Let’s face it, equipping yourself with Russian language skills prior to a visit is a daunting task. There are disincentives to learning such a relatively complex language as a visitor; the principal one being that most of you are going to be just that: visitors, not residents, not workers on extended contracts, or individuals having cause to stay for a lengthy period of time, for any reason.
Why make all the effort for two weeks on an annual break that may only be a one-time excursion? Another prevalent (and incorrect) mentality is that, “Everyone speaks English these days”, so why bother learning Russian, or by the same logic – any language? Speaking as a Brit, It’s well known that our multi-lingual abilities are often shamefully inadequate when compared to our European neighbours (and those further afield too). I’ve frequently found that a foreigner’s (not just a European’s) native language, plus some level of English, is the minimum linguistic toolset that he or she will possess upon exiting academia. More embarrassing still (for us), an ability in 3 or more languages is not uncommon. By contrast, we may fall back on loops of loud pidgin English to get the point across (just why don’t they understand?!) – with perhaps a dash of mime thrown in for good measure (that’ll do it!).
So, I’m surely contradicting my earlier statement? And that, “Everyone speaks English anyway” is correct? Well, no. Just as today you will still find people who by their own admission are, “No good with computers”, you’ll still find Russians that never really took to English. Also, whilst the modern education system is pretty much “on-point” when it comes to equipping modern students; previous generations of perfectly capable, intelligent Russians may have avoided English altogether. They simply didn’t need it, or it was never taught. You’ll also find, unsurprisingly, that larger cosmopolitan centres -I’m thinking of St, Petersburg and Moscow have a relatively higher incidence of English speakers than some remoter towns deep inside Siberia, though don’t automatically expect complete fluency anywhere. Whilst the English language may be at the centre of your world, Earth is a big place. It’s sobering to contemplate that only half of the sites on the internet have English language pages, even more so that English language users on the internet are only 26% of the global total.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) graded foreign languages in four categories of increasing learning difficulty for native English speakers. Russian came fourth along with other Slavic tongues, -unsurprisingly. In the same category were Bengali, Icelandic and Zulu! That’s the FSI’s considered assessment of course, not necessarily a hard and fast “law” by any means. We each have different aptitudes, naturally. All things being equal (which they aren’t), the difficulty level would require around 1100 hours of class time to gain a “general” level of proficiency, according to the FSI.
The question, “Why bother if I’m only going to be there for two weeks?” can only be answered by yourself. It is quite possible to stay within your tourist “bubble”, be chaperoned around in a group lead by a guide/translator/interpreter and peer out at your surroundings whilst never truly engaging with the locals. You’ll see the fascinating sights that tourist Russia is famous for and no doubt come home with some great anecdotes, photographs and souvenirs. Then you can tick Russia “off” your bucket list and move on. If you are happy with the above scenario then that is “correct”, -for you. Frankly though, I think you’re missing out. Anyone who’s ever shared a joke with someone in the latter’s native (foreign) language will know exactly what I mean.
Incidentally, you may find a little extra encouragement/motivation from the locals,- as Donovan Nagel pointed out on The Mezzofanti Guild site:-
“In Russia I found that people expected me to speak Russian and the few times I asked if anyone spoke English I got looked at as if to say, ‘No and why should I speak English?’ …You’re forced to adapt and learn the language as quickly as possible if you want to get by.”