How to Overcome the Language Barrier
The term 'language barrier' refers to any difficulties that arise when speaking a non-native language. Almost every person studying a foreign language has experienced this unpleasant phenomenon. The reasons for this problem include a fear of the unknown, a fear of mistakes, embarrassment because of one's accent, a fear of being misunderstood and much more. All of these problems are a psychological component of the language barrier. In this article, foreign students from different countries share their experiences and help foreign applicants overcome their fears.
— Where are you from and what is your native language?
Yesuigen Tsogjavkhlan, 2nd-year student of the Bachelor’s programme ‘Public Policy and Analytics’: ‘I am from Mongolia, and my native language is Mongolian.’
Thomas Vignes, 1st-year student of the Master’s programme ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia’: ‘I'm from France and my native language is French.’
Sarah Victoria Martinez Machado, 4th-year student of the Bachelor’s programme ‘Political Science and World Politics’: ‘I am from Venezuela and my native language is Spanish.’
— Did you have any difficulties learning Russian?
Yesuigen: ‘Because of the USSR’s influence on Mongolia in the past, most of my family members went to Russian schools and spoke Russian pretty well. Also, the Russian and Mongolian alphabets are nearly identical, so learning Russian was not a big issue for me. Mostly, my language difficulties come from ‘philosophical’ differences and understanding some old local memes.’
Thomas: ‘Yes, but so far, it's only because the language itself is very difficult and different from what I know. I'm currently studying at the B2 level and I still have a lot to learn.’
Sarah: ‘Yes, I think Russian is a very difficult language to learn, especially if you are focused on learning the language for academic purposes. However, I think that once you start speaking Russian in daily life, it’s easy to grasp it because you can relate to tangible facts. I actually spent almost six months trying to learn just the alphabet and how to read Cyrillic, so at the beginning of my journey in Russia, it felt like I was in a different dimension where I couldn’t understand most of the things that were happening around me.’
— Did you study Russian by yourself or did you have help?
Yesuigen: ‘My family, especially my late grandmother, influenced my language skills quite a lot. I went to an international high school back in Mongolia, and we had Russian kids studying with us, which also helped me practice spoken Russian quite a lot.’
Thomas: ‘I started studying Russian by myself and then I joined a class at St Petersburg University. Now, I'm studying the language at HSE University.’
Sarah: ‘I started studying Russian before I arrived. I had been studying for six months and I actually received a certificate for the A2 level in Russian. But when I arrived, I had a chance to attend a course in the Russian language for a semester at HSE University.’
— What language do you mostly speak in Russia? How do you cope with the language barrier?
Yesuigen: ‘In Russia, I mostly speak Russian as my educational track is in this language. Most of my friends and dorm pals are also Russians, so it is easier to communicate with them in Russian for me. There was some kind of a language barrier when I just came to Russia a year ago, which was highly influenced by the anxiety I had back then. I had many fears of messing up Russian grammar or sounding funny and so on.’
Thomas: ‘I mostly use English and Russian. I speak English with my friends and Russian when I have to—in the street, at the shop, etc. It's a bit difficult but with the level of Russian I have now, there is nothing to be afraid of.’
Sarah: ‘During the first two years in Russia, the language barrier didn’t seem to be a big problem for me because I was constantly surrounded by Spanish and English speakers. Usually, when Russians sense that you are a foreigner, they will try to avoid speaking Russian with you. That was a big challenge in the beginning. But after COVID-19, a lot of foreigners left the dorm, and to communicate properly with my roommates and other students at HSE University in a social context, rather than an academic one, my level of Russian actually was not enough. So I started putting myself out there in sometimes awkward situations where I don’t understand most of the things that are happening or what’s been said, but still, I try to engage. In that way, I think I managed to learn spoken Russian rather than the formal, grammatically correct language.’
— What advice do you have for future international students at HSE University-St Petersburg in terms of language learning and combating the language barrier?
Yesuigen: ‘It may be hard to overcome your anxieties when it comes to speaking a whole other language, but honestly, practice makes perfect. No one expects you to speak perfect Russian. When I understood that it was okay to mess up sometimes, and it is okay if someone doesn’t understand what you are trying to say on the first attempt, it's not a big deal. No one will judge you, and if someone does judge you, it is their problem.’
Thomas: ‘Don't be afraid. Even if the language seems hard at the beginning, it's extremely rewarding to reach a good level.’
Sarah: ‘My advice to other students that might be coming to Russia is that they should put themselves out there and try to force the Russian students, friends and people they meet to speak Russian with them and not to take the easy step of speaking English or using Google translate. This can save you in many situations and it actually allows you to have the fullest Russian experience, because I think you start enjoying activities and events a little bit more when you know the language’.
HSE University-St Petersburg recently reopened a Language Lab Club where students can practice and learn Russian with native speakers in a friendly atmosphere. Each club event ends with a summary in English to make it easier for participants to share their impressions and talk about what they have learned. Be sure to subscribe to their news channel to keep up to date!
Text by Polina Zakharchanka, 2nd-year student of the Bachelor’s programme ‘Public Policy and Analytics’