Probably every foreigner living in another country finds that the natives are ready to give advice on how to speak their language. But maybe Russians are more helpful in this regard than others. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “We don’t say it this way.”
At first I never argued with them. They were usually right. Then, as I began to know a little something about the language, I sometimes tried to show them from the printed page how it was proper to say what I said. That was almost always fruitless. Now I just smile and keep silent.
Yet I’ve found that about nine times out of ten when they say, “Russians don’t speak that way!” they’re wrong and I’m right. Now whenever someone says this to me, I comb the dictionaries. And just in case the dictionary gives a phrase proper for writing but not for speaking, or one that’s outdated, I listen carefully to conversations and to TV and radio dialogs. Sure enough, usually someone, maybe more than one, uses that same expression in the same context with the same meaning I gave it that occasioned the other person to call me on it.
What is it, then? My accent? My inflection? Probably one of those or a combination of the two raises a red flag for the native speaker. It’s also that Russian is a complex language with many layers, and even those who have spoken it from childhood haven’t always begun to mine the riches of their language.
Still, there may be more involved. Last year I had one of the best laughs I’ve had in a long time when I heard a teacher of Russian tell how she and her colleagues—all “experts” in Russian—got into an argument about how to phrase a document they were putting together. One said to another, “But Russians don’t say it this way!” The second answered, “But I speak this way!” Five linguists, six opinions. They almost came to blows. The recollection of this true anecdote has amused and consoled me to no end.