Why learn Russian? When I started learning Russian as a young graduate student of history, achieving fluency seemed an unattainable dream. Now I’ve been functionally fluent for years but I’m working hard to try to up my game at the advanced level. My flawed, stumbling efforts leave me ever more humbled before this immense language. Challenging though the process often is, learning Russian has immensely enriched my life. This post is all about reasons to learn Russian. Why should the language be on your radar and how it could benefit you, too.
1. Russia itself: the best reason to learn Russian?
The land of Russia itself is a huge answer to the question “Why learn Russian?”. If you can, visit the country and get a taste of its tongue even if, unlike me, you’ve no intention of living and working there and becoming a lifelong explorer of the place and its culture.
You know the stats: the Russian Federation is the largest country in the world, covering about one eighth of the world’s land mass and spanning eight time zones (nine if you count the enclave of Kaliningrad in the West). There are a wide range of climates and (mostly vast) landscapes to explore.
Two world cities offer the visitor almost overwhelming architecture and art.
Moscow: the historic capital (until 1712), under whose thumb the surrounding lands were gradually gathered into the Grand Duchy of Moscow (predecessor of the modern Russian state) from the fourteenth century onwards. With its cathedrals, fortress (“kremlin”) and old, crooked streets, Moscow is a symbol of “traditional” Russia. As capital again from 1918, it was became the showcase for the Soviet take on modern, all decorated skyscrapers, stadiums and thoroughfares. Now it’s a throbbing, twenty-four hour metropolis, Europe’s largest city.
St Petersburg: the Imperial Capital (1712-1918), spectacular Venice of the North, with its “Petrine baroque” and neoclassical palaces, bridges and statues; a glistening facade, built on the marshes at great human cost on Peter the Great’s orders, to be his “window on Europe”. Two centuries later, just before the Imperial order came crashing down, it was the scene of a glittering flowering of the avant-garde in the arts.
Russians will tell you that St Petersburg isn’t really Russia. When I arrived in the Soviet Union for the first time, by train from Helsinki, it certainly seemed Russian to me! It was only years later that I got it, when I arrived on another train, this time from far to the north-east, after a month working in the town of Vologda in the Russian north, which still has its share of traditional wooden houses and where the odd proverbial cow really does still roam the streets.
Yes, most visitors never leave the two capitals, but there’s so much else to see. There are another thirteen cities with populations above one million. This is also a country of countless smaller towns, rising out of the woods and the fields and always (you sense) on the brink of being swallowed up again by rurality. That, at least was how the 280,000-strong town of Tambov, 300 miles south east of Moscow felt in a green high summer. I spent a month there, working in the local archives, being given vodka in the evenings and watching the Barcelona Olympics on a massive Soviet television.
Provincial Russia is rich with tradition and history, with interesting buildings and people. Some towns were closed to foreigners in Soviet times, like Russia’s sixth largest city, the two-million strong city of Samara, one of my favourites, on the banks wide river Volga.
Russia, they’ll tell you, is a country of villages (and Moscow the largest). It’s a country of snow, mud and dust. In the north, peasant huts, were traditionally decorated outside with carved window frames. Inside hung elaborately embroidered linen cloths and, in the “Holy Corner”, an icon. The stove was big enough to sleep atop. Onion-domed churches were of elaborately decorated wood, tribute to the creativity of the hardy Russian peasants with their rich traditional culture. I spent ten years of my doctoral and post-doctoral life studying them.
The disaster of forced collectivisation from the late 1920s has left swathes of the rural economy in a sorry state, but life goes on. Traditions were clung to or are being revived. They’re recreated by millions of Russians each weekend too, as they escape the inhuman scale of high-rise modern housing for a weekend at the summer cottage (the “datcha”). Lovingly built over years, stocked with home-grown pickled gherkins and tomatoes. Here you may find yourself drawing water from a well. You may use a dry privy, sweat it out in the smoke-filled confines of a “black” sauna or gorged on meat with “black” (that’s to say, Russian rye) bread and moonshine round a camp fire as your host picks up the guitar.
And here’s the key: the Russian language. Beyond certain tourist hotspots in Moscow and St Petersburg, English not widely spoken. Just from a practical perspective, your travelling experience will be much easier with Russian. When, for instance, your train arrives in Samara an hour earlier than you ‘ve told the person who’s supposed to be meeting you. (Well, I didn’t know that Samara was in a different time zone from Moscow and that all trains run on Moscow time.)
Practical, survival knowledge aside, the main reward when you have even the roughest of working knowledge of the lingo is the ability to engage with the locals at a whole new level. You want at least a gist of what that guitarist is singing, too.
Not that Russian is the only language, in those parts, mind. How could it be in a place so large? The Russian Federation, no less than the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it, is a multinational state, with many other indigenous languages. May they revive and flourish! Let Russian be your lingua franca as you travel, but be aware of the struggles of other, equally valuable, languages for survival before it.
2. Russian culture and customs: exotic lite.
To the explore from the West, there’s much that’s reassuringly familiar about Russia and Russian. After all, the country may have expanded it all directions but, at its core, it was a north-east European country, sharing a climate and fauna with its immediate western neighbours: long, dark, snowy winters, pine and birch trees, wolves, boar and bears. There’s a diet to match, familiar veggies and mushrooms, black bread. We’re on a continuum, the “vodka belt” that runs from Sweden, through Poland, Finland, to the Baltics, Belarus’ and Russia itself.
And yet. And yet. Familiar as so much of it is, Russia and Russian offer just that hint of the exotic.
Yes, this is a Christian country, but the Christianity is of the Eastern type. Orthodoxy was brought north from Byzantium and (is shared – in its various variants with some southern Slavic neighbours). Your first time in an Orthodox Church, standing in the semi-darkness before the high golden screen or iconostasis will create an impression: icons, incense; haunting song; open coffins. T here’s not much by way of futile attempts to sermonise and not much prudery either. The priests can marry and, in tsarist times, the impoverished, hapless cleric could well have been the biggest drunk in the village. Orthodoxy deals with life – and the state – as it is.
At first glance written Russian looks exotic, but not too exotic. It’s not an different writing system altogether, like Chinese. It’s an alphabet, but not a completely different one like Georgian. Look closely and it’s sort of familiar and no, I don’t mean those irritating backwards “R”s beloved of lazy designers (“Я” ya is the sound). Rather, of the 31 letters, seven can have roughly the same sound as in English (“а”, “е”, “о”, “т”, “м”and so on. Others may be known to you from Greek (“н”, “г”, “ф”, “х” ….). That’s because in the ninth century the missionary St Cyril, active in what’s now Bulgaria, took the Greek alphabet and modified it to reflect the sound system of the south Slavic dialects, spoken there at the time. The “Cyrillic” script was born and a new written language: Old Church Slavonic (the language to this day of Orthodox scripture and liturgy). It’s used (with minor modifications) by Bulgarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and (along with Latin script) Serbian. Many of the “smaller” languages within the Soviet Union were written in it and many still are. Don’t worry, you can learn it in an afternoon.
And back to that diet. It may be European but it’s also picked up influence from across Russia’s long and varied borders. The Russians are tea lovers, like the British, but here they drink it without milk with a slice of lemon. It’s best tried from one of the beakers made from very thin glass with a metal handle that you get on Russian overnight train journeys (did I mention the trains, by the way?). There is also food from the south, notably Georgian cuisine and the eastern flat breads and delicately spiced “plov” (pilaf) from Uzbekistan (a rice-based dish, boiled for hours with a clove of garlic).
Russian intellectual life is European. From the thirteen to the sixteenth century Muscovy missed out on the Renaissance that transformed the Western mind (a minor detail – not) but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Russian Empire went big time for the Enlightenment. Voltaire and Catherine the Great (reigned 1762-1796) were correspondents.
German idealism hit big time in the nineteenth century, its peak was that supreme nineteenth century ideology: Kommunismus. Like Germany and Hungary, two other eastern European countries trying to rationalise what they perceived as their “backwardness”, Russian thinkers flattered themselves with the idea that their country was chosen to follow a special role, a bridge between east and west, on a mission to combine the best of both.
Imported ideas – and the reforms “from above” that they inspired – always came up against Russia’s very different realities: the sparse population, the size of the territory and the lack of a canon law tradition…. Russia took European ideas and made them its own. Whether literature, art and architecture, politics or technology the results were often spectacular, whether successes or disasters.
If you love European culture but want something different, on a dramatic canvas, Russian could be for you. It’s Europe with a twist. Exotic, but still exotic lite.
3. Ohhh…the sound of the Russian language!
But how crass of me to be looking for reasons to learn Russian outside the language itself!
All languages are beautiful. If a language doesn’t seem so at first, it’s only a question of tuning in (what I call the “Chinese opera” effect).
A native English speaker will have to practise some of the intriguing sounds of Russian.
There are the contrasts between soft (palatalised or “light”) and hard (velarised or “dark”) consonants. Irish, I gather, has the same thing (and calls the consonants “slender” and “broad”). In written Russian, these are sometimes marked with special soft sign (“ь”) and hard sign (“ъ”).
Then are the two Russian “i” sounds, “и” (IPA: i) and “ы” (IPA ɨ). Russians speaking English always seem to slip into the first. In Russian, I’m sure I often try to pass of the English “i” (IPA: ɪ) for both, which no doubt sounds equally grating.
Russian is has those wonderful zh, ch, sh, shch or ts sounds (“ж”, “ч”, “ш”, “щ”, and “ц” respectively). These palatal sibilants are typically “Slavonic” and the reason why Polish has those eye-watering consonant combinations and strangely accented consonants. Doesn’t the Cyrillic alphabet do a better job here? The good news: these are not difficult sounds for English speakers to reproduce (as we have most of them all ourselves).
Some classify Russian – and English – as “stress-timed” languages: certain syllables, at regular intervals, are more heavily stressed than others (in contrast to so-called “syllable-timed” languages like French or Welsh, every syllable seems to be given equal weight). In words with multiple syllables, Russian has a syllable that takes the main stress but there can be secondary stress on another, like English. Russians, though, really like to give it to the main stressed syllable! There’s nothing more ripe than a succulent fully stressed Russian “a” or “o”.
Ok, ok, I’m no phonologist but, to my (totally unbiassed) ears, Russian sounded great from the start. Have a listen and decide for yourself!
4. Learn Russian because Russia is a land of song.
Another great reason to learn Russian is that language will open the door to a rich tradition of song….though the chants you’ll hear during an Orthodox service are Old Church Slavonic, that archaic, literary language that St Cyril first wrote down.
The Russian peasantry’s many tunes and lyrics were collected and studied by nineteenth and twentieth century ethnographers and in the Soviet Union various state-funded, professional ensembles were formed. Some go from strength to strength today, performing to packed houses the length and breadth of the country. Often they use traditional instruments such as the gudok (three-stringed, pear-shaped), the svirel (a flute) the volyanka (Slavonic bagpipes) and, most famously, the triangular, three-stringed balalaika. A recent development is the fusion of traditional sounds with electronic music, for example the music of the ensemble “Ivan Kupala”.
As in many European countries, in Russia the nineteenth century “discovery” of folk music by urban intellectuals fed into the classical tradition in the sounds of a romantic nationalism. Russia is famed for its nineteenth and twentieth century classical orchestral music and, as for words in the high tradition, the language can offer a whole new dimension to your engagement with the equally feted Russian operatic tradition.
Russian language rock and pop developed from the 1960s and 70s and awaits your attention.
As in all the Soviet bloc countries, irreverent, unpredictable Western-inspired “youth” culture presented a perceived threat to the regime. The Soviet authorities controlled recording (on the state label Melodiya). An underground scene developed, illicit distribution aided by the invention of the compact cassette.
Now, of course, there’s the full gamut of Russian-language rock of all types, including Russian rap. Should I also mention “popsa”, the Russian take on manufactured “bubble gum pop”? Despised by my sophisticated Russian musician friends and basically anyone of taste and half a brain aged fifteen or above but beloved of fourteen year old girls…and one or two others.
One of the first types of Soviet song I came into contact with in my Saint Petersburg student hall of residence was “the author’s song” or “chanson”. This genre – there are actually various branches – traces its roots to peasant songs and those of political prisoners in tsarist Russia. In its Soviet and post Soviet form it means simple acoustic guitar chords, with the lyrics dominant. It’s sung poetry, really, but always composed by the “bard” him- (and, though much less often, her-) self. It’s not always easy to understand for the learner, especially the allusion and slang of a master of the genre, such as Vladimir Vysotskii (1938-1980).
5. Russian has great literature.
A very obvious reason to learn Russian is the glory of Russian literature.
The earliest chronicles and epics from this part of the world were written in Old East Slavic (the parent language of Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian). In the medieval period, Old Church Slavonic was used (a form of Old Bulgarian) and religious themes dominated.
Secular literature in colloquial Russian started to appear from the mid seventeenth century. By the end time the tsarist regime fell, Russian was the medium for one of the World’s greatest literatures.
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) forged a more flexible and up-to-date Russian style in his novels, plays and poems and is considered by many to be the founder of modern Russian literature. He’s been a cult figure since before the 1917 revolution. With Pushkin, the consensus is that much is lost in translation, so you’d better learn the language!
The literary flowering known as the “Golden Age” began in the 1830s with Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), running through Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) to Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910). Then came the “Silver Age”, the last years of the Tsarist regime, with luminaries such as Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) and Andrei Bely (1880-1934) and younger writers such as Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) and Anna Akhmatova (1899-1966), whose tragic fates were inextricably linked with the revolution and the new order.
Many Russians take their literature very seriously and some students of Russia have argued that it’s the prime element in a modern sense of specifically Russian national consciousness (“russkii”) as opposed to a wider Orthodox identity or statist/imperial (“rossisskii”) consciousness.
Poetry seems more pervasive in Russian culture than it is in English. I’ve found that educated Russians can often recite from memory. Maybe this is because teaching methods in schools are often traditional, focussed on assimilating the cannon. During the brief political “thaw” under Khrushchev from 1953 to 1963, leading poets read their works to packed stadiums. Today, Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s diva-in-chief, sings a Pasternak poem to a packed TV studio.
Literature and politics have always been intertwined. When Alexander Radischev (1749-1802) wrote about the wretched condition of the serfs, Catherine the Great declared him mad and exiled him to Siberia. Nicholas I acted as the personal censor of Pushkin’s works.
The Soviets tried to control literature: only approved authors could get published, but masterpieces were still produced. Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) never saw “The Master and Margarita”, regarded as one of the great novels of the twentieth century, in print. Unofficial, typewritten, carbon-copies of banned, unpublished works were circulated surreptitiously as “samizdat” (self-publication). In each Soviet generation, there were writers who were persecuted, imprisoned or exiled, most famous among them the Nobel prize winners Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996).
The contemporary, post-Soviet literary scene is lively. I often find “post-modern” novels in the high tradition, such as those of Victor Pelevin (b. 1962) a real challenge: all intertextuality and (to me) obscure references, but there are also more accessible writers with a “new realist” style. Huge amounts of new popular literature appear, ranging from quality detective novels to more pulp fiction (great for exposure to straight forward but pithy, colloquial language!).
If you’re a reader, it doesn’t stop with belles lettres. Russian is one of the major languages of scholarship and science, the medium for important contributions to learning in ethnography, linguistics, cultural and literary criticism, mathematics and engineering.
There’s a strong periodical tradition, dating back to the thick, generalist monthly journals of the pre-tsarist period to Soviet high-brow subscription periodicals.
Huge amounts of newsprint are churned out. A stock image of the Soviet Union was of people in fur hats gathered round notice boards onto which the splayed pages of the day’s broadsheets were glued. Now, it’s the internet, with top bloggers who are household names (and often in a very uneasy relationship with the powers that be). Then there’s social media. “V kontakte” is the “Russian Facebook” but lots of my Russian friends are very active on planet Zuckerberg as well.
The Russians are so in love with the written word that it even spills into their visual art. Text featured prominently in the paintings of avant-garde artists like Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) or Liubov Popova (1889-1924) or, more recently, the large canvasses of Erik Bulatov (b. 1933). There is a very strong graphic design tradition of stamps, posters, magazine and book covers. Give your room a Russian makeover to get you in the mood!
6. Russian is great language of film.
You’re not a reader? Try Russian film!
The first film in Russia was of Nicholas II’s coronation in 1894. The last decade of the tsarist regime and the first, heady years of the Bolshevik order were not just an exciting time in literature. In the visual arts and still photography Russia was ahead of the game. A nascent cinematography was part of the scene.
During and after the Civil War (1918-1922), the Bolsheviks were quick to appreciate the power of the silver screen to spread their message in a country where many people were still illiterate.
The most famous of the early Soviet directors created masterpieces and employed innovative cinematographic techniques, most famously in “The Battleship Potemkin” directed by Sergei Eistenstein (1898-1948). There were documentaries, epics, Socialist Realist histories of revolutionary heroes, musical comedies.
Soviet cinema was always tightly controlled, especially under Stalin. Certain themes were taboo (drugs, sex) until the loosening of restrictions on freedom of expression (“glasnost'”) under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.
In the postwar world, the powerhouse studies were Mosfilm and Lenfilm. As the directors had regular salaries, they could produce self-consciously intellectual movies without having to worry about box-office takings. The greatest of the art-house directors was Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986). Many films in a more popular style were also produced, the best of which, from the 40s through to the 80s still resonate in the culture – and are much loved – to this day.
The Soviet film industry was not only a Russian affair. There were major studios and leading directors based in other republics, notably Georgia. They filmed in their own languages, but also in Russian.
Altogether, there’s a lot to watch. In London, I’ve been able to catch up on classic Russian language films in the various seasons at the British Film Institute. There was also a (contemporary) Russian film festival for a few years but, sadly, it seems to have come to an end. What’s going on near you? If there’s nothing, why not organise a screening of a Russian classic? You want to stay at home? Then view online! The site culture.ru has a wealth of unsubtitled Russian language movies, which Mosfilm has loads on its YouTube channel, with English subtitles.
The Russian film industry, like so much else in Russian culture, went through hard times as the old state funding system collapsed but is now back on its feet. With an eye to earnings the popular end of the “industry” has gone for Hollywood style pyrotechnics in a big way and can be just as thrilling – and just as politically crass – as its American counterpart. Feel good movies are back. Art house is strong again, too, with directors such as Andrei Zviagintsev (b. 1964).
Watch that screen! There’s surely lots more to come.
7. Russian is a world language.
Russian has world language status not just because of the language’s literary prowess. It’s also thanks to sheer numbers. I’ve seen differing estimates, but with about 165 million native speakers usually ranked 8th (between Arabic at 206 million and Japanese at 122). When you add in the second language speakers, it rises to 7th, with about 275 million (between Arabic at 300 and Portuguese at 235).
The first language speakers are not only residents of the Russian Federation and the Russian diaspora. Russian is the first language of many people in several of the other successor states of the Soviet Union. The largest numbers are in the other two “east Slav” countries: Belarus’ and Ukraine and, to the south east, in Kazakhstan. There are smaller (but politically potentially very significant) groups in Estonia, Latvia and Moldova, mainly as a result of deliberate Soviet plantation policies. About 15% of Israelis have Russian as their first language (most first or second generation migrants from the Soviet Union and successor states).
Kazakhstan aside, there was less migration into former Soviet States in Central Asia or to Georgia and Armenia. In all these places Russian was well established but, for the bulk of the population, very much as a second language. Its fortunes are now on the up again, thanks variously to economic incentives, convenience and an appreciation of Russian culture (which runs deep in Georgia, despite recent political tensions with Russia).
In the Eastern European “Soviet bloc” anyone over about 45 probably had to study the language at school and some, like my taxi driver from Belgrade to Novy Sad on my visit to the Polyglot Conference, are keen to use it. You may also unexpectedly come across Russian speakers in more far-flung countries which were allied with the Soviet Union, such as Angola, Vietnam or Cuba and others which enjoyed good relations, such as India. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, many students, especially in technical subjects, came to study in Soviet universities and had to achieve a high level of competence in the language. When I was living in the Hall of Residence of the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg in 1991, the guy in the next room was from India (first language: Oriya). He did a mean boiled chicken, with spices from Central Asia.
Since the end of the cold war, lots of Russian speakers have moved to North America and Western Europe where it used to be a rarity to hear Russian at all. Now your skills could come in useful there and there are many opportunities to practise, meet new people and expand your horizons. In London there are several freebie Russian newspapers and various meet-up groups and events. I’ve spoken Russian with Central Asian taxi drivers New York. What about where you live? Prick up your ears! You could well hear the language.
Despite the end of the Soviet empire, Russia remains a major power on the world stage which gives Russian heft. It’s one of the six official languages of the UN (read: opportunities for translators and interpreters in New York and Geneva). Russian has no official status at the European Union but proximity means there will always be a need for Russian there. The IMF maintains a website in Russian.
8. Learn Russian as an important language for business and commerce.
Russia is a big economy and that means opportunities for Russian speakers. With a population of over 140 million, the Russian Federation is the ninth most populous state in the world. In 2014, says the World Bank, it was 10th in terms of GDP.
The Russian economy has real problems, no doubt, over dependent on commodity prices and dogged by corruption and poor productivity. Russia is sometimes has the feel of a potentially fabulously rich country that never quite makes it. How many Russian brands do you know, aside from weapons and vodka?
While distance and climate have always made economic development in some ways more of a challenge in Russia than in the countries to its west, in another sense, economic life Russia has always been too easy. The forests were so expansive that it was a case of slash and burn and move on. The need to hold down the population was one of the causes of serfdom. Today the super abundance of natural resources, oil, gas, metals make for what students of development call the “resource curse”. What incentive is there to reform and innovate when such fabulous riches are on tap (at least for those in the in group)?
There’s a very long tradition of trade links between Russia and Western Europe. From the early modern period, Russians traded fur and timber against things that they lacked, like lead, tin, precious metals, textiles, firearms, and sulphur. In the industrial revolution tsars and the Soviets invited Western experts to help them set up their industries. John Hughes, a Welshman, set up the steel industry for Nicholas I at Yuzovka (now: Donetsk). After the fall of Communism, Westerners arrived, to help modernise the Oil and gas industries and to set up state-of the art banking and retail operations or, like me, to work in international professional service companies: lawyers, accountants.
If you’re a gold digger, maybe you’re too late. Both sides feel they got their fingers burnt in the post Communists transition. Russia is much more sceptical of offer from Western corporations, who themselves have their own complaints against Russia. With recent sanctions and the expulsion of Russia from the G8 group of large economies, Russia may not be so open for business as a few years ago.
Nevertheless, Russia remains a member of the BRICS group of five major “emerging” economies and in 2014 the EU was still Russia’s largest trade partner. Russia’s size and natural resources mean is always likely to be important in the World economy. Relations go up and down, but there are always going to be opportunities, especially for people who can combine good Russian with other marketable skills. So, yes, job prospects and an economic incentive may be very good reasons why you want to learn Russian.
9. Other Slavonic languages will seem like a cinch after you’ve learned Russian….
Russian can be your key to the wider world of the Slavonic language group. Compared with other Indo-European language families, the Slavs are a relatively homogeneous bunch, developing into separate languages from the parent tongue, Proto Slavic (or Common Slavic) relatively late (the tenth century). The very closest to Russian today are the other two languages in the “East Slavic” branch of the family: Ukrainian and Belorussia.
What does this mean in practice? This: if you learn Russian, you’ll often be able to get the gist of what’s being said in other Slavonic languages. I explored the reality of this (mistakes and all) out and about with Slovak in Bratislava.
The patterns of the formidable case system present a challenge in the early stages of your Russian journey. But then – whoahooaa! – if you start your second Slavonic language, you’ll find not just that you get not just a ton of vocabulary with the same, or a related, meaning but that you get a many of the structures your second language more or less for free.
In the meantime, when you’re at large in other Slavic countries, a bit of intelligent guessing will get you a long way. Warsaw has its “Rynek Starego Miasta” which sounds to you as a Russian learner something like “Rynok starogo mesta”. Dig that familiar vocabulary and those familiar masculine genitive adjectival and nominal endings, Russian learners! The Russian would mean “the market of the old place”. The Polish actually means the market/square of the old town (“Old Town Marketplace”).
In short, with one Slavonic language, you’re already “broken in” and you’ll be able to pick up another impressively quickly. Russian is among the most complex of them.
Hardest first (with apologies to the Poles): let Russian be your Slavic anchor!
10. Becoming a Russian speaker gives you membership of a (relatively) exclusive club.
In English-speaking countries, at least, Russian is not a mainstream “school” language. Leave Spanish and other such easy options to the masses. Leave Chinese to those mindlessly chasing the latest trend. Of course, real exclusivity only comes when you learn a lesser-used language (like Basque or Welsh) but, all the same, if you choose Russian you’ll be joining a relatively exclusive club of true connoisseurs.
Ok, I’ll stop the teasing 🙂 .
I’m just trying to say a couple of things.
First, not that many people in the English-speaking world take the trouble of learning Russian. If you do, it should go down well with Russian speakers and you’ll have a set of perspectives and cultural references which will be (for better or worse) quite unusual in your peer group.
Second, how about supply and demand? From my perspective as a first language English speaker, it’s true that the market seems awash with young Russians educated privately in England at vast expense, native or near-native English-Russian bilinguals with whom you, hapless learner, may feel you could never compete. That said, they’re not all going to want to work as interpreters at the UN (they’ll be far too busy doing boring things on daddy’s yacht or making serious money in hedge funds or technology).
There is a small but steady demand for those who have learnt Russian as a foreign language to an outstanding, or just a good standard. Learn Russian and the opportunities to work through it will be there.
As you decide to learn a language seriously, you can’t just tick off abstract reasons from a blogish listicle. This list of ten reasons to learn Russian may spark your interest and urge you along the way but your motivation, whether driven by necessity or attraction, needs to be personal. If they’re to endure, the reasons must be yours. You must answer the question “Why learn Russian” for yourself.
Either you already have an ongoing need or interest or you’re developing one. To get fluent, you’ll have to build the language into your life for the long-term and develop a learning habit that will keep you going despite the ebbs and flows of personal motivation.
So, have I been wasting my time with these words? Well, maybe I’ll have encouraged you to start exploring a bit or – if Russian is already on your mind or in your life – nudged you actually to start learning. It would be wonderful if that were the case. My love for the Russian language keeps on growing. I hope it will become your love too.
Thinking of learning Russian or already started? Let me know in the comments below.