For the just-over six months I’ve been here in Moscow, I’ve fielded many questions from friends and family about what it’s like here. However, the biggest question was about the language barrier, and after my latest impromptu Q and A sessions, I figured this is the best time to address it.
To start, I’ve been trying to learn the language. Emphasis on trying. Given how it’s a Slavic language, it hasn’t been easy by any stretch; I will follow that up by saying how I’ve gotten the hang of it, so it’s starting to feel less of a struggle and transitioning more towards being able to contextually-pick-things-up scenario. Plus, knowing German has given me an invaluable springboard for knowing how to learn a language. Seriously, knowing German helps my Russian, but also vice versa-grammar now makes more sense to me. On Mondays, I spend an hour and a half with my awesome private tutor Alya, and on Tuesdays I have an hour and twenty minute lesson at EF’s main office. So, I do spend a decent amount of time in lessons, not to mention privately studying. Unlike English and German, Russian grammar is a bit more convoluted. While there’s the nominative, accusative, and dative cases, Russian likes to throw prepositional and genitive case my way. Yikes! Really though, Alya has been a great tutor, so it’s making more sense than I originally imagined. It may have been daunting, but a common theme of Russian (at least, in my personal experience) is that once you understand one concept, things start to fall in place. Having two lessons on back to back days is great, as I get a chance to combine what I’ve learned, which really bolsters my overall knowledge.
Even if my general vocabulary isn’t high, especially compared to some of my other friends, I have been able to hold brief conversations with Russians, in Russian. It may not be much, but I am proud that I don’t have to speak in English; my goal is to be as immersed as possible. What helps is that not only are my coworkers very eager to help (they try to speak to Brent, my fellow native speaker/roommate/all around awesome dude, and I whenever they can in addition to helping correct us/expand our vocabulary), but cashiers at the downstairs grocery have started to talk to us. Before you get excited, all we’ve really talked about is that I am American and I work for EF (if our company polo shirts didn’t give us away to begin with), but at least it’s progress. Hey, talking to the locals regardless of the context never hurts!
As I was walking back from work, I made a quick pit stop in a local, hole in the wall grocery store (of which there are several in Mitino, not to speak about the high proportion nestled in my actual neighborhood) for a Fanta. I’ve been there before, so I knew that one of the cashiers spoke English, but I was hoping that I’d get to speak in Russian. Lo and behold, he somehow knew I was NOT a Russian speaker, meaning, he asked me if spoke Russian and I somewhat sheepishly replied Я не говорю по-русский (“I don’t speak Russian”). From there, he started talking to me in solid English; he studied English back in school, but practice with a native speaker isn’t exactly forthcoming around these parts. I happily obliged his request to chat, which led to us sharing anecdotes. I will say that it’s always surprising how many Russians here speak at least some English. I will briefly diverge for a minute: even the cashiers at McDonald’s speak a fair bit of английский, which would be akin to their counterparts back home knowing a second or third language. I actually had one of the cashiers correct my pronunciation, which is both awesome and a bit embarrassing. So, it’s a bit sobering knowing that some Russians can communicate to me better than I can. Anyways, back to the story-it’s great knowing that I can have conversations with the average wo/man on the street. They may involve broken language, some gesticulating, and some embarrassed looks, but I’ve found that both parties can get their message across just fine.
How does this all tie into my current stint in Russia? I guess you can say that this is a very roundabout way of saying that it may not be all roses, but at least I am feeling like I’m part of the culture here. If anything, I feel more powerful by just knowing a basic smattering of Russian. So, when my vocabulary further increases, watch out world.