Rhyme or Reason: Why I Study Russian
05 December, 2016
Rhyme or Reason: Why I Study Russian
As I come to the end of my stay in Russia and I look ahead to what my future may hold, I can’t help but ask the question: why do I and so many others study Russian? I am not the only one that asks that question, either… any student of Russian will be well trained in explaining themselves to anyone and everyone. When I chose to study Russian four years ago, it was more for the challenge of learning a language whose alphabet, let alone its grammar, was completely unknown to me whilst I simultaneously studied a language I had been getting to grips with for years. I never expected Russian to become my primary focus and, despite Russia already being at the forefront of politics and culture for a long time, I was amazed to see how the demand for Russian language grew exponentially during my studies. I may have chosen Russian on a bit of a whim, but for many of the students at my university, whose number is increasing with every cohort, Russian language presents various opportunities and comes with its benefits: even my whim has become a conscious decision and I continue to study Russian with its value in mind. So what are these reasons? What are the advantages presented by Russian language and how can they change your future prospects?
Perhaps the most obvious reason to study any language is for career purposes, and Russian is not an exception to the rule. Russia finds itself on the frontline of world politics and on the front page of newspapers around the world. No matter the reason, this makes Russian current: a country that can dominate the rhetoric of US foreign affairs and the chief news outlets’ media rooms is a country whose language presents opportunities in the political, economical and diplomatic spheres. But working with Russian is not limited to negotiating with oil barons and working with intelligence agencies. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not all spies and cocktail dresses. Or rather, I am pleased to tell you that Russia is also up at the front in the tech and creative industries, among others. Even from home, Russian becomes a valuable language: London, for example, is home to many Russian galleries, art dealers, antiques dealers, as well as to the Russian people with the money and desire to buy these things. Working in a cosmetics shop near Bond Street, I regularly used my Russian with both tourists and those who have made the UK their home. The Russian communities in some of the biggest cities in the world are always in need of local knowledge and guidance in Russian language, and many international businesses see the value of Russian proficiency amongst their staff.
Of course, Russian language opens up an even broader world of work, as Russia itself, as well as Ukraine and other regions of Eastern Europe, become possible job locations. Big businesses, political organisations and international commerce aside, Russia has a high demand for English teachers, native speakers being preferred. Even without a formal teaching qualification, you can find work quite easily in private schools and tutoring companies, and can even expect a rather comfortable hourly rate. In fact, Russia (and Moscow and St Petersburg especially) is one of the best-paying locations for teaching English as a foreign language. Of course, you can move to Russia with no Russian at all (many do), but when it comes to life in the Motherland, you’ll be hard pushed to find people that say it’s easy without a grasp of the language. Unlike other countries in the world, English is not spoken by that many, even in the capital. The top tourist destinations do not always have English ticket-sellers and even the Moscow Metro is only now starting to introduce some signs in English.
This makes Russian useful not just for life abroad, but also for travel. Despite the rather precarious political situation Russia finds itself in with the West, Russia is very welcoming to tourists and a visa is relatively easy to procure. But despite the best intentions of the tourist board and the amazing hostels and hotels across the country, Russia is not the easiest of countries to navigate and many rely on extortionate holiday agencies to organise tours. If you want to see the country through the eyes of a local, learning Russian is your best bet so you can buy your own train tickets and swap snacks with your neighbours on the Trans-Siberian. Learning the language of your holiday destination not only makes for easier travel, but also allows you to see a place with more insight and understanding. After all, language study is not just a matter of grammar, but a lesson in culture too.
Language is considered by most as crucial to the formulation of a culture so it figures that it should be crucial to its comprehension as well. Cultural studies and language learning are inextricably combined: you really can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) have one without the other. Whilst learning Russian, you will inevitably come into contact with Russia’s long and turbulent history; with Russian literature, which is considered around the world as being rich and diverse; with other arts including ballet, arguably Russia’s most famous export. Russian is therefore a wonderful language to learn for better understanding the culture, thus attracting to its study fans of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and historians specialising in everything from Ivan the Terrible to the Soviet Union. One student of Russian that I met said he was learning the language because he was a conductor and wanted to read original Russian operas and better understand how his beloved Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky thought. Indeed, with the understanding of culture comes the understanding of the mentality and thought processes of a people. This may help with our understanding of War and Peace, for example, and it may also help us to communicate with Russians we meet on our travels, but it is also crucial to understanding Russia as a country and its position on the world stage.
As we have already seen, Russia finds itself currently at the centre of an ideological conflict, a position that seems never-ending as newspapers are plastered with negative headlines and politicians treat Russia with suspicion. Who is right and who is wrong, who is to blame and what is the solution are irrelevant questions here. What is relevant is that political conflict in many ways lies in cultural conflict. As world leaders lock horns and lob insults at one another, I can’t help but wonder if they are even trying to understand each another. Language barriers obscure literal understanding, but arguably an interpreter can help with that. However, an interpreter cannot give much more than linguistic aid, and cultural understanding (or at the very least cultural respect) is, in my opinion, critical for resolving conflicts.
This is relevant to all languages and countries, but it seems especially pertinent in regards to Russia. An effort to engage with this wonderful and fascinating country could well lead to career developments, or it could allow for travel or cultural consciousness, but it could also help you to become a bit more open-minded, someone that sees two sides to the story and that can think beyond the realms of their native cultural (and therefore linguistic) mind-set. I think that is a jolly good reason to take up the challenge of Russian language and I am glad that I did. As I look ahead, my future life and profession seem pretty hazy and there’s no guarantee that I will even use Russian in the future, but that does not mean I have a wasted my time or will waste my skills: I will not have learnt this language without rhyme or reason. As long as my world has been opened a little wider, my mind stretched a little further, and if on the journey I have been able to teach Russians I meet about life beyond their borders too, then I consider that time well spent in the classroom.
Ellie, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Moscow