Staff writer Holly Chapman tells us about her time living in Russia and the beauty of learning another language
Am I crazy, foolish or simply delusional? I was accused of all of these when I decided to spend a year abroad in Russia, especially in a small, inaccessible city that no one has ever heard of, but now I am slowly realising having left the St. Andrews bubble that I could hardly have made a better choice. I figure what better way to give a perspective on learning a foreign language abroad than through the idiomatic art of similes and metaphors that make English such an elegant language. So here goes nothing.
I have been told that this experience is comparable to being stranded on a desert island and trust me, that is relatable. Much to the horror of any British millennials travelling to Russia, unlike the rest of Europe, your phone is almost entirely useless. No 3G, expensive calls and texts and very limited access to Wi-Fi, unless you are bold (or stupid) enough to purchase a Russian SIM card. Usually, I would encourage saying “yes” to everything offered to you on a year abroad, but it turns out just saying “Da” to things I don’t understand means I end up buying an overpriced package with unlimited data, 500 minutes and unlimited texts. Long distance call, anyone?
I chose Yaroslavl in particular as my home for the coming months, not just to practise my Russian but to indulge my curiosity in a country and culture that is notoriously shrouded in mystery and fear. Being situated a four-hour drive northeast of Moscow (short by Russian standards), my experience is undoubtedly authentic. English speakers are rare, and merely apologising as much as English people typically do, distinguishes me from the locals. At first, it can feel incredibly lonely in comparison to having your best friends within walking distance like I do in Scotland. I become frustrated at not being able to express myself as eloquently and successfully as I am accustomed in English. The Russians have a phrase «близок локоток, да не укусишь». Which I have been told and crosschecked with google means something along the lines of “so near and yet so far”. Which is not really understandable from the literal translation “Your elbow is close, yet you can’t bite it” (No wonder I spent a lot of the time confused). Your confidence will be knocked consistently, but with every new word, phrase and grammar rule you are getting closer to fluency.
This brings me to my next classic simile that learning a language and studying abroad is like “learning to ride a bike”. Both can get you places, and after this I don’t think I’ll ever forget how to ride them. However, maybe it’s just the manic Russian drivers but more often than not, it feels like I’ve either had to swerve or been hit by a bus. In reality, it is a combination of a lot of metaphors; it does feel like I am attempting to cycle on water, to escape the island I’m figuratively stranded on. I can pedal as fast as I can but there will always be moments when I forget a word, my accent is incomprehensible or my joke only leads to blank faces. However, as I am sinking and learning to swim I’m immersing myself in this beautiful and interesting world beneath the surface that is not accessible unless I can speak the language and understand the mind-set.
Learning a language, particularly abroad provides a lens into a very different world. As part of this process, I have been forced to stomach new foods (who knew salted cucumber could be so good) and sign an entirely new social contract with a different set of rules and legislation. However, I have been able to bridge a gap through my Russian. I promise nothing beats the giddy feeling when you’ve been understood and in particular make a Russian person smile (except perhaps the vodka). I truly believe language learning is one of the most rewarding processes as you are constantly absorbing and learning from your mistakes. I am often made to feel like a child again, who is learning to talk with all the patronising moments that come with it. But ultimately, I hope to grow as a person through this perspective, and not just because my Russian babushka insists on feeding me excessively.
So as they say “do svidaniya”