I spent last Sunday evening speaking Russian with Italians. And Americans. And British people, and of course, Russians. Since the beginning of the semester, I’ve been hearing about a language exchange that two of my classmates go to on Sundays, and last week I finally had the time and the energy to join them. As a formerly-shy person who sometimes still gets nervous in crowded social settings, I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of the meet up. I was more than a little nervous as I made my way up the stairs at J.P. Burger and Co, staying close by my friend’s side as we scanned the crowd for a place to sit. We hovered by a table draped in a Russian flag and talked to each other in Russian while we waited for a spot to set our drinks and strike up conversation. We didn’t have to wait very long. Two well-dressed young women, somewhere around my age, sauntered up to us. The moment they said “privyet,” I could tell they weren’t Russian, and their perfect hair and makeup let me know they weren’t American, either. After we made our introductions, they cheerfully informed us that they were from Italy and had only been studying Russian for a year. Several minutes later, their friends—one Russian and one Italian—joined our circle and I began to relax and enjoy myself. Though most of us had only been studying Russian for a few years, we managed to conduct our entire interaction without speaking English at all.
I know this interaction seems relatively minor, but although I’ve been here for two months now, I still frequently doubt my Russian skills. When I last studied abroad, I went to Japan. I knew absolutely no Japanese before I left so when I learned new phrases in class, it felt like a whole new world of communication was opened up to me. Suddenly, I could ask for directions, ask to borrow a telephone, or inquire as to the whereabouts of the nearest toilet. Every tiny language gain I made was enormous, because I was starting from ground zero. With Russian, things are a little (a LOT) different. Before I came to Moscow, I had two and a half years of Russian language instruction under my belt. Though a solid foundation, my progress here has seemed like a much steeper upward climb. I attribute this to the fact that since I already knew the basics before I arrived, my expectations of what I can and can’t communicate are much higher. Instead of being excited that I can ask for directions, I’m frustrated when I can’t convey how I feel about important issues or engage in a dialogue that’s not filled with “не знаю как сказать…” (ne znayu kak skazat” or “I don’t know how to say…”)
I can feel this becoming less of an issue, but regardless, there are days here when I feel like a complete child and even the easiest words and sentences don’t come to me. Of course, learning a language is incredibly difficult and even in an immersive setting, you have to try in order to make progress. The language is not just going to pop into your head with a full lexicon and perfect grammatical understanding one day because you’ve lived in a country for a while. I’ve met enough expats here to know that. However, I know that even though I have a long way to go, the gains I’m making here are significant. I had a dream the other night that when I returned to the States, my Russian was at exactly the same level it was when I left in January. I was devastated! However, I can already tell this is not the case, and while it may not be thrilling to ask for directions anymore, I’ve given them since I’ve been here, and that’s pretty cool.
At the language meetup with our new friends! Photo Courtesy of one of my new Italian friends, Francesca, and her selfie stick