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One of my characters is Russian and speaks English as a second language. I know that people with Russian accents tend to leave out words like “the” and “a” because they don’t exist in Russian.

My question is, would it be annoying for a character to always speak like that? Would it come off as stereotypical or seem mocking? If so, what other technique can I use to portray this accent?

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  • A Russian should speak like a Russian such that the audience can understand that he speaks so because he is a Russian, isn't it?
    – Ram Pillai
    Aug 22 '20 at 23:39
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It's not annoying, no. Like Ram Pillai said in the comments, a Russian should talk like a Russian. However, don't try to convey the accent phonetically. That will get annoying pretty quickly and may come across as hurtful or mocking to some readers.

I suggest you look into common issues faced by Russian ESL students. This web site covers some common grammatical issues. I won't copy the website's contents as a whole, but other than dropping articles Russian students tend to struggle with tenses and auxiliary verbs (which they often drop), and also with prepositions.

As for qualities of voice, see point ten on this web site. Russian intonation tends to be flat with sudden jumps in pitch, which may carry over when the character speaks English.

English has vastly more vovel sounds than Russian does. If the character is self-conscious about his or her pronunciation, he/she may (not necessarily as a deliberate action) avoid words with difficult vowel sounds and replace them with words with more natural vowel sounds. Perhaps even choose words which are a suboptimal fit for the sentence (example: "I stroke kitty" instead of "I pet the kitty" -- 'pet' tends to come out as 'pat' whereas the 'o' in stroke sounds the same in both Russian and English.)

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How about she says it sometimes, but not all the time, because, say, she's taking classes to speak like an american. I am writing a book with a british girl that says Mum sometimes.

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  • This is a good question.....
    – user46541
    Aug 23 '20 at 11:47
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There are many levels of having an accent. I know people who always speak with such a heavy accent that they are hard to understand. And I know people who have such a light accent that you need to know about the language they speak and be familiar with the local accent where they live to detect the accent at all.

Most are somewhere in the middle, speaking with some accent but not all the time and not always to the same level.
Something I have noticed that when getting tired, my accent and mistakes become stronger and happen more often. The same I have noticed in others who speak a foreign language much of the time. And one more thing, when people have spoken their first language, they tend to struggle a bit more with their second language, often just for a moment. (And that is not just a second language but also when talking with someone who speaks their home dialect or local accent, while usually they speak in an other dialect or other local accent.)

So you can have your Russian speak with a very light accent, only noticed when someone mentions it, and only when tired, stressed or after talking with others in Russian you adjust the language he speaks with the mistakes you mention in the question or those mentioned in the link in the other answer. That is the way to avoid the irritating 'wrong' language in your text.
On the other hand, if you have them speak only rarely, it can be that you want a strong accent all the time, again by reducing the occasions they speak, you reduce the level of 'accent wrong language' mistakes in your text.

I find it annoying to read texts where I have to puzzle out every line written because it does not follow the normal language rules.
Best work it out to the level you are happy with. Your acceptance level may well be much higher than mine, and it is your book, not my acceptance you need to cater for.

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I think that you should make the accent the way you would like to. It would be cool to base it off of actual Russian speech in the best way you can, but you could try something else, that's not very realistic. I think that making special forms of speech using text is always interesting. I think you should make a russian accent.

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In writing there is no hard rule for how to convey an accent so much as is a matter of preference. It's okay to use phonetics to convey an accent but I would say don't lay it on so heavy that it interrupts the flow of your story. You can achieve the affect of an accent by slightly tweaking words. For example a German might pronounce the "Th" sound as a "Za" sound, so you could throw in a slight tweak in the dialog every few words. Za Winter vas cold. It's still readable but conveys the meaning without over-complicating the sentence.

You can also tweak the sentence structure the characters uses in their dialog. People who don't have English as a primary language will speak in an awkward manner. They may be understandable but their grammar might be out of sequence. They might stumble over idioms and miss the context of things that others who naturally speak will get. The point is to convey the idea more then be exact.

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