Five things I learned studying Russian in Russia (and a whole lot more)
Felix from Scotland has been learning Russian in Petrozavodsk for 3 months. Daily classes, meetings with volunteers and assistance to the English teacher were just a sliver of the full scope. Here 5 things he recognized about Russians, lifestyle and the language.
1. Russian grammar is very, very hard (and sometimes it seems to be just to torture me).
Is the noun of the sentence feminine or masculine? Am I speaking to a man or a woman?!? What case should I use for this?! Do I need to use multiple cases?!? Is it plural?!?! If so, which bit?!?!? Is it past or future tense?!?!?!? WHICH FORM OF THE VERB DO I NEED TO USE?!?!?!?!?! There are many questions to answer when constructing a sentence in Russian; and there’s no doubt that Russian grammar is extremely complex and alien, particularly to a native English speaker who has very little knowledge of the ways languages function. When I started learning Russian, I was overwhelmed by the number of things I should know before I even began to speak – it was very difficult and could have been exceptionally off-putting. However, through the teachers here, I learned, slowly but surely, how to construct a sentence in Russian; how to change adjectives to fit the gender of the sentence; how to conform verbs correctly, so that my sentence made sense; how to select and use the cases so that people would know who or what I was referring to. It became, slowly, somewhat second nature – although I still have a lot to learn! Using the language in every day life also helps to solidify the reasons why things should be a certain way – but more on this later.
Whilst I was in Petrozavodsk, I volunteered as a teaching assistant in English classes here at the Initiative. I think I learned, through trying to teach Russian children and adults about my native tongue, that English is just as complex as Russian, particularly when getting to advanced levels. This somehow gave me hope – if people can learn a language as complex as English, that is so dramatically different from their own (did you know English has TWELVE tenses?!), then I could learn theirs. People here are also exceptionally friendly (yes, believe it or not, Russian people are friendly!) and very patient, willing to listen, and to help me when I didn’t understand how or why I needed to do something. This, I think, is one of the main benefits of the immersion offered here in Petrozavodsk (but more on this later).
2. It’s a marathon, not a sprint – accept that you will never, entirely, know everything
Like I said before, Russian is an extremely complex language, and it will take me years of constant practice and learning to master – perhaps it will even be a lifelong challenge. But, that’s OK – and after three months here in Petrozavodsk, I feel confident that I can speak and learn Russian effectively. It’s not necessary to be correct all the time, or to even speak beautifully. I can be understood, communicate, and can manage an entire day now without speaking English. It will be clumsy, and often I will need to describe what I mean – but now, I understand people and (dare I say it), they understand me. After studying here and living with the language all the time (first thing in the morning to last thing at night), I have the confidence and passion to continue learning this difficult, complex, and sometimes illogical language. I know that I will never know every single word in the dictionary or be able to recall the verb I need without difficulty. I know that it might take me a long to speak like a native, but it’s work I am willing to put in; but at the end of it all, it will be exceptionally rewarding.
3. It’s OK not to know every word in the dictionary
Sometimes, people will say words, phrases, or even entire sentences that you don’t understand – at all. And that’s OK – like I said earlier, it’s a marathon not a sprint. At first, it feels like you’re absolutely in the middle of the ocean, barely keeping yourself afloat with your terrible, terrible grammar and lexicon. But, after a while, it gets easier – you can work out words from context, or they’re words you’ve learned but just said in a different way. It could be a word you read on the bus or saw on the television. This is where immersion can really, really help to accelerate your language.
4. Sometimes, classrooms aren’t the best way to learn (but immersion is also very difficult
One of the major, major reasons I feel my Russian improved so quickly was because I had a full-immersion experience in Petrozavodsk. Very, very few people here speak English at all, and even less speak good English. That meant that I was forced to speak Russian when I was outside of the school (my host spoke no English whatsoever, which was definitely an excellent learning experience), and I learned very quickly how to order in a restaurant, ask for directions, and all the basic things needed for life in Russia. Although learning in the classroom was definitely an excellent method for learning – I could make mistakes and was often learning new, unusual words – being out and about in Russia was what helped solidify the lessons in my brain.
I also had a tandem language learning partner – Lilia – who wanted to learn to speak better English. We spoke for half of our meeting time in Russian, and half in English, and we kept a diary (or, more often, I forgot to keep the diary and Lilia told me off) about what we spoke about in our different meetings – hers in English, mine in Russian. This method of learning was very strange to me at first, but it turned out to be an excellent way for me to get comfortable speaking and making mistakes with a friend where I would not be judged. However, after about a month and a half I got very, very tired of learning Russian and constantly having to think before I said even the simplest sentence. My brain was hitting a wall, where I knew what I had to say but it wasn’t automatic, where I was understanding people but sometimes they still spoke too fast or to complexly. The immersion was getting to me, and I really felt homesick for one of the first times in my life (and I’ve lived in a lot of different countries). I missed the comfort of speaking and writing without difficulty – I was getting tired of feeling like I was never, ever going to learn this incredibly complex language. However…
5. One day, you’ll realise – you speak Russian
I was at tandem with Lilia, and often we would speak mostly English after we had finished because my Russian was so terrible. However, one day, Lilia said “I’m really sorry Felix, I am very tired and cannot speak English today… can we speak in Russian?”. So, we did… and it wasn’t difficult for me. It was the strangest feeling to just suddenly be speaking and listening and understanding this language that I’d spent the last month and a half struggling to learn, without it being mentally tiring. The words were flowing, and if I didn’t know how to say something, I suddenly had enough words to be able to describe what I meant. I was speaking confidently and quickly and with fewer and fewer mistakes. That day was wonderful.
From then on, I began to speak 50/50 Russian/English, then 60/40, then 70/30. By the end of my stay in Russia, unless I was helping friends to practice their English, I was speaking entirely in Russian. Had you told me that at the beginning of the course I would have the confidence, the vocabulary, and the ability to speak a totally different language within three months, I would never have believed you. I never felt that I had a brain for languages, or the skills necessary to learn how to converse in a different tongue. After my time at EnjoyRussian language school and the immersion in Petrozavodsk, I feel that now I can confidently say – “I speak Russian”.
Thank you, Felix! It was a great experience for us too! 🙂