Interference at a grammatical level: typical errors of russian learners studying the english language professionally

The grammatical systems of Russian and English are fundamentally different. English is an analytic language, in which grammatical meaning is largely expressed through the use of additional words and by changes in word order. Russian, on the other hand, is a synthetic language, in which the majority of grammatical forms are created through changes in the structure of words, by means of a developed system prefixes, suffixes, and inflectional endings which indicate declension, conjugation, person, number, gender, and tense. Russian therefore has fairly complicated systems of noun and adjective declension and verb conjugation, but the Russian sentence has no real fixed word order.

Thus, in order for typical grammatical errors made by Russian speakers studying the English language professionally to be illustrated, we addressed the book A Learner English: A Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems written by M. Swan and B. Smith. The authors made a thorough research on this topic and established that a great number of errors were related to:

  • interrogative pronouns;
  • gender;
  • number;
  • numerals;
  • prepositions;
  • quantifiers;
  • word order;
  • non-finite forms of the verb:
    1. aspect (progressive future tense; complex subject; conditional sentences);
    2. attributive function of infinitive;
    3. complex object;
    4. modal verbs of probability;
  • "there is" construction.

M. Swan and B. Smith started their research with the interrogative pronouns. According to the researchers, errors were related to the confusion between interrogative pronouns "who" and "which", e.g., "Who of you can help me?" (instead of "Which of you can help me?") [69, p. 160].

Another group of errors was related to gender. M. Swan and B. Smith underlined that nouns in Russian have a masculine, feminine, and neuter types of gender. It therefore leads Russian learners to make errors with personal pronouns, e.g., "A person has what it takes to play or he doesn't" (instead of a polite variant of the same sentence "A person has what it

takes to play or she or he doesn't/(they don't)") or "What time will a neurosurgeon arrive?– "He will be here in an hour" (instead of saying "What time will a neurosurgeon arrive?" – "She or he (She) will be here in an hour"). However, the researchers did say that there is no intention to be impolite, these errors are the result of not being aware that English is of the feminist type of languages, and it influences the speech of people greatly [69, p. 159].

The researchers also discovered that there are two types of errors in the grammatical category of number:

  • the discrepancy between uncountable/countable systems of two languages, e.g."I'll give you a good advice" (instead of "I'll give you good advice") [67, p. 159];
  • singular subject/verb agreement in the measure phrases, e.g."There are a hundred dollars in my wallet" (instead of "There is a hundred dollars in my wallet") or "Two million euros are difficult to earn" (for "Two million euros is difficult to earn") [69, p. 159]. M. Swan and B. Smith emphasized that when the person is talking about a total number, the singular type of verb is strongly preferred [69, p. 159].

Numerals are another grammatical issue of Russian native speakers studying English professionally. M. Swan and B. Smith emphasized that learners have a tendency to add the plural ending "-s" to such words as "hundred""thousand""million", and "billion" due to influence of the Russian language, e.g., "A few thousands" (for "A few thousand") or "Twenty millions" (instead of "Twenty million") [69, pp. 159-160]. The authors of the book explained that Russians do not follow the rule which dictates an exact number requires no "-s" to be added.

In accordance with researchers the Russian learners have also some difficulties with correct choice of prepositions: no difference is made between "in" and "at", "on" and "of", "on" and "for", and frequently omit on-preposition. For example, "Summer is over. Now all the children are at school again" (instead of a more precise variant "Summer is over. Now all the children are in school again"); or "You can run item analyses of tests that include single or multiple attempts, question sets, random blocks" (for "You can run item analyses on tests that in-

clude single or multiple attempts, question sets, random blocks"); or "I should look into it with the books. Do we have books for this?" (meaning, "I should look into it with the books. Do we have books on this?"); or "Can you comment this?" (for "Can you comment on this?") [69, p. 160].

Another category in which Russian native speakers have a tendency to commit errors occasionally is the quantifiers. M. Swan and Smith emphasized that ways of talking about quantities and amounts usually cause considerable difficulty. They marked that the common error to write was the wrong use of particle "of (the)" with "all""many""most""some". For example, "Most of students we asked in this survey want to give up smoking" (for "Most of the students we asked in this survey want to give up smoking") or "Some of waste comes from industry" (instead of "Some waste comes from industry") [69, p. 161]. They suggested that it happens because Russian learners do not feel where and how such kind of clarification should be used.

Speaking of the word order M. Swan and B. Smith named two areas of constant errors:

  • clause-final prepositions/particles cause problems of style, e.g."Do you have any idea for what this is?" (meaning, "Do you have any idea what this is for?"), or "This is a pleasant city to live" (instead of "This is a pleasant city to live in"), or "You'll go before Viktor and tell him exactly what I tell you" (for "You'll go before Viktor and tell him exactly what I tell you to") [69, pp. 161-162]. M. Swan and B. Smith explained that such errors occur in the speech of Russians because this style of writing is odd for the Russian language [69, p. 162];
  • verbs and complements are separated by adverbials, e.g."I hear every day the bells ring from my room" (instead of "I hear the bells ring from my room every day") [69, p. 162].

Even though M. Swan and B. Smith did pay great attention to all sections of grammar that cause Russians any kinds of difficulties, much of their research was drawn to non-finite forms of the verb because, according to them, 71% of errors belonging to this area:

  • category of aspect (progressive future tense; complex subject; conditional sentences);
  • attributive function of the infinitive;
  • complex object;
  • modal verbs of probability.

M. Swan and B. Smith included three areas where error had been made in the category of aspect.

The first group of inaccuracies revealed was of the use of progressive future tense. M. Swan and B. Smith did say the following: "... The verb system in Russian is mainly built on the notion of aspect. This makes a contrast between actions which are uncompleted (imperfective aspect) and those which are completed (perfective aspect)..." [69, p. 166]. In other words, a progressiveness of the action is represented by affixation because there are almost no verbs in Russian which possess the form of progressiveness on their own. Moreover, researchers underlined that sometimes the Russian verb "быть" ("to be") is used to build progressive future tense forms [69, p. 166]. This therefore leads Russian native speakers studying English professionally to make an amount of errors, e.g., "I'll work at home at two o'clock" (instead of "I'll be working at home at two o'clock"), or "By next month, I am going to work as a principal in school" (for "By the next month, I'll be working as a principal in school"), or "This time tomorrow I will lie on the beach" (instead of "This time tomorrow I will be lying on the beach") [69, p. 167].

The second group of errors belonged to the complex subject. According to M. Swan and B. Smith, if there are "the more complex "-ing" or perfect forms within the infinitive constructions", the Russian native speakers are intended to make grammar errors. For example, "She is believed to write a new book" (for "She is believed to be writing a new book"), or "She is said to live here since childhood" (instead of "She is said to have lived here since childhood"), or "We happened to pass by and decided to drop in" (meaning "We happened to be passing by and decided to drop in") [69, p. 164].

The last group of errors relating to the category of aspects in which researchers indicated inaccuracies is the conditional sentences. They emphasized that since in Russian there is no need to compare actions to each other in terms of which of them happened earlier and

later respectively, this therefore causes Russians the following difficulties, e.g."When a teenager, I would like to know my father, who died before I was born" (for "When a teenager, I would like to have known my father, who died before I was born"), or "While growing up, I would love to have a sister" (instead of "While growing up, I would love to have had a sister") [69, p. 167].

M. Swan and B. Smith also inferred that the attributive function of the infinitive and the complex object have the same type of error in common, i.e., Russian-like grammatical structure (that-clause) is used instead of these types of infinitives [69, p. 163]. The researchers started a consideration of non-finite forms of the verb with attributive function of the Infinitive. They suggested that errors were related to using a Russian attributive subordinate thatclause instead of the attributive passive infinitive, e.g., "The problem that will be solved is of great importance for this branch of science" (for "The problem to be solved is of great importance for this branch of science") or "The methods that will be described were used at our laboratory" (instead of "The methods to be described were used at our laboratory") [69, p. 163]. They explained that this problem occurs because the attributive passive infinitive is unnatural for the Russian language; there is therefore no adequate word-for-word translation that can be provided for this structure, that is why, Russians tend to use the closest alternative from foreign language to convey information [69, pp. 163-164].

Then, the researchers mentioned one more grammatical erroneous nature of this type – complex object. They named two areas in which errors were met, they are:using a Russian objective that-clause, e.g."I can see that he goes across the street" (for "I can see him go across the street") [69, p. 165]; using the particle "to" after the verbs of sense, e.g."I could see him to go across the street" (instead of "I could see him to go across the street") or "I heard a professor to deliver his lecture on "Truth and Subjectivity"" (for "I heard a professor deliver his lecture on “Truth and Subjectivity"") [69, p. 165].

The next part of speech the researchers have drawn their attention to was the modal verbs of probability. They mentioned that "the system of modal verbs in Russian is simpler than in English, and interference may therefore cause errors related to simplifying a style of sentence", i.e., replacing a complex infinitive structure by impersonal sentences, modal verbs "could" and "have to", and conveying the infinitive modal construction in a lexical way. Let us take a quick look at it:

  • a tendency to replace a modal infinitive construction "can/'t have (said)" applied to express surprise or doubt. Since in Russian this type of surprise or doubt is expressed through interrogative particle "neuzheli" ("can it really be true") and expressive phrase "ne mozhet byt'" ("it is unbelievable"), the Russian learners utilize the closest alternative from their mother tongue to convey the English thought, i.e., the impersonal sentence, e.g., "Can it really be true that he has made so many mistakes in one sentence?" (instead "Can he have made so many mistakes in one sentence?") or "It is unbelievable that my friends have said "No"" (meaning "My friends can't have said "No"") [69, p. 168];
  • a substitution of complex structures transmitting different degrees of "reproach" and other ideas by using "could" and "have to", e.g."You could help the old lady" (meaning "You might have helped the old lady"), or "We could catch the train, but the traffic jam was terrible" (instead of "We could have caught the train, but the traffic jam was terrible"), or "You had to come earlier (for You should have come earlier"), or "The meeting had to be started an hour ago" (meaning "The meeting ought to have started an hour ago"), or "You had to make a special dinner" (for "You were to have made a special dinner") [69, pp. 168-169];
  • a substitution of complex modal structures "must have (said)" and "may have (said)" lexically, e.g."There is a great possibility that she has done well on the test" (for "She must have done well on the test"), or "There is a huge possibility that the file has been deleted" (instead of "The file must have been deleted"), or "I was maybe wrong" (for "I may have been wrong"), or "Maybe, they have got married in June" (for "They may have got married in June") [69, p. 169].

M. Swan and B. Smith finished their research with the difficulty related to the use of construction "there is". They underlined that even though "there is" construction has been learned, the learners still confuse it with "it" as a "dummy subject", e.g., "It is no need for you to stay late – I can finish this" (instead of "There is no need for you to stay late – I can finish this") or "It is nothing left to do but wait" (meaning "There is nothing left to do but wait") [69, p. 170].

Thus, in this paragraph we carried out an analysis of the book written by M. Swan and B. Smith and came to the conclusion that there are eight major grammatical areas in which Russian native speakers studying English professionally make errors. For instance, the Russian language makes an impact on the correct use of interrogative pronouns – that is, when there is a need to use the phrase "which of (them)", Russians have a tendency to opt for "who of (them)"; besides, in most of cases Russian learners are intended to apply the personal pronoun "he" to name all the English words that would belong to masculine gender in Russian; moreover, despite the fact that a grammatical category of number has been learned, Russians still have a countable/uncountable problem and do not feel for singular subject/verb agreement in the measure phrases; furthermore, the Russian language affects the inaccurate use of an “exact number" rule; in addition to the above-listed facts, Russian learners have some difficulties with the correct choice of prepositions such as "in" and "at""on" and "of""on" and "for", and frequently they tend to omit the preposition "on"; then, the Russian language leads English learners to make some errors in the grammatical category known as quantifiers, in which they are quite confused about using "of the" with "all""many""most""some". In spite of the fact that there are no serious errors with the word order, Russians have constant difficulties with clause-final prepositions/particles and also verbs and complements separated by adverbials. A last group of errors we considered in our analysis was the non-finite forms of the verb. Here it has been emphasized that attributive function of infinitive (attributive passive infinitives) and complex object may be grouped up together by the same type of error, i.e., the Russian native speakers studying English professionally applied the Russian-like grammatical structures: the attributive subordinate clause for attributives and objective clause for complex object; at the time, in the Complex Subject Russians tend to ignore the more complex perfect infinitive and "-ing" forms and replace them with the Indefinite Infinitive construction; furthermore, the same type of errors can be come across in the conditional sentences; moreover, a number of errors has been revealed in the modal verbs of probability – that is, they are related to replacing a complex structure lexically and with impersonal sentences, modal verbs "could" and "have to"; and the last group of errors is of confusing "there is" construction with "it" as a "dummy subject".



  1. Swan M.Smith B. A Learner English: A Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems. (2nd edition). – New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Year: 2014
City: Almaty
Category: Philology