The Value of Learning the Language


I started off slowly, shyly uttering just a few words at a time. I was unsure of my pronunciation and lacked confidence that I remembered the right word or the right case or tense. My attempts at speaking Russian in those first couple months of my travels through the former Soviet Union were often met with disdain or annoyance, with one young man in Moscow admonishing me to “speak English, I don’t understand you.

I took classes four hours a day for two weeks while I was in St. Petersburg, refreshing my memory of the alphabet and basic grammar and then introducing me to vocabulary and cases that I was sure I never learned in my three years of college Russian.  But it wasn’t until I left the relative comfort of St. Petersburg and Moscow and headed east to Siberia that I really felt like I had to speak Russian on a regular basis. Upon arriving in Vladivostok, I quickly moved from starting every conversation with “do you speak English?” to just assuming they didn’t and doing my best to communicate in Russian.

Oddly enough, it was a night out in Girona, Spain a year later that made me realize how far I’d come in speaking Russian. Lost and slightly tipsy with my friend Katie, trying to find our hotel around 3 a.m., we encountered a couple to ask for directions. It turned out they were Russian and rather than try to muddle through in English, a language that was their second language, I quickly switched to Russian. By that point, it felt easy and natural for me.

Looking back on my travels through the former Soviet Union, the best thing I ever did was learn to speak Russian.

Moscow metro sign

Learning the language meant I could get around with ease.

Being able to read Cyrillic meant I could read street signs and subway station signs. I could easily determine where an exit was versus a transfer corridor in the subway. I could tell the difference between a clothing store, a shoe repair shop and a travel agency. I could buy bus and train tickets with ease and I could read a menu and know what I was ordering. I could ask for – and understand – directions when needed.

Learning the language meant I could stand up for myself.

Being able to speak and understand Russian meant I could negotiate taxi prices and protest when I felt like I was getting ripped off. I could scold the women who kept pushing me back in line as I tried to cross the border from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan. I could tell the Georgian taxi driver who picked up me and two Turkish men at the Turkey-Georgia border that one of the men was trying to rip me off, so the driver could look out for me. And when the hotel in Dushanbe lost my hotel reservation, I was able to complain and persist until they finally found a room for me.

Shing mountain man

Learning the language meant I could connect with the locals.

Speaking Russian meant I could converse with the friendly teacher who shared a compartment with me on the train from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude – even as we often needed my dictionary to completely understand each other. I was able to chat with the guy who gave me a ride back to Irkutsk at the start of a snowstorm, hearing about his family who had lived in Irkutsk for generations and telling him about Chicago. I had the pleasure of speaking with an elderly mountain man in Tajikistan about his thoughts on President Obama and the politics of Afghanistan and why he thinks it’s important for Tajik children to learn English.  I was able to serve as an interpreter between the French tourists I met in Kyrgyzstan and a friendly group of evangelicals who invited us to picnic with them in the mountains outside of Karakol.

watermelon at Jeti Oguz

Learning the language made teaching English easier.

While many teaching programs claim that you don’t need to know the local language in order to teach, the program through which I volunteered in Tajikistan required knowledge of Russian, Tajik or Farsi. And honestly, I can’t imagine how difficult my teaching experience would have been had I not known Russian. Being able to speak Russian made it so much easier to communicate with my students, who ranged in age from 10 to 36. If they were confused about the meaning of something, I could give them the translation in Russian. If I needed to give them instructions about an activity we were doing, I could explain in Russian. They were absolute beginners, not even knowing the English alphabet, so the idea of trying to explain anything in English just wasn’t possible. And when lessons were over for the day, I could sit around and chat with them in Russian, mixing in English words that they were learning.

Shing host family

Learning the language gave me confidence.

Above all, knowing how to speak Russian gave me an incredible boost of confidence as I traveled through the former Soviet Union solo. The longer I traveled, the more I spoke Russian on a regular basis and the more my confidence grew.  As nervous as I got about obtaining visas or crossing borders, I was never really concerned about my ability to communicate.  I was confident I could handle just about any situation that came my way.

The value of learning the language was greater than I ever could have imagined.

20 thoughts on “The Value of Learning the Language”

  1. All great reasons to learn a language! Having basic skills and not being afraid to use them opens doors and makes getting around much easier. For me speaking another language is also simply fun. 🙂

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  3. This is beautiful, I couldn’t agree more, learning the local language is key. So far I’ve only ever traveled in places where I had to speak french, english, or spanish, all of which I speak. When in Senegal i tried to learn a little Wolof, but you could easily get by with french. i’m very excited to be lost in a culture and absolutely not understand what’s happening, and I’m excited to learn more languages, but sometimes I wonder how many languages one can learn before one’s brain explodes.

  4. Great post, Katie. I lived in Korea for a few years and I was a huge advocate for learning the language. Culture is embedded in language, and there are so many opportunities that I would have missed out on if it wasn’t for the effort I made to learn Korean. Even when I travel I encounter Korean speakers– like some Mongolians I recently met who couldn’t speak English but had worked and studied in Korea for several years. Props to you for encouraging others to make a solid effort to learn the language abroad. Good luck with your Russian!

  5. Absolutely, I could not agree with you more on this. Learning the local language or at least the basics makes a huge difference and a great travel experience.

  6. The added value of knowing Russian is also being able to enjoy the tourist side of the place. All Russia, Belarus, Ukraine are open to you.

  7. We would love to learn another language, but it’s a lot of work, and when we might only be in a country for a month or two we tend to only pick up what we need to know.

    I know the benefit of learning the language would be immeasurable and really improve our experiences.

    1. Agree, it’s definitely a lot of work! For me, since I was traveling for a year in countries that spoke Russian as either a primary or secondary language, it totally made sense – and I incorporated language classes along the way.

    2. I’m interested about this, what’s it like in your job market? Aren’t there demands to know at least a second language? Coming from Europe, English is a must, but at least one other foreign language is also encouraged. At specialized elementary and high schools in my home country kids usually learn two foreign languages to at least some competent level – B1/B2. Even though I’ve come to learn that in Russia, for example, not many people bother with English as they don’t need it – the country is huge and if they travel, they usually go to destinations that are used to Russian tourists and can speak Russian to be able to attract business, such as Prague, Karlovy Vary, Turkey, Egypt, Thailand…

      1. No, the US does not put a big emphasis on learning a second language. When I was in high school (about 20 years ago), we had a choice between taking Spanish, French and German, but it was completely optional – not requirement at all to take one. So I took 5 years of Spanish (we actually started in 8th grade) and then another year in college before taking on Russian in college.

        I’m always very impressed by the people I meet when I am traveling who can easily switch between multiple languages – I remember meeting travelers from Belgium who could easily chat with Germans in German and French travelers in French, as well as with me in English.

  8. I definitely agree that learning the language is important to connect with locals. The more Japanese I learn, the more connected I feel to my community here. Plus, language and culture are intimately tied, so I find I understand Japanese people more as a whole, the more language I learn.

  9. I have long wished to have a second language. We tried a little while traveling in S.America in 2009 and did manage to negotiate rooms and meals but little else. We are planning for 6 months in Mexico next year and my goal is to leave there feeling as though I could get through a day without English. It will definitely be a strike of my not-a-bucket-list. Thanks for the encouragement with this post!

    1. I think what really helped me improve was getting to the places where I absolutely had to speak some Russian to get by – I couldn’t use the out of finding someone who spoke English, which is what I often did in Moscow and St Petersburg (especially as I was tutoring English at those times and speaking English with my hosts). I would often plan out in advance what I would say in certain situations and even visualize conversations in my head before approaching people – it helped a lot! Good luck!

  10. That picture of you at the bottom with the students is amazing! You can see how much they value your presence there. You must have had such an impact. Thanks for your interesting post!

  11. I am on the same board, the only difference is I have to learn Russian as I go as I’ve got a work here. I remember coming here in early April and not being able to say more than a few words, now, even though with bad grammar and limited vocabulary I’m chatting away both with colleagues and friends. I at least had an advantage as my mother tongue Slovak is a Slavic language making Russian word bending much easier to learn and understand.

    By the way, the Metro directions picture is exactly the one I see when I get off train to go home from work. Even the directions are the same (Beloruskaya, Circle line, from Prospekt Mira and Novoslobodskaya direction) 🙂

    1. Is the grammar of Slovak similar to Russian grammar? I think that was the most challenging thing for me – in English we don’t have the same cases as in Russian and I found that the most confusing.

      Funny about the Metro sign! 🙂

      1. In many ways it is, the cases are almost the same, even though Slovak is even more confusing as masculine, feminine and neutral nouns and adjectives have four different cases for each gender. That makes even German quite an easy language to learn compared to Slovak 🙂 Czech is also quite similiar.

        On the other hand, when my folks learn English, from what I’ve observed, they find various different tenses quite confusing as well as the language flow which they tend to neglect – they usually translate from Slovak to English for every sentence they create which makes for quite an unnatural flow.

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