This is a story about learning Russian—the fairytale of almost no American child.
Growing up in a small town in Idaho, Russia seemed more like a blip in a history lesson than a far away country. I knew little to nothing about Russian culture, the language, the mentality, and I had no Russian friends until last summer.
Nonetheless, when I saw the opportunity to study in St. Petersburg, I was intrigued. But man! The language!
I started with hello: Здравствуйте, which is just as difficult to say as it looks.
For additional support, I signed up for Duolingo which launched the mobile version to learn Russian for English speakers at the end of 2015. It was all the buzz amongst us foreigners.
In reality, I knew the platform was a crutch. I had, and still have, plenty of opportunties to practice the language with locals. So I asked my friend Aleks if he could help me formulate an icebreaker question to encourage real conversation with Russians. Here’s what we came up with:
Извините, научите меня говорить что-нибудь по-русски, пожалуйста?
English translation: Excuse me, will you teach me something in Russian, please?
With this one question, I approached Russians on the street and asked them to teach me something in their language, subsequently taking what they taught me and testing the authenticity in a real life situation.
I stopped over twenty people walking around the city—starting with the babushkas that monitor the entrance of my dorms, vendors around Nevsky Prospekt, mothers, kids, waiters, shop keepers and one dragon—and collected 22 Russian phrases and words.
I did this for two reasons: I wanted to see how Russians would react to a smiley foreigner approaching them on the street—debunking the stereotype that Russians don’t smile—and secondly, I wanted to step out of my bubble of speaking English everyday while living in Russia.
Both aims were successful. The Russians I talked to were actually really nice and supporitve. Even as I write this I think, “God, I am so American. As if it is surprising that Russians are nice people!” Another cultural barrier that crumbled during this experiment was with the lady that monitors the entrance of the international dormitory. She used to scowl at me whenever I passed her and many call her “the mean babushka“. She was the first person I asked to teach me something in Russian and since then, she smiles and waves at me whenever I pass her. One time we even sat and talked about her daughter, how she loves St. Petersburg and that I should say Вы instead of Ты when addressing someone older than me.
Still so much to learn.
Try some Russian street talk yourself and use the hashtag #russhour on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or whatever platform you use to express yourself. Let us know how it went!