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From Russia with Love

From Russia with Love by Andrew Swift

In 2013 I made the bold decision to quit my job in the UK and embark on an adventure to an entirely new country, a choice which, unbeknown to me at the time, would take my life in a whole new direction. I set off on my journey I approached everything with an open mind but didn't quite expect to have learned the foundations of a strange new language 3 months after making that move.

Standing at passport control, in front of a stern-faced lady who didn't speak English and was wearing a full military uniform, I suddenly realized that living in Russia and not knowing the language was going to be somewhat of a challenge. Any Russian I had tried to learn using LinguaLeo before I arrived had vanished from my brain and I was back to level 0.

At first, I had only been offered a 3-month placement working as a teacher in a summer camp for children and teenagers and my visa was for that duration only. Despite this, I noticed that day by day I was becoming more and more interested in the language around me.

Part of the challenge was that in Russia, you can find yourself in many situations when using English simply isn't an option. Getting by using hand gestures and single word requests could sometimes be awkward but it was a vital experience that gave me the drive to learn more and make my time there more comfortable and rewarding.

I started by learning everyday words and phrases, how to introduce myself, ask basic questions, and so on. Once the sounds and intonation became more familiar, I had to master the alphabet. Although Cyrillic can look really unfamiliar and slightly intimidating, it's actually not to difficult to decipher with a little help and practice. After I had surpassed this milestone, I could go about my time trying to read signs or any other print around the camp, much to the amusement of the young students I had with me.
 
I found learning with children and teens around me quite comfortable, maybe because kids are less judgemental, and also, the Russian they would use was less complex than that of an adult. I quickly lost my inhibitions and saw anything new that I picked up as a novelty and a bonus as I had never really expected to make as much progress as I did.

I gave it 100% for the 3 months of camp and absolutely loved the new life I was living. To my delight, I was offered a long-term visa and a job in St Petersburg. I took the opportunity with both hands and didn't look back and continued my unorthodox approach to learning Russian. I found that having the language all around me, which kept it active in my brain and thoughts daily, was one of the biggest motivating factors.

Even though I was immersed in the language, I still had to concentrate on my active skills to make progress. Luckily, I had international friends who were also studying Russian or could already speak the language well. This was a great help for me because they knew any difficulties I was facing. On top of this, conversing with someone who has a similar level to you is a great way to practice speaking. Writing was a much more time-consuming task but I downloaded a Russian keyboard and tried to text Russian speaking friends at least 2 or 3 times a week.

Another thing I used to do was make lists and tables of verb and adjective conjugations. This is much more complex than in English as verbs can conjugate in many ways and adjective suffixes change depending on noun gender. Once I had memorized the forms it was important to apply it to every new verb or adjective I learned, so, if I came across a new word, I would repeat that word in its different forms. The repetition not only helped with remembering the words but also to cement the grammar rules into my brain.

For those who live in Budapest, it is also possible to immerse yourself in English as it is all around you. Of course, there is less of it than what I experienced in Russia but it is still there. For example, the signs in the metro and on public transport, menus in bars and restaurants, groups of foreigners speaking English all over the city, blogs like this online, and posts on social media. English is everywhere and when you start looking for it and engaging with it, all the more active it will become in your life.

 

Andrew Swift, brit anyanyelvi mentor

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