From Slavic languages to English: The common difficulties

I asked my best friend (who is Czech) not yet 2 weeks ago, why, every time I correct her, she still continues to ask the same question -“How old she is?” or similar questions such as “I heard you will go to the France, with who do you go?” and “How do you call this song?”.

Without seeming pedantic I could have let this slip (again), but being the restless English teacher I am, I felt itchy with pride and had to correct her. You see, there are grammatical rules in both English and Czech that cannot be allocated to the other. This leads to the frustratingly common yet easily correctable mistakes that might instead leave you on the contrary-itchy with shame. I am familiar with the Czech language, but these rules are also associated with other Slavic languages. My students from Slovenia, Croatia and Russia have in the past, made similar mistakes.

Keep reading and these mistakes will be dug-up from their lexical hole and discarded with greater caution. I will now pick out the top 4 most common mistakes, misinterpretations and slip-ups that I have experienced, and a little guide (if you will) that may itch that linguistic scratch.

(Disclaimer-I am not a linguist, but a teacher-All of this information is based on my subjective experience. So please, feel free to correct me and discuss in the comments section).

An observation on word order

Although the above examples can be understood, we have common mistakes. The former should be changed to the question “how old is she?” and the latter being the question, “who will you go with”. If you can spot the other one before I continue onto the next section, well done!
In English Subject, Verb, Object, Manner, Place and Time constitute the SVOMPT rule-that is, that we follow the word order for there to be meaning in an affirmative sentence.

We also express interrogative questions in a different way, in Czech it is expressed by their dative case. For example, they would say: “how many years do you have” which is a lot more indirect than in English. Mistakes are also manifested in awkward sentences like: “The guests will be tomorrow here” and “he ran to outside”.

My Czech friend is more familiar with the word order of her native tongue. In Czech as well as Russian (among other Slavic languages) the word order of the sentence is far less vital than that of the English language. This could be given to their denotation as synthetic languages. That being, “she is”, can be expressed in one word and by changing the structure of that word to modify its core which may have confused my dear friend. English is not a synthetic language which means that the word order is integral to the meaning of a sentence.

The use of articles

This is the big one. The Goliath of mistakes and one we do not actually have to dwell on for too long. Also, well done for noticing that “the France” is grammatically incorrect. Apart from Bulgarian and Macedonian, all the other Slavic languages (within subdivisions West Slavic, South Slavic and East Slavic) do not use articles. This causes huge problems for even the most advanced English speakers who sometimes forget to switch off their native language brain.

Other common mistakes include, ‘the’ before country names without other nouns, before languages and not before important place names (the Statue of Liberty, the Town hall) or even musical instruments.


Upon entering my classroom to teach my ever-curious students I prepared a little challenge. That was, if they could pronounce this sentence with a fluidity that the Volga river itself would proud of. The well recited phrase goes something like:

“A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed”.

Do not think too hard about the meaning of this sentence, it is gobbledygook. However, when pronouncing every ‘ough’ sound you begin to realise that either you are choking on your tongue or, they all sound differently.

This was very hard for my students. In fact my Croatian student pronounced them all like “Slough”, or “how” with a harsh throaty sound for the ‘gh’ making him sound like a curious mixture between a South London gangster and Scottish Highlander. It turns out, Serbian/Croatian is another phonetically spoken language, so words are mostly pronounced how they are spelled.

Where were you yesterday? I’m confused…

Okay, so one last point. This is something I noticed and read about through numerous forums and discussion groups. The present perfect is very hard to comprehend for the multitudes of Slavic speakers who are still wearing their Slavic hat.

Have + past simple verb forms create the present perfect and yes, that’s correct, we use it to inform the present on what events have been experienced or are still continuing at this present point in time. My poor students find this difficult. Take this example:

-“Now I finished at the University and I understood now that I missed it”.

This is an excerpt from a lesson with my Russian student, and you can clearly see (hopefully) that she has left out our lovely friend called the present perfect. This is a typical thing for Slavic speakers because to my knowledge, the present perfect is expressed by the imperfective form. She told me this is especially difficult from her Russian mother tongue. Why talk about the past in the past, about a past event that might be no longer in the past? Perhaps it is the English language that is the irrational elephant in the room.

Nonetheless, these mistakes once identified are very easy to correct. So, i hope you found this article somewhat satisfying or perhaps even frustrating with no questions answered.