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When I was young, I learned that saying "I don't speak Russian." is as simple as

Я не говорю по-русски.

However, is this polite? Would it be more polite to say something along the lines of "I don't know how to speak Russian."? The difference being that the first could be interpreted as not wanting to speak Russian (even when able to do so) while the latter makes it clear that it's about being unable to speak it. Is this a difference that matters in Russian?

12

The sentence, “Я не говорю по-русски.” is neutral as for politeness. If you want to make it explicitely polite, the best way to do so is to add извините (“I'm sorry”) either as the very first or the last word of the sentence.

If one does not want to speak Russian for some (e. g. political) reasons, it is unlikely that one will inform you about it in Russian, but if one does, it is more likely that the sentence will be

Я не хочу говорить по-русски. or

Я не желаю говорить по-русски. (both meaning “I don't want to speak Russian”).

“I don't know how to speak Russian.” is

“Я не умею говорить по-русски.”

Still, there is no need to say that so as to look polite, “Я не говорю по-русски.” is not offensive in any way.

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  • 6
    “Я не умею говорить по-русски.” is not grammatical in Russian.
    – georg
    Feb 22 '15 at 22:18
  • 3
    @georg - Really? What's wrong with it?
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 22 '15 at 23:17
  • 7
    @georg - Are you kidding? I'm a native speaker of Russian, and I know what I write. Why on earth no Russian would ever say e.g. "я не умею говорить по-английски"? I heard it many times. "Я не буду говорить" and "я не хочу говорить" are different things, the former is a mere refusal, the latter is a refusal with the explanation of the reason. Why don't you write an answer of your own instead of pointless comments? Also, you haven't yet explained what is not grammatical in “Я не умею говорить по-русски”, and I doubt you ever will.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 23 '15 at 2:01
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    @georg - Here Anna Akhmatova quotes Alexander Block: "Поэт ответил с подкупающим прямодушием: «Оттого, что там будут просить выступать, а я не умею говорить по-французски»." А. А. Ахматова. Воспоминания об Александре Блоке (1965)
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 23 '15 at 2:51
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    @georg: perhaps, an even simpler form would be "Я не знаю русский", however the suggestion by Yellow Sky is perfectly fine. "Я не умею говорить по-" is a correct construction, and is often applied. It may only sound strange as no Russian will say that he can't speak Russian. I'd suggest you to provide justification for your claims.
    – Ilya
    Feb 23 '15 at 12:58
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The best way to go in case you're unsure is to say:

Извините, я не говорю по-русски.

I can assure you that it will be obvious from your accent that you honestly cannot speak.

I'd strongly advise against saying:

(Извините), я не (хорошо) знаю русский язык

This phrase is incorrect as in it is a word-per-word translation and it won't sound like this in Russian. Although it sure will show that you don't know the language. In case you do speak a little Russian, even if not well, you should say:

Извините, я плохо говорю по-русски.

Essentially, don't be afraid that somebody might think that you could speak, but just won't. Your accent will give you right away, and the person you will be communicating with will understand.

4
  • I think it's wrong to assume that if someone doesn't speak Russian they will have a strong accent.
    – Etheryte
    Feb 22 '15 at 20:03
  • The latter one is the most polite and preferred form.
    – georg
    Feb 23 '15 at 0:51
  • "Извините, я не хорошо знаю русский язык" is weird. It implyes you know it to be bad, having bad reputation. Or that you know it, but only from the bad side? The correct way to say would be ""Извините, я не знаю русский язык хорошо".
    – Anixx
    Mar 5 '15 at 10:55
  • This is -1 for the above.
    – Anixx
    Mar 16 '15 at 8:34
4

I agree with the Alexandra Soroca's answer, this is a standard polite form. To make any ordinaly sentence polite you would usually just add polite words as in извините, простите, будьте любезны, пожалуйста и т.д.

But never use Я не умею говорить по русски in modern Russia, many people think it's wrong and will try to correct you. It's a living language and what was a norm 40 years ago may not be true today. The thing is that in the past 20 years or so the form - Я не умею говорить на каком то языке became archaic. There is a trend in separating Уметь and Знать. Уметь is mostly applied to manual, skilled labour fields whereas Знать is becoming more associated with intellectual fields. Я не уметь готовить; Я не умею строить дома и т.д. Even though it is perfectly ok to say Я не умею решать задачи по физике more common form is becoming Я не знаю как решать задачи по физике.

Now, if you are interested in different forms of politeness:

  1. A super polite form, which is almost unheard of in Russia for the exception may be St Petersburg would be Простите меня пожалуйста, но я не говорю по русски.

  2. A standard polite form - Извините, я не говорю по русски.

  3. A regular, neutral form - Я не говорю по русски.

  4. A neutral, somewhat rude form - Shrug your shoulders. As a foreigner you will be excused, if you don't speak the language how can you say I don't speak the language.

  5. Rude forms - Отстань от меня, я не говорю по русски. Что ты ко мне пристал(а), я не говорю по русски, неужели по мне не видно?

  6. Super rude, offensive forms - Катись-ка ты к чертовой матери, не говорю я по русски. Иди на ***, не говорю я по русски, в пятый раз повторяю.

:) Add your own versions of polite and rude forms in comments

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  • I'd say the last version ("super rude") shows quite a good knowledge of the Russian language=) Apr 22 '15 at 14:21
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As Yellow Sky pointed out, the original phrase would probably not be considered as being impolite. However, you could rephrase your statement, to make clear that you simply don't know enough Russian, and say something like

(Извините), я не (хорошо) знаю русский язык

which means "(Sorry), I don't know the Russian language (very well)".

This way, it can not even be interpreted as not wanting to speak Russian, but clearly says that you are not able to speak Russian, which is what you actually wanted to say according to your question.

1

I would actually use the form "Извините, не понимаю" - "Sorry, I don't understand"

First, it's relatively easy to pronounce and short. Second, it doesn't imply that you may still understand what is told to you.

0

The best way to see for itself the validity of the all arguments for /not using the words and sentence constructions is to try Yandex search engine:

я не умею говорить по-

я не говорю по-

for different nuances in different contexts.

-1

One could also say: "Вы знаете, я ничего не понял из того что вы сказали, наверное потому что я не в совершенстве знаю русский язык."

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  • 2 commas are missing.
    – Yellow Sky
    Mar 4 '15 at 13:04
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    Yes, I agree with you. To improve this answer one should consider describing the history of his/her family and make a stress on the fact that you can't recall anyone that speaks Russian. Or, if there is such person, express your regret, that you (or your parents) had not learn Russian from that relative. After you finished with your relatives you can also tell about your school, college, etc. where you had (or had no) chance to learn Russian. The more details you can describe, the better answer you'll provide.
    – Artemix
    Apr 3 '15 at 7:25
  • This is so overcomplicated, that a person who cannot speak Russian well, wouldn't be able to remember such a phrase! This is, nevertheless, from the point of language, correct.
    – L_Pav
    Jun 2 '16 at 0:11

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