Here’s something a little different this week. I thought it would make an interesting change to feature disparate and unconnected views on random aspects of life in Russia, drawn from the lives of various natives and non-natives alike. A scatter-shot approach, then. I’ll include a few of my own minor epiphanies, often countering my initial expectations. Every day’s a school day after all.
“But I don’t speak Russian, can I get by?”
This single issue controls the depth that you are able dive into Russian culture, and really: any culture. It’s a topic that will always arise, with the subtext of, “What’s the minimum amount of language work that I can get away with?”. Well, context is really the key here. If you are gliding solely through the most touristy parts of the most cosmopolitan centres on a short-term basis, then, arguably, you may be able to “get by” with the absolute minimum Russian language ability, but it’s an experiment that I wouldn’t wish to try and could not recommend. If you are being chaperoned in a guided group and are content to stare at cathedrals through impenetrable tourist-glass, then perhaps, but again, I wouldn’t recommend it.
If you wish to delve a little deeper or should you go off-track (willingly or otherwise), decide to settle in Russia, work there or try to make connections, then frankly: forget it: you need to do the work. Yes, in tourist-town they are used to bumbling foreigners and there’s usually someone within spitting distance who knows -at least- a few words of English. There are also others who are extremely adept at speaking our language, even if you can’t be bothered to attempt theirs, but you are only making things more difficult for yourself at every stage.
And the good news
You are also selling yourself, and the experience, short. I consider language an investment with a great rate of return, whatever sum you care to “risk”. Have you ever shared a joke with a Russian in their own language? it’s great! Whilst Russian language cases, verb conjugation, grammar etc are frankly: brutal, your (my) half-baked attempts are often understandable to them. They usually seem to “get it” in my experience, even if it’s pidgin-Russian by their standards. Oh by the way; you are aware of their ‘impossible’ Cyrillic alphabet, yes? Well that turned out to be one of the easier aspects to learn, relatively (and subjectively) speaking.
There’s some commonality between the stories of various Russian language learners, so much so that you can tick-off certain milestones as you pass them. Here goes…
Realising that the Russian cyrillic alphabet is not the hardest part. As mentioned above, it’s not that bad, but then real challenge commences with 6 cases, 3 genders, formal/informal speech and much more.
You’re friends tell you how well you speak Russian simply because they don’t speak ANY Russian at all, so even cartoon-Russian sounds good to them. Meanwhile you know that your initial, error-prone attempts are appalling!
Your Russian contacts tell you how well you speak Russian when you manage to say hello, introduce yourself and tell them your profession, but you know that in 5 seconds time you will run out of Russian words and then they will realise the awful truth!
Your Russian contacts give up and say, “Just say it in English please” – just when you thought it was going so well. Get used to this one.
You manage to string together two or three sentences in Russian then the person you are speaking to automatically assumes that you can are conversant and delivers 20 to 30 seconds of incomprehensible, full-speed Russian whilst you stare blankly at them.
You ask: “But why is that?” about any aspect of the Russian language then realise that this way lies madness. Possibly there is no particular reason, it just happened. “Because it’s Russian!” maybe the closest to the truth”. Either way you just need to learn it, and time spent puzzling over “why?” is not going to help. Get on with it.
You look for solid language rules to ground yourself with then you joyfully find some, only to discover that a particular rule applies here, but not here, here, and here except when these circumstances apply. But then you use this exception instead. So are there any rules? Well yes, but not always, and sometimes it’s different. So much for “solid”.
You are surprised at just how much “English” there is in Russian, in terms of Russian-ised English words, that is. They are everywhere, usually modified with a Russian ending. Often they have the same meaning as the original English. Sometimes, confusingly: they don’t. French and German received it’s fair share of absorption too.
You realise that being “good” at speaking Russian doesn’t mean that you are: A: good at hearing and understanding it, and B: good at reading and writing it. There are 3 mountains to climb.
You realise that your vocabulary is miniscule when you think you’ve made progress in casual conversations with friends, but then you watch some Russian TV and become aware that you’ve only just stepped foot on a vast new planet.
There’s undoubtedly more, but that’s enough disillusionment for one outing.