. These are words with the same or similiar forms in two languages, but with a different meaning. Russian "magazin" actually means store, as in Macy's; the Russian word for magazine is "zhurnal."