I’ve had the good fortune of learning languages on my own and with the guidance of instructors. Both have their advantages, but there is something special about embracing the independence that comes with practicing a language outside of a traditional setting.
If you’re reading this blog, you might understand where I’m coming from. You might be a self-motivated student who has never been most comfortable learning in a classroom setting. Maybe you feel uneasy about a lack of formal language experience.
Or maybe you're someone who has always learned best with the help of a teacher. You might be worried about setting out on your own.
I’m here to say that there is no one correct way to learn a language. Not all learning takes place inside a classroom. There are lessons to be learned in places you might not have expected.
Keep reading to get ideas about new ways and places to improve your conversational skills!
In Country Options
If you have the chance/means, traveling to a country that speaks your target language is an amazing opportunity to improve your conversational skills.
I’ve been to countries where the people I’ve met have been more interested in getting me to teach them English. It was extremely difficult in those situations to practice my target language.
Fortunately, I’ve not found this to be the case in Russia. In my experience, Russians are often very impressed when they meet students of their language and are particularly eager to converse with you and correct your mistakes.
If you’re able to visit a Russian-speaking country, here are some places where you can practice your conversational skills.
During my last visit to Russia this past summer, I stayed in two hostels, one in Moscow and one in Kazan. My experience at the hostel in Kazan was amazing.
Because I was there for so long, I was able to befriend the staff and the other guests to the point where they actually volunteered to help me with research I was conducting. They gave me tips about conducting interviews and interacting with people that I didn’t know as a non-native.
Even though I’ve studied Russian for five years, I still get nervous striking up conversations. At the hostel, I got out of my comfort zone by just having tea with a group of other guests. They were so friendly, that we ended up going out to dinner, walking around downtown, and adding each other on Facebook.
The great thing about staying in a hostel in the summer is that you’ll meet more people than you would during another time of the year and they’ll likely be from a variety of cities. This is especially helpful for language students because you’ll gain exposure to different accents.
I’ve also been lucky enough to stay with a host family three times in Russia. Staying at someone else’s house is always awkward at first, but if hopefully, you’ll get a friendly host.
Do your best to really integrate into your host setting. Don’t just be anti-social by staying in your room all day. Not only is that rude, you’ll be depriving yourself of an opportunity to practice your speaking and listening skills.
My second Russian host mom and I got along very well. She even invited me to go to a few concerts with her. The conversation went a bit like this:
Хозяйка: Ты не хочешь пойти на концерт со мной?
Я: Может быть… какой концерт?
Хозяйка: Классический. Они будут играть Бах.
Я: Ой как я люблю музыку Баха! Давай пойдём!
Khozyaika: Tiy ne khochesh’ poiti na kontsert sa mnoi?
Ya: Mozhet biyt’... kakoi kontsert?
Khozyaika: Klassicheski. Oni budut igrat’ Bakh.
Ya: Oy, kak ya lyublyu musiku Bakha. Davai poidyom!
Host Mom: Do you want to go to a concert with me?
Me: Maybe, what kind of concert?
Host Mom: Classical. They’ll be playing Bach.
Me: Oh! I love Bach’s music. Let’s go!
It was weird living and functioning in a different language at first, but if you put yourself out there, you can make new friends and improve your Russian.
Another way I practiced my conversational skills was by spending time at the Russian State Library. I know that sounds counterintuitive because you’re supposed to be quiet in libraries, but my time there was actually very stimulating.
My first challenge was finding the correct entrance. I had looked online and seen that there was a special door for new users, but I didn’t know where it was. Here’s how I found out where to go:
Я: Извините, пожалуйста. Вы не скажете где находится вход для новых читателей?
Случайный Незнакомец: Поверните налево, идите прямо, и вот он.
Я: Спасибо большое!
Ya: Izvinite, pozhaluista. Viy ne skazhete gde nakhoditsa vkhod dlya novikh chitatelyei?
Sluchainiy neznakomets: Povernite nalevo, idite pryamo, i vot on.
Ya: Spasibo bol’shoye.
Me: Excuse me, could you tell me where the entrance for new readers is located?
Random stranger: Turn left, go straight, and there it is.
Me: Thank you so much!
I found the entrance and inside, a nice librarian showed me how to fill out an application for a new card. She took my completed application and then told me to wait to be called into an office.
When my name was called, I went into a small office, and explained where I was from and why I needed a library card. The lady behind the desk then took my picture and printed my card right there. It was a pretty simple process, but it boosted my confidence.
I then walked the wrong way down the hallway and started pulling on the wrong door to enter the library. Yikes! A helpful security guard walked me to the correct entrance.
I was a bit embarrassed, but every interaction is a chance to practice listening comprehension skills, even if I was blushing with shame.
I then entered the library with my new card and asked the helper at the circulation desk how to find books relevant to my research. She led me to the electronic kiosks to search the databases and then another volunteer showed me to the computer hall.
Overall, I spoke to about five or six people in the library. Like I said, there are plenty of opportunities to practice your conversational skills, even in a library!
Opportunities in Country and at Home
The following are a few options that you can take advantage of if you get to go to a Russian-speaking country or at home (depending on where you live).
Some well-known Russian communities in the US include Brighton Beach in New York, Wheeling and Buffalo Grove in Chicago, and Sunny Isles Beach in Miami.
4) Russian Grocery Stores
A few summers ago, I attended a three-week long Russian summer camp in Oklahoma. One of our field trips was to a Russian grocery store. At first, I was skeptical; however, pretending to shop while only speaking Russian with each other and the store staff was great practice.
The store also had Russian newspapers, brochures, and books. It was a bit of a hub for the Russian community in Oklahoma and we practiced speaking with other customers.
Whether you’re in Russia or one of the cities I listed above, try going to a restaurant and only speaking Russian. You’ll get to work on your conversational skills with the waitstaff and bonus: Russian food!
If you’re comfortable, you can try to find a church or synagogue with a Russian-speaking community. Some of them will have weekend classes for parents who want their US-born children to learn Russian.
This worked out well for me in Orlando and I took classes on Sundays for two years. This is especially helpful if you don’t have access to Russian lessons through school, but need to find a speaking partner.
Like I said, not all learning takes place in a classroom. If you look carefully, there are plenty of opportunities to improve your speaking skills all over. So don’t worry if you don’t have access to traditional methods.
If possible, apply to study abroad in a Russian-speaking country. I studied Russian in high school thanks to government scholarships like Startalk and NSLI-Y. There are also tons of travel resources for more mature learners.
If you can’t go abroad, don’t sweat it. Your own city might hold the key to your language learning wishes. And don’t forget apps and online resources like Memrise, Duolingo, and Udemy.
Let me know if you have any questions or other suggestions in the comments, and good luck with your Russian studies, wherever they may take place!