I stayed in Russia for a month in order to study the language through language courses and immersion. It was an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn or improve their language skills, as immersion proves to be very useful to truly learn a language.
This experience was very different from anything I had ever done, and I wanted to write about it for myself, as some sort of recap, but it might also be of interest to some of you.
My first introduction to Russian
I started to learn Russian a few years ago, as a hobby. I picked Russian because I wanted to challenge myself with something quite difficult, and learn a new alphabet. My interest for the culture and the country did the rest. So, I bought some books to learn Russian, tried to be disciplined and study regularly, without signing up for a course or anything else.
Things didn’t really go as planned. On some months I would study every day, then do almost nothing for weeks. Even though I was motivated and truly liked learning the language, I just lacked self-discipline. When it involves taking time to really think and basically just ask an extra effort to my brain, I am terribly lazy. If you have tried to learn a language by yourself, you probably know what I’m talking about. If not, maybe you belong to the lucky few that don’t have a lazy brain… so please give me some tips!
Anyway, I soon realized that I needed more and that I couldn’t really do it by myself. I then decided to go to Russia (something that I had been meaning to do for a long time anyway) to study the language, and started to do some research in order to find the perfect school.
How I picked the school
When I started to look into language courses and Russian schools in Russia, I was doing an internship in Vienna and I knew that after that I wouldn’t have obligations of any kind. It was the perfect time. Now that I knew when I would go, I had to find where.
I asked friends for recommendations and used Google to find a variety of schools I could choose from, then I wrote everything down on a chart to have a good overview of everything. Here are the things that I felt were important and that helped me to pick the school:
- Prices: It is obviously important as I am not yet a billionaire. However, I didn’t let the price of the courses/accommodation decide of the school as I didn’t want to compromise on the quality.
- Courses: I wanted to do an “intensive” language course and still enjoy the city so I was looking to programs that had 20 to 30 hours/week. Some schools offered “modules” that focused on grammar, speaking or culture, and I really liked that as it also offers some diversity in the program.
- Activities organised by the school: Since I am not the kind of person that starts to chat and bond with random strangers, I thought it was quite important to have a variety of things to do. Of course, it doesn’t help a lot with the language learning but it is still a great way to socialise with people that have similar interests.
- Visa stuff: I wanted a school that could help me with this and provide an invitation letter (mandatory to get a Visa). However, if you want to stay in the country a bit longer, I would suggest to use a different method to get your Visa, as my school only provided it for the duration of my courses, so I had to leave the morning after my last day at the school.
- City: The environment is obviously very important as you are not going to study at home the whole day. I wanted to be in a big city and first picked Moscow. However, in the end, I went to Saint Petersburg because the school that I liked the most was there, and it is still an amazing city that I wanted to visit.
- Accommodation: Even though I like my alone time and my independence, I knew I wanted to stay with a host family for a greater immersion. Booking the accommodation through the school seemed “safer”, and they guaranteed a nice welcoming family. I am still really happy with this choice and would definitely recommend it, especially for a short stay.
All of the elements above helped me pick the Derzhavin Institute in Saint Petersburg. It had a lot of course options, a great activities program and helped with admin stuff. It is very well located, the facilities are nice and clean, and the staff and teachers brilliant.
My experience at the school
On the first day, I had to take a short oral test in order to be assigned to my group level. My oral skills being absolutely terrible even in my native languages, you can imagine how it went with Russian. I was assigned to a certain group, but after the first class, as I started to remember everything I had learnt so far, I was moved to a higher level which was perfect for me. Every language level (A1 to C2) is divided in sub-levels (A1.1, A1.2, A2.1, etc) so that the courses are as close to your level as possible.
Because of the course options that I picked, I had 2 to 4 busier days during the weeks, finishing at 3 pm, but I finished at 1pm the rest of the week. On top of that, I had homework every single day, making my inner Hermione very happy, as I kinda missed studying! Every Friday we also had a test that helped us to keep track of everything we did during the week. A bit stressful, but useful!
On the first week I struggled a bit to find a balance between my obligations at the school and social activities/visits because I wanted to see every single thing in the city. But I soon realized that I had plenty of time to do both: discover Saint Petersburg after class then go home and do my homework.
My days were then divided between studying a language that I love and walking around the city, visiting museums or churches, and meeting up with friends.
First impressions and daily life
Russia is definitely a very different country from the ones I knew. Same goes for the people there, as they’re not as warm and cheerful as Italians, for instance. My first impression was then that everything was overall a bit cold… and everything seemed so big!
However, as the days got sunnier and my confidence with Russian improved, I started to see things differently and really enjoy my Russian life. You might not be greeted by a huge smile from the waiter in a restaurant, but they are still welcoming in their own way.
As for my daily life, I was living with a very nice host family that welcomed me into their home and gave me a lot of food: breakfast in the morning and dinner at night. They spoke very little English so sometimes communication was a bit hard, but even though I didn’t understand everything, I still really enjoyed the evenings where my “Russian mum” and babushka would tell me stories about their life.
My Russian improved a lot, as well as my ability to smile politely and look interested even when I couldn’t understand a single word.
To sum up this very long post, I really loved this experience and I would recommend it to anyone learning Russian, or learning a language in general. I could notice an improvement from day one, it helped me consolidate everything I had learnt so far and gave me the extra boost and motivation I needed in my language practice.
I absolutely loved Saint Petersburg and met amazing people from all around the world. I am already thinking about going back there next year to keep on improving my language skills and maybe discover another part of Russia!
Have you ever studied a language abroad? Is it something that you want to try?
Other posts about Russia:– My top 5 things to do in Saint Petersburg
– Daydreaming at the Tsars’ residences – Peterhof & Catherine Palace