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Russia - Speaking the Language


Being able to communicate with everyone around you is an important part of expat life. In Russia, that means learning Russian.

The only official language which covers the whole of Russia is Russian, which is a Slavic language. It has a Cyrillic alphabet, often referred to as the Russian alphabet.

As discussed in the Climate and Weather section of this country guide, Russia is the biggest country in the world by a significant margin. Its territory covers a third of the European continent and all of north Asia, and a fifth of the population are not native Russian people. Not surprisingly, there are 35 regions where the population mainly speaks a language other than Russian. Altogether, there are about a hundred minority languages spoken across the country.

Furthermore, under the country’s constitution, some areas officially recognise a locally used language in addition to Russian. These only have a local official status though, whilst Russian is officially recognised across all of the country.

Additionally, migrant workers have come to Russia over centuries. They often create small communities in which everyone shares a common heritage and language, sometimes passed down through the generations. The numbers of people living in such communities are small.

There are many minority languages in Russia which are at risk of extinction or which are thought to have recently died out. This is a common experience in many countries around the world, as small communities homogenise into the dominant culture of the nation.

Russian will be known and understood in all areas of the country, and almost all students receive their primary, secondary and university education in Russian.

When you include the population of Russia with those of the independent countries Belarus and Ukraine, there are 144 million native Russian speakers in the world.

Foreign languages are typically taught in secondary schools across Russia, but in an environment where there is little chance to practice, the majority of people only retain knowledge of a few words.

Well-educated Russian professionals, especially those who have travelled for work, leisure or study, are a different matter. These people often study English to a high level and then develop fluency using those language skills abroad. High salaries and good opportunities draw the well-educated to Moscow, which is also the centre of the expat community in Russia.

Unfortunately, you will find life in the country difficult if you don’t learn any Russian. It’s thought that less than 15% of the country’s population can speak any foreign language, and only about one in 10 speak English. Even if your life in Moscow revolves around a global employer, upmarket restaurants serving international customers and socialising exclusively with expats, it will sometimes require some knowledge of Russian for purchasing groceries, greeting a neighbour or sorting out household bureaucracy.

Learning To Speak Russian

If you have plenty of time to prepare before moving to Russia, you can start learning the language before you get there.

A number of online resources are available, often for free. They usually cover the basics to get you started. These include:

Duolingo
Memrise
Babbel
Russian Lessons
Russian For Everyone
BBC Languages
• Plus YouTube has dozens of channels for learning Russian

CDs and paid online courses can also be a great help, not least in giving you the chance to hear each word and learn how to pronounce them. When you’re living in Russia the most important aspect of your language skills will be to communicate verbally. Written correspondence can be translated with help from Google or dictionaries, but conversations require instant comprehension and clear answers.

You might want to build up your language skills with personal help. Tutors advertise their qualifications, skills and experience to potential students in both the US and the UK. One to one contact with a tutor gives you an experience tailored to your needs, but can be expensive if you have lessons for a long stretch of time.

Once you move to Russia you should be able to quickly locate a language school or find a personal Russian tutor through your local contacts. If you need help with this, why not ask for recommendations from the expat community already living in Russia? Our Facebook group for expats living in Russia are good ways find personal recommendations.

Russian Language Characteristics

An article on the website Fluent In 3 Months explains that the Russian alphabet is both easy to learn and phonetic. If you learn each of the 33 letters, they will keep the same pronunciation when they appear in any word. This is unlike English, which frequently presents silent Ks, combines consonants to create an unexpected sound and adds an e on the end of a word to change the previous vowel sound in the middle.

A number of verbs and nouns, especially those related to the modern world, reflect English vocabulary. When you construct sentences, you have flexibility over the order in which verbs and nouns can be used, as the rigid English rules don’t apply.

There are a number of set rules which take a lot of practice to understand and apply, including how to use masculine and feminine words. However, the good news is that the rules have few exceptions, so if you follow the rules you’ll rarely be wrong. Again, this is a great advantage over English where even the ‘i before e’ rule is no longer taught in English schools as there are too many exceptions for it to be helpful. Compared to English, Russian could be seen as being user-friendly.

English Language Newspapers In Russia

Even though you might struggle to find English speakers in many areas of Russia, you will have access to online and TV news services to keep you up to date with events at home and abroad. The difficulty is recognising and balancing political bias.

The first weekly English language newspaper, the Moscow News, was established in Russia as far back as 1930. Although it has had a few wrangles with the authorities which have led to the arrest of key staff, the newspaper kept going until 2014. By then it was owned by the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, which became Rossiya Sevodnya (Russia Today). The Moscow News ceased printing in January 2014, with its online site closing two months later.

The free weekly newspaper the Moscow Times was set up in 1992 and is still available. Each week, 55,000 copies are distributed to places where English-speaking expats and tourists can be found, such as hotels, cafes and airlines. Furthermore, its domestic and international news items, events diary and culture articles can be found online at the Moscow Times website.

The staff behind this paper are well-educated and tend to have west-orientated leanings. There are some who allege the Moscow Times has a bias which is anti-Putin, while others assert it is merely reporting current issues in Russia with more frankness than other media outlets.

The Russian Profile has a simple English language website with a small number of articles. The printed magazine, available to the public free of charge, is produced 10 times a year.

The Russia! magazine remains online although new articles stopped being added sometime in 2016. It has a quirky mix of articles about Russian life, history and issues. The bi-weekly entertainment newspaper the Element closed in 2014. The Passport Magazine ended in 2012, although an archive of its past articles are still available.

English Language TV In Russia

As previously mentioned, the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti was relaunched in 2014 as Rossiya Sevodnya, or Russia Today. Now familiar to populations worldwide, Russia Today is an English language news channel which broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its aim is to report domestic and international news from the perspective of the Russian editorial team, which often differs to that of many Western governments. Some argue that the channel is a puppet for the Russian state, while others assert that the editorial team are independent journalists.

This argument is not surprising, as every state broadcaster worldwide finds themselves accused of bias for politically sensitive news reports. Even the UK’s BBC received funding for their Worldwide output from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) until recently. Despite the BBC’s editors and journalists trying to represent two opposing points of view in each politically sensitive news item, there are always cries of bias from those who feel strongly on one side or another. In the US, the political leanings of CNN and Fox News are well understood, albeit these are commercial stations rather than state-funded broadcasters.

That said, the risk of bias in the output of Russia Today should not be ignored. Local journalists reporting unpalatable truths over the past century have found themselves with lengthy prison sentences during which their lives were at stake. At a time when wealthy oligarchs wield considerable and often deadly political power, truly open and transparent journalism will sometimes come at too high a price.

US expats do have options to access English language TV from home. The USTVNOW service is free and includes ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC and PBS.

British expats in Russia can stay in touch with home through the BBC’s online content. In 2018, the BBC launched the BBC Sounds App. This allows listeners from anywhere around the world access to live BBC radio and a full library of recently transmitted radio broadcasts, as well as podcasts. Unfortunately the BBC TV content cannot be legally downloaded online and must be purchased through a satellite TV package.


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