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Six Things I've Learned From Studying Russian

Insights gained on Russian culture and society

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

I took it upon myself to learn Russian this year. When I found out my university offered an introductory Russian Language course, I quickly jumped on board.

At first Russian is a daunting language as an English speaker. Besides just learning vocabulary and grammar I had to learn an entirely new alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet was initially very challenging to get a grip on but once over the initial hurdle, the entire process was very rewarding.

To anyone who wishes to learn what the language has to offer, here are a few things I’ve discovered about Russians from studying their language:

1. Formality is everything

Respect for elders and authority is a must when speaking Russian. You don’t just address your professor or sargeant with a “hey, what’s up man” in Russia. From the different ways of saying ‘hello’, to the formal and informal use of ‘you’, respect is key to all Russian relationships.

2. Russians have many names

To know a Russian is to know all his names. Russian first names have many variations. For example, the name Alexei can be altered to: Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha, Lyoshenka. There are many nicknames and each have their own purpose and context. Russians also carry a patronymic name, meaning part of their name bears their fathers first name (i.e. Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov’s father was named Fyodor).

3. There is no such thing as too many toasts

At a Russian wedding, birthday party or holiday be ready for countless toasts. Russians jump at every opportunity to recognize the good things in life. A Russian party is indeed a lively affair.

4. Swearing is an art form

Russian profanity is a language of its own. “Mat” is among the oldest traditions of the Russian language. It’s inventive, colorful, and has countless variations. “Mat” is prevalent among male social strata, particularly the military, where it is a sign of camaraderie. The lesson here is never get into a swearing match with a Russian, and if you do, be careful it’s not out in public since it’s a punishable offense. 

5. Few westerners choose to learn Russian

Among all the language courses offered at my University, Russian was the least populated. Unfortunately, interest in the Russian language and culture has declined over the last decade, mostly due to xenophobia and the West’s disinterest in the Russian people. Some of the consequences can be seen in foreign relations; where few diplomats and world leaders know the Russian language and rely solely on translators.

6. Russian is a beautiful language

Like its people, the Russian language is a highly sophisticated and literate language with a rich history. Some of the world’s finest literature and music is in Russian and so much is lost in translation. The world needs more Russian speakers.

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