by Don  

One of the first words we learn in a beginning Russian class is говорить “to speak.” Although we should learn most verbs in Russian in pairs, in the meanings we discuss today it has no perfective partner. It conjugates like this:

Infinitive говорить
Past говорил
Present говорю
Future буду говорить
будешь говорить
будет говорить
будем говорить
будете говорить
будут говорить
Imperative говори(те)

Like all common words, говорить has multiple meanings, and one of its meanings is “to be capable of speech”:

Нашей дочке всего один год, она ещё не говорит. Our daughter is only one year old. She doesn't talk yet.
Марсианe не говорят, они общаются телепатией. Martians don't speak. They communicate via telepathy.
Хотя попугаи могут говорить, они не понимают значения своих слов. Although parrots are able to speak, they don't understand the meaning of their words.

Говорить also means “to know how to speak a language.” In English we say things like “She speaks Spanish,” where Spanish is the direct object of the verb. You can't do that in Russian. That's right. It is ungrammatical to say «Она говорит испанский язык». Sure, the Russians will understand you if you say it, but you will sound like an ignorant foreigner, and your Russian 101 teacher will never write you a recommendation. Instead they use special adverbs that start with по-:

Мама хорошо говорит по-норвежски. My mother speaks Norwegian well.
Я раньше говорил по-немецки, но теперь отвык. I used to speak German, but now I'm out of the habit.
Я женился на испанке, значит, наши дети будут говорить по-испански. I married a Spanish woman. That means our children will speak Spanish.

There are some languages for which Russian does not have these adverbs in по-, for instance тви Twi (language of Ghana), апаче Apache, чероки Cherokee, эсперанто Esperanto, and суахили Swahili (language of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda), пушту Pashto (language of Afghanistan and Pakistan), бенгали Bengali and урду Urdu and хинди Hindi (languages of the eastern Indian subcontinent). In that case one uses the preposition на followed by the prepositional case, although those languages are usually indeclinable, so you don't really know that it's prepositional unless the word язык is included in the sentence:

Наш сосед говорит на навахо. or
Наш сосед говорит на языке навахо.
Our neighbor speaks Navajo.
— Правда ли, что твой папа говорит на бенгали?
— Да, правда.
— Но как же? Ведь в США на бенгали никто не говорит.
— Ну, понимаешь, он работал в ЦРУ.
“Is it true that your dad speaks Bengali?”
“Yeah, it's true.”
“How can that be? I mean, nobody in the USA speaks Bengali.”
“Well, you know, he used to work for the CIA.”
— Где говорят на пушту?
— На пушту горорят в Афганистане и Пакистане.
“Where is Pashto spoken?”
“Pashto is spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

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