Learning Russian Is Important for International Students

The importance of learning the Russian language from the point of view of a foreign student.

Learning Russian Is Important for International Students

© Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

I have been enrolled in HSE since September 2021 and moved to Russia from Lebanon in October of that same year. And since my program is taught in English, I decided to take a course at HSE intended for foreigners to start learning the Russian language.

As the aforementioned course took place during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Saint Petersburg, I wasn’t able to get in contact with a lot of Russians in order to improve my use of the language, which faded over time due to little practice. These communication obstacles followed me during my second year in Russia and created some problems for me, especially within the bureaucratic system of the Russian state.

While I did obtain some basic communication skills that allowed me to have small talks with people, in addition to using translation software, the fact that I didn’t know the language resulted in having to rely on friends to facilitate the most basic tasks, like renting an apartment and getting a registration for where I live, a task that I couldn’t accomplish in time which resulted in me having to leave the country and await a re-issuance of a new visa.

In comparison, while I was studying in Spain, I learned the language and that helped me a lot in managing my tasks and conducting my responsibilities towards the Spanish state, whether those relating to the immigration process, or others relating to the academic life.

Furthermore, while discussing the matter with other international students, mainly those who don’t speak Russian, it’s clear that they suffer from the same issue. A fellow student from Bangladesh reiterated his problems with acquiring the International Visitor's ID card that confirms the completion of the procedures concerning the State medical examination, fingerprinting, and photographing. Acquiring this ID card required hours of waiting and days of going back and forth to the center, where most employees don’t understand English, and among those who do, very few can speak the language. My classmate and I both had to go with friends who spoke Russian in order to translate to us what we had to do, and to translate our answers to doctors and personnel.

Moreover, there’s an aspect that few people realize. When residing in a new country, especially if the country is vast like Russia, traveling to other cities and experiencing the culture of other people plays a major role. Thus, I traveled to many cities over the past two years, from Moscow to Yakutsk, and while the language barrier wasn’t too bad in Moscow, where a lot of people spoke English and French which made communication easier, the difficulties were much more present in Yakutsk, where I barely met anyone with whom I could communicate comfortably in another language. Even in a historically important city like Volgograd, where many tourists go to revel in the greatness of the battle of Stalingrad that changed the tide of the second world war and ensured the defeat of Nazism, the language barrier took away from that experience as even guided tours in English were hard to come by.

Finally, Russia is a great country that encompasses a large population and different cultures, but that also leaves visitors and expats alike with difficulties when they don’t speak the language, since the majority of the population isn’t bilingual. This is not a Russian issue to be fair, since the same problem occurs in the majority of countries with great languages, like the United Kingdom and Germany, to name a couple from personal experience. And while it's easier for French speakers like me to understand Italian for example due to the similarities between the two romance languages, the Russian language is extremely different than any other non-Cyrillic language, rendering the communication barrier much higher. Hence the importance for foreign students who are going to spend at least a year in Russia to learn the language in order to facilitate the move and to make communication with Russians much more enjoyable.

Text by

Firas Moukalled