So why do you learn Russian?

So why do you learn Russian?
05 August 2019

“Почему ты изучаешь русский язык?”

Every foreigner who learns Russian will have heard this question many, many times! The enquirer is usually a Russian person, looking curious but confused. Most learners will have a default reply by now because they have answered it several times.

That does not make the answer boring! For me, I always want to find out why people choose to learn Russian. According to language research one could have mastered Spanish or Italian in half the time, and French in two thirds. So it is not an obvious choice at all to learn Russian. I have therefore asked many people at Liden & Denz in Moscow. I also asked many people at my Russian class back home at Stockholm University. Here is a list of the reasons I have heard.

1 “I don’t know”

More typical than you may think! I don’t tend to hear this in Moscow because if someone goes to Russia to study, they are likely very sure why. In Stockholm however, people tend to choose Russian because of a gut feeling, and not for any special reason. Around the world Russian is seen as exotic. I notice that those with this motivation also tends to give up! Russian language is difficult. People need to find a big reason to motivate themselves.

2 “I study International Relations”

What I hear often at Liden & Denz among young people. They study International Relations and most are European, so understanding post-Soviet Eastern Europe is important. In Europe, Russian language is widespread not only in Russia but also in Belarus, Ukraine, to an extent in Moldova and Baltic states (in the capital cities) so it is very useful. Some of the young people expect to work in the region in future. These can be at embassies or foreign companies.

3 “My parent(s) is Russian”

Another common reason among younger, university students. They have one or both parents being Russian and can speak a little, but not fluently. It is easy to identify them since they tend to have a perfect accent and very good vocabulary. This is because they converse with their parent(s) often. However, grammar is a weakness. These students want to go back and learn more about where they come from.

4 “I love Russian literature / culture / history”

Sometimes seen among more adult students. They have had time to read a lot of Russian literature, and likely have traveled to Russia a few times, so they know well what they want. They decide to make Russian language a hobby, as a full appreciation of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy demands it. Once at higher levels they try to learn a somewhat older variant of Russian so that they can read literature properly.

5 “My wife is Russian”

Seen also among adult students, and funny enough I only see it in foreign men, never foreign women. They are married to Russians and now live to Moscow, so improving Russian is number #1 priority. Being married to a Russian means they can improve faster as well since they can practice and receive help. On a side note, I often hear stories about how complicated Russian visa and permit rules are from them! Кошмар!

6 “I am an expat working in Russia and want to communicate with Russian colleagues”

Despite the economic climate, there are still many foreign companies in Russia, and of course embassies will remain here in Moscow. These students tend to have lived here for a longer time. Business people and diplomats alike belong to this group. They tend to be very committed and long-term students since they already live here.

7 “I have many Russian friends where I live”

Not as common as the above, but I have heard this a couple of times, usually from East Europeans. There are Russian communities there so it is not surprising.

In my experience, many have more than just one of these reasons. For me, number 2, 4 and 7 is true. The more reasons one may have, the more motivation. For a language as complex as this, one needs all the motivation one can get!

So why do you learn Russian?

Nick Nguyen

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