My Russian education began in London some four years ago, as I entered university to read French and Russian. But, it is not where my Russian education ended.
London was the main base for my degree, studying for three out of four years in the British capital; it is where I gained my ability to use the Cyrillic alphabet and my basic Russian grammar understanding. I have been lucky to have had some amazing Russian native speakers teach me at university. I am grateful to them for their support and amazing instruction, but most of all, I am grateful to them for encouraging my studies abroad.
A year abroad is compulsory for many foreign language students, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why: my Russian language skills grew exponentially during my time living and studying in Irkutsk, Siberia. Yet, my teachers pushed me to explore other ways to increase my contact time with Russian in its natural habitat, so to speak, in order to truly learn the Russian language. From working at camps for kids to taking up my current position as a blogging intern in a Moscow language school, I have always take advantage of every opportunity to learn Russian in Russia, and here’s why:
Complete Language Immersion
Firstly, if you study Russian in Russia you have the opportunity to experience complete language immersion. Although in the bigger cities you will come across English, compared to most countries in the world, English is almost non-existent. Even in the capital it is hard to navigate without any Russian language skills, and this presents language students with an opportunity to vastly improve their skills.
Any language is best learnt by example (i.e. by listening to real Russian and not just to dialogues constructed especially for foreigners). I noticed, for example, that my use of the dreaded “Verbs of Motion” became much more instinctive and their concept became much clearer as I heard them used in everyday speech, as opposed to in strange sentences written in textbook examples, the sorts of sentences that no one has ever or will ever actually say.
I distinctly remember arriving in Russia for the first time after some eight months of intensive language study in London. I could already retell my life story to anyone that asked, I could tell them my career plans and what I did on holiday, I could even start to discuss current affairs, but I couldn’t read a pizza menu. Don’t even get me started on buying a SIM card. We relied on “language buddies” to help us with the fundamentals, whilst I prayed for the moment someone on the street would ask me to describe my family members and pets so I could prove that I did actually have some Russian language skills!
Yet, a month after I decided to study Russian in Russia, once I had spent time living with a Russian family and socialising with Russian students, the improvement was huge and my Russian had already become much more natural and not at all like stiff textbook dialogues.
When studying abroad and living with locals, language learning is efficient, as your entire lifestyle becomes your classroom, and studying is not limited to your teacher-pupil contact time.
Real Cultural Experience
Of course, that is not to say you will not be able to relax if you study Russian in Russia. Assimilating to the language will become automatic and much easier while living and studying in Russia, and you’ll get the added bonus of cultural experience too. Yes, that includes sightseeing in your city or traveling across the country on your weekend off, but studying Russian in Russia also gives you insight into the nuances of a culture and the lifestyle of the locals.
Whether you live in a hall of residence, with a family, or with Russian friends, the opportunity to see how Russians live is invaluable. I currently live with a close Russian friend who is studying at a Moscow university. Seeing how her studies differ from mine and comparing the intricacies of daily life in Russia and the UK have given me a better understanding of someone I already considered one of my best and closest friends. Whilst at university in London, we continually debate Russia’s position in the world, when in Russia I learn about the internal issues and things that trouble Russians, rather than just the things about Russia that trouble us.
For me, this is what it really boils down to: learning any language allows for better mutual understanding, literally, but also in terms of culture and mentality. Learning a language in the country in which the language is spoken, however, allows for real contact and engagement with the culture and the people. Languages are often treated as a tool, and that is true insofar as they allow effective communication and they help to remove obstacles to comprehension. Yet, languages are more than that, and studying a language remotely often leads to this fact being forgotten.
Languages are a crucial component of the culture of the people that speak it. Language is nothing without the culture that has shaped it, just like a culture relies on the language associated with it for its expression and conveyance. Learning the Russian language, therefore, should be combined with cultural appreciation. To look upon a language as no more than a tool is to not respect the deeper role it plays in the creation of societies and nations. Learning Russian is not exempt from this rule.
Whilst Russian is becoming an increasingly valued language in diplomacy and politics, it is must not be seen merely as a tool for negotiation, as that is to make no effort to understand Russian culture. I truly believe that a country, its people, its politicians, and its position can only be understood through an understanding of its culture. And, the best way to achieve that is to study Russian in Russia, to engage with and learn to respect Russian people and their culture.
This article was contributed by Liden & Denz Intercultural Institute of Languages, which was established over two decades ago and offers accredited Russian language courses in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Riga.