Inquiring Minds Want to Know How to Ask Questions in Russian!
It drove our parents nuts.
Teachers and family friends, too.
Even reduced the toughest babysitters to tears and mumbles.
What could this dreaded thing be?
Lots and lots of unrelenting, unending questions posed by small children.
We all did it, and with good reason.
How else could we explore and investigate the world around us?
How else could we understand why the sky is blue or rain falls down instead of up?
But if you thought your question-posing days were over, think again.
Asking and answering questions is an essential part of learning any foreign language, including Russian.
But don’t ask why, just read on.
Why worry about how to ask questions in Russian?
Let’s face it, when you’re learning Russian, there are a million things to master: grammar, idioms, small talk. So why work on developing your question expertise? Here are two good reasons.
Questions are a key way to get information.
As young children, we asked questions of our parents all day long. Why? There was a big, unknown world out there and we were trying to understand it.
There’s plenty you want to be able to understand (i.e., ask about) in Russian too. As a tourist, you need to be able to ask how to get somewhere (and how to find the restroom). If you’re a guest in a Russian speaker’s home, you’ll want to be able to ask what food is being served and engage with your host. And if you’re studying in Russia or doing an immersion program, you’ll need to be able to ask about your assignments and get clarification in class.
Questions are the keys to conversation.
A conversation without any questions is going to be pretty one-sided. And probably over pretty quickly. So to maintain an actual conversation with a Russian speaker, you need to be able to do more than just nod and say “Да, да” (yes, yes). You’ll want to ask appropriate questions to move the conversation along, including relevant follow-up questions.
Conversation also requires responding to your companion’s questions appropriately. Which means you need to recognize a question when it’s asked.
So questions need to be part of every language learner’s repertoire. And luckily, learning how to ask questions in Russian is pretty easy for inquiring minds.
How to Ask Questions in Russian: A Full-scale Inquiry
So how to ask a question in Russian, you ask?
Just as in English, questions in Russian are posed either with or without a question word.
Without question words.
This is the simplest way to ask a question in Russian. Just take any phrase or sentence and use question intonation. For those of you who like to geek out on intonation constructions, this means applying IC-3 (yes-no questions). Unlike English, Russian doesn’t require inversion of the subject and verb to create a question. Rather, the question is created through intonation alone.
- Это дом. (This is a house.)
- Это дом? (Is this a house?)
- Ты занят. (You’re busy.)
- Ты занят? (Are you busy?)
And of course, don’t forget the Russian affinity for negation:
- Ты не будешь чай. (You won’t have some tea.)
- Ты не будешь чай? (Won’t you have some tea?)
Ready to give it a try? Check out these YouTube videos from learnrussian.org and R for Russian for some good practice.
With question words.
Posing questions in Russian without question words is incredibly easy, but it limits you to yes-no answers. So you’ve got to add question words to your Russian vocabulary. Luckily, just as in English, Russian has the five “W” question words: who, what, when, where, why.
Check out these examples of the five “W” question words in action, plus links to proper pronunciation:
- Кто? (Who?)
- Кто это? (Who is this?)
- Кто он/она? (Who is he/she?)
- Что? (What?)
- Что это? (What is this?)
- Что ты делаешь? (What are you doing?)
- Когда? When?
- Когда будешь дома? (When will you be home?)
- Когда играет Россия? (When does Russia play?)
- Где? (Where?)
- Где находится туалет? (Where is the bathroom?)
- Где ты родился/родилась? (Where were you born?)
- Почему? (Why?)
- Почему у меня болит голова? (Why does my head hurt?)
- Почему русский язык такой сложный? (Why is Russian so hard?)
According to my second grade teacher, “how” is not technically one of the “W” question words, even though it ends in “w.” (A point that was lost on her.) Regardless, there’s also a “how” equivalent in Russian, one that most Russian learners already know: как? As in, как дела? (how are you?).
And to keep things interesting, Russian also has some other, specialized question words:
- Сколько? (How much?)
- Сколько весит? (How much does it weigh?)
- Сколько стоит? (How much does it cost?)
- Сколько времени? (What time is it?)
- Куда? (Where to?)
- Куда идёшь? (Where are you going?)
- Куда вложить деньги? (Where to invest money?)
This question word is not to be confused with где. This Amazing Russian video explains the difference between the two Russian “where”s.
- Откуда? (Where from?)
- Откуда идёшь? (Where are you coming from?)
- Откуда дует ветер? (From where does the wind blow?)
- Зачем? (What for or why?) (The meaning here is different than почему.)
- Зачем ты это сделал(а)? (What did you do that for?)
- Зачем ты учишь русский? (Why are you studying Russian?)
This type of question is usually asked with incredulous intonation, as in, “Why on earth would you study Russian?”
- Чей? (Whose?)
- Чей это мобильник? (Whose cell phone is this?)
- Чей это ребёнок? (Whose child is this?)
Чей declines like an adjective and is used to ask “whose (is it)?” You can learn more about possessives in this Amazing Russian video.
- Какой? (Which or what kind of?)
- Какая у тебя собака? (What kind of dog do you have?)
- Какой фильм ты смотришь? (What movie are you watching?)
Like чей, какой declines as an adjective and is used to ask “which (kind)?”
And now, what to ask?
You’ve mastered the different question forms and even the various question words. So how can you put them to use? Here are some key questions that will help Russian learners at every level.
Questions for beginners.
As a beginner, you’ll probably want to focus on questions that help you get basic information, like how much things cost and how to get around. Here are some examples that you can vary according to what you want to ask.
- Сколько стоит? (How much does it cost?)
You can just point at anything and ask this.
- Как проехать на Красную Площадь? (How do you get to Red Square?)
- Где туалет? (Where’s the bathroom?)
An essential question for every traveler!
- Вы на своих местах? (Are these your seats?)
When you get to the ballet and someone is sitting in your seats, don’t be offended, just ask, “Вы на своих местах?” Trying to score a free upgrade at the theater is a long and respected tradition.
Questions for intermediates.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can focus on conversational questions and social interactions.
- To check up on a sick friend: Как ты себя чувствуешь? (How do you feel?)
- To ask a favor, for example, to borrow a friend’s car: Можно взять твою машину? (Could I borrow your car?)
- To your friend who just returned from vacation: Как ты съездил(а)? (How was your trip?)
Questions for advanced learners.
You’re ready for prime time! Think about questions that will help you understand nuance and detail in educational and business settings. And show off your cultural and linguistic sophistication by posing questions as a native speaker would (for example, by using negation).
- To (politely) question a colleague’s or professor’s idea: Вы не согласились бы, что…? (Wouldn’t you agree that…?)
- To ask for explanation or clarification: Вы не могли бы объяснить? (Could you please explain?)
- To ask for directions like a native speaker: Не подскажете, как пройти к…? (Could you tell me how to get to…?)
Now you’re well-equipped with the who, what, when, where, why (and more!) of Russian questions.
So go forth, and ask away!