During my last day in Moscow, I had the opportunity to go with Julia P. to an upscale hotel to visit her mom. We also spent some more time around Patriarch Ponds, and it was then that I was able to realize something that was happening to us while in more tourist-y areas. Usually if someone can tell if you’re a foreigner, they’ll just ask where you’re from and continue talking to you in Russian. However, in these places staff would respond to our Russian questions in English and even seem puzzled that we had bothered speaking Russian in the first place.
It makes sense that staff in places meant to cater to tourists would be trained to speak in English, however I did feel an odd sort of tension as someone learning Russian as a second language. If I continue to speak in Russian after being spoken to in English, am I being rude? Am I making someone’s job harder by insisting on ordering in Russian, especially if I may be pronouncing words incorrectly? But as a student, am I neglecting immersion if I only speak English? The matter is also further complicated by the fact that in many cases Russians use British terms and speak English with a British accent. If I’m expecting to hear Russian and someone responds in British English, I might actually have more difficulty understanding in the moment.
In the case of restaurants, many times waiters have looked at me funny for requesting Russian menus if they’ve already brought English ones. While this definitely happens more often in areas that experience a lot of traffic from tourists, it’s something that I’ve experienced in all different parts of Moscow. It was actually only when we went to Siberia and it stopped happening that I was able to recognize the tension of those earlier exchanges. The areas we went to in Buryatia definitely had people who spoke English and wanted to practice just as in Moscow, however they were far less insistent on speaking only in English. People at souvenir shops were able to tell that I was a foreigner and probably American when I spoke, but did not insist on switching languages. Though it’s not a huge obstacle, it’s definitely something students learning Russian as a second language should be aware of.