So How’s My Russian?

Russian books

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.

Russian adjectives

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.

Russian verbs of motion

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?


21 thoughts on “So How’s My Russian?”

  1. Hi Katie. Good to read your experiences.. Have been studying Russian for last 4 months here in Malaysia as i frequently travel to Central Asian countries for work. Fortunately, have got a good programme in the Russian Center here and have got an excellent teacher. She is really really good. Yeah, i agree, i got a good hold on the language from interacting and communicating with the locals in these Russian Speaking countries.. No alternate to the real thing.. it teaches you more the the classroom, though classroom provides you with the base i suppose. Yep, the grammar tends to exhaust you and so does the vocabulary. But i would say its a wonderful language.. я люблю русский язык.

  2. I gave up at the Cyrillic alphabet already.

    Now I am learning Italian as I will hopefully move to Italy in a few months. So much easier, so much faster progress, so much more rewarding.

  3. Hello! Loved reading your blog on the trans-siberian railway trip. I’m hoping to do something similar next year. I have a couple of questions that i hope you can answer. Firstly how did you get a 3 month visa for Russia? And secondly, what language school did you use in St Petersburg….or is there somewhere else you recommend? I’m going to take some classes prior to travel so that i can learn the alphabet! Oh…i can’t roll my ‘rrrs’, like for speaking Spanish. Will that be a problem? ….Ooops…i’ve ended up asking quite a few questions! Hope you can help!!

    1. Thanks Josie! I actually have a post elsewhere on the site where I explain how I got my visa. In short, I applied for a business visa instead of a tourist visa. However, rule changed last September and I believe Americans are now able to get multiple entry visas that are good for 3 years and allow for entries up to 90 days at a time. Check out the Russian embassy website for more.

      For the school, I took classes at Liden & Denz. They were ok, but not great. I would look around at other options if I were you. No worries about rolling “r”s – the harder pronunciations in Russian are various shchsh sounds.

  4. Katie,

    With all that effort you’ve made to learn Russian, together with your Russophone-area travels, sports interests and volunteering, looks like you may be bound for Sochi Olympics in 2014 as a volunteer? The Sochi Olympics organizers say they’re taking foreigners who speak some Russian:


  5. I’m so glad you’re improving your Russian language skills! In 2010 I decided to brush up on my Spanish so I started taking classes in Atlanta, 2 hours one night a week for a few months. Then I signed up for a week long class with a homestay in Quito, Ecuador, and that week did more than a month of the classes I took at home. We’ll see how it goes when I get back to taking German classes in a month or so!

  6. Wow the Russian language does look user friendly at all. The fact that you were able to speak the items on your list is incredible. I don’t think there any way I’d be able to learn to read or write Russian, perhaps conversation speak IF I had to. Good luck with the rest of your Russian goals.

  7. Katie — I applaud you and your language acquisition project.

    As you know, I am multi-lingual in “menu,” having the ability to order off the menu in almost any written language that is more-or-less Latin/Roman based (French, Italian, etc). I also am skilled at pointing, using the international language of “I want that.” This means that
    I can travel and eat.

    Talking to people in their language, is problematic, but I can say “Je ne parle francais” with a decent accent.

    Keep going!!

    1. Thanks Susan! It is definitely a challenge, but it is at least fun when I manage to have a conversation whre people understand me and I actually understand them back! 🙂

  8. Have you tried anki yet? It is a pretty cool program which uses a virtual flashcard system where you control when you will see the card again based on how well you think you know a word. For example, when the word “trabajar” shows up, I can hit the button “14 days” which is when I will see it again since I know this word very well already. But when “agotador” appears meaning tired, I hit the button “1 day” which means I will see it again tomorrow. There are Russian sets already made up by other users that you could quickly download and use or you could make your own. I have been using this program to relearn long lost high school Spanish words (and learning a ton more new words in the process) and it has been going great so far. Just thought that this could complement your studies.

  9. I was born in Russia, grew up in the States but we spoke russian in the house. I call my self an illiterate russian because it’s so hard to learn to read 🙂

    Now I’m talking to my kids only in Russian, but will need to hire specialist for them to learn to read and I’m hoping to sit in with them when that happens.

    I bet you’ll be reading way better than I ever will!

    1. I actually find it easier to read than I do to speak or listen. I find I can usually figure out how to say what I want to (although it may take me a few minutes or not come out exactly right), but chances are less 50/50 whether I understand whatever someone says back to me!

      I think it is much easier for kids to learn a second language, though, so great that you are starting yours when they’re young!

  10. I studied Russian in Kiev, like you. Unlike you, I was an absolutely beginner inspired by a recent trip to Russia. I had a blast. I thought the language was extremely difficult, and to be honest, I was overwhelmed by the 4 hour days. I went to Kiev for 6 weeks with the intention of being awesomely studious, but I ultimately ended up being more excited by the fact that I was in Ukraine and focused more on friendships and the culture than anything else. Others were able to pick up the language more easily.

    Are you studying at Nova Mova?

    1. Nope, I’m at Echo, although I looked at Nova Mova too. I can’t imagine being a total beginner learning overseas – I definitely felt more comfortable knowing some already beforehand.

  11. I studied French for several months while living in Montpellier, France, many years ago. I had a decent grasp of French from high school and college, but being in country and studying with a native speaker kicked it up to another level. The bad news: Back in the U.S., with little to no exposure to everyday French, that knowledge got lost quickly. The Internet helps, though. Watch a nightly news program as often as you can.

    1. Yeah, it is definitely very hard to keep up with a language when you’re not actually using it with locals every day.

  12. If you can yell or argue with locals in their native language, then I think you’ve made it! 🙂 We tried two ways – learning Spanish at home and then taking it while immersed in Bolivia. The second way was FAR better for us.

    I say that now as we are about to begin to learn Turkish while not in Turkey. We have six weeks to be able to converse…yikes!

    1. I think learning abroad is always the better way to go. I think I’ve learned more while traveling for 5 months and just a couple weeks of formal classes on the road than I learned in 3 YEARS of Russian classes in college.

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