I first studied Russian in college, which was a long time ago. I was majoring in Russian & East European Studies and one of the requirements was to learning Russian language. The fact that the class met every single morning at 8:00 a.m. did not make it very appealing. Neither did the fact that the professor was an angry Russian woman with fiery red hair who just screamed at me whenever I made a mistake and gave me a look of disgust rather than actually correcting me.
I didn’t retain a whole lot.
When I first started dreaming up my current trip, I thought it would be a good idea to refresh my skills beforehand so I signed up for group lessons at a school in downtown Chicago. My group ended up being just me (good), but the teacher, an older Belarusian man, seemed more interested in teaching me Russian love poems than teaching me how to buy a train ticket or order a meal (bad).
I tried to do some self-study in the months leading up to my departure but in reality, unless you’re speaking a language constantly with native speakers, it is hard to get into a rhythm and make much progress.
So when I arrived in St. Petersburg in September, I signed up for two weeks of language classes, four hours a day. I was proud to test into a level just above pure beginner – probably simply due to the fact that I could at least read Cyrillic. By the end of the first day, a lot of what I learned back in college started to come back to me. By the end of the second day, I realized how much I just never learned in college.
Have I mentioned Russian is a really hard language?
Not only is the alphabet different, with letters that look a little Greek and that make shhhh and chhhh and zhhhh sounds, but the grammar structure is quite different as well.
Take a noun, any noun. Whereas in English any given noun will have a singular and a plural form, in Russian it might have over a dozen different cases. Nouns are not just singular or plural, they are also masculine, feminine or neuter – an idea with which I was already familiar from my years of studying Spanish back in high school. On top of that, cases may vary based on how a noun is used. In that sense, nouns may have different endings for the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental and prepositional cases. And of course adjectives have to agree with nouns, so they have all those different cases too.
And don’t even get me started on verbs – particularly verbs of motion. As my friend Brooke pointed out recently, there are like 18 different ways in Russian to convey the idea of going somewhere (yes, there is someone else out there as crazy as me to try to learn Russian). Russian verbs generally come in pairs, with a perfective and an imperfective aspect – a concept we just don’t have in English. Add to the confusion are all sorts of prefixes that can change the meaning ever so slightly. It is enough to give someone a massive headache.
I have been lazy.
My Russian language skills have not progressed as fast as I hoped and it really boils down to my own laziness. You see, it is easy to get lazy about speaking a foreign language when you live with people to whom you are supposed to be teaching English, as I did in St. Petersburg and Moscow. While I promised myself to speak only Russian when I was out and about, that was easier said than done. In many cases, the person I was addressing spoke English and spoke it better than I spoke Russian, so as soon as I started a conversation in Russian, they switched to English. It is also really exhausting to have to think so hard about every single thing you want to say.
I also had every intention of regularly studying my Russian verb and grammar books but in reality, once my classes ended, those books didn’t see the light of day until I was halfway through my train ride from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude. And they have been stashed at the bottom of my backpack ever since.
But I have still made a lot of progress.
For example, while I was in Russia:
- I bought a SIM card for my Blackberry when I arrived in St. Petersburg.
- I yelled at a cloakroom attendant at the Hermitage who wouldn’t get me my coat.
- I routinely understood when they asked me if I wanted a plastic bag at the supermarket checkout counter.
- I bought a pair of winter boots, which included trying on and asking for different sizes – and understanding when the cashier explained their return policy.
- I consistently asked for directions and actually understood where to go when I was told.
- I managed to explain not once, but twice, that an ATM machine ate my card.
- I bought a new SIM card when I got to Moscow after confirming that the one I bought in St. Petersburg would not work in Moscow.
- I bargained while souvenir shopping at the Ismailovo Market in Moscow.
- I argued with a taxi driver in Yekaterinburg over the right fare.
- I took my jacket to get the zipper repaired and my boots to get the heels replaced in Irkutsk.
- And perhaps most importantly, I had respectable conversations with several people along my Trans-Siberian journey, including Lena on the train; Vladimir who drove me from Taltsy to Irkutsk; Vitaly, my guide at Stolby; Olga, my host on Olkhon Island; the babushka who lived in the hostel in Ulan Ude; and a group of students I met in Yekaterinburg.
And I am not done yet.
I have signed up for at least two weeks of Russian classes in Kiev starting today!
I will be in class four hours a day while I live with a Russian woman who speaks absolutely no English. Without the expectation this time that I teach my host English, I should be speaking Russian full-time while I am here. I didn’t want to commit to more than two weeks initially, but if the classes go well, I have the option to stay for a few more weeks.
One of my goals at the beginning of this adventure was to be fluent in Russian by the end. I am not there yet, but I think I am still well on my way.
Have you studied a foreign language or tried to learn one while traveling? How successful were you? Any tips to share?