Being in a country that speaks a language other than your native tongue is always a challenge. When I came to Russia, I already had a year of Russian under my belt, and I was beyond excited to practice my skills and expand my knowledge. A month and a half later, I had learned a massive amount of Russian, and yet I still seemed to struggle with incorporating my new language skills into real life.
In many restaurants and stores here in Saint Petersburg, if you give any hint that you speak English, workers will often immediately switch to speaking English with you. While convenient, this definitely defeats the purpose of coming here on a language program — I’m here to learn and speak Russian, not English. Regardless of which foreign language you’re learning, it’s definitely tempting to switch right to English once you learn that they speak it as well, but it’s important to fight through that urge. You’ll never learn if you don’t practice and make mistakes.
The Russian language is infamous for being a beast to learn, and in my experience, this reputation definitely holds true. I’ve embarrassed myself countless times while stumbling through conjugations and searching for the proper vocabulary while in public, and yet the number of times I’ve been complimented on my accent and told that I speak Russian excellently by natives outweigh all the less-than-perfect speech attempts. Most people love it when you try to speak their native language, even if you butcher it a little (or a lot) along the way. As polyglot and language blogger Benny Lewis says, you have to speak “Tarzan” in your target language first, before you reach the promised land of communicating with ease.
Yes, it’s obviously more comfortable to speak in my native language. However, study abroad is all about getting out of the tight grasp of your comfort zone and putting yourself out in the world, literally. So why gravitate towards what you already know if the point of studying abroad was to immerse yourself in what you don’t know? Though I can say it’s been immensely difficult, I’m so grateful that I’ve taken that leap by speaking my “Tarzan” Russian and putting my foot down when they try to switch to English with me. Learning your way in a new language, breaking down those barriers, and finally finding yourself able to breach genuine communication with others in their native tongue is an incredible and unmatched feeling.