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Gap Year in St Petersburg

Russian Language Courses in St PetersburgAlex Mackula  
Russian course: 12 weeks  
Gap Year   

Before my arrival in St Petersburg I expected to gain a lot from the course.  During my basic learning of Russian before the course began I realised just how complicated the language was.

I assumed that the actual course would be equally challenging but as I would be immersed completely in Russian I was confident that I would return after twelve weeks being able to speak fairly decent Russian. I was under no illusions that the course would be tiring – every day would see me undertake four hours (approx) of Russian study.

I was delighted with the result, considering the fact that when the Russian language course in St Petersburg began in September I could speak very little Russian.  The aim was to grasp the basics of the language and I believe that was achieved.  The course also gave me the opportunity to visit a wide range of museums and palaces both in St Petersburg and in the surrounding towns – home to various palaces.  Overall I would say that I gained a lot from the course – perhaps more than I could have hoped for.

The lessons worked well for me.  I experienced three different levels of language competence: Beginner to Beginner+ and Elementary.  The lessons were split fairly evenly between conversation and grammar, understandable as they were probably the most important focuses, at my level.  I would have liked some more listening exercises but we did listen to each other, thus being able to pick out any errors.  We also spent time reading texts (mainly aloud) and sometimes we would do some writing – usually short pieces.  The student/teacher interaction was good – they would ask us questions throughout the lessons and they were keen to help with any misunderstandings we had.  I feel that more listening exercises would be a good option as it would help to hear a variety of Russian accents.

I had no problems whilst in the Russian language school.  It was just about the right size, and the staff (both administrative and teachers) were very friendly and keen to help if there were any difficulties.  The school was in an excellent location, with the local metro station five minutes on foot.  It was also possible (weather permitting) to walk to some of the main attractions such as the Hermitage.  In terms of my accommodation the school situation was fantastic.  It was a mere twenty minutes on foot, which was obviously very convenient (and lucky for me, considering the size of the city).

The best part of my Russian language course was the actual lessons.  In my twelve week stay I learnt so much that by the end I felt confident enough to speak fairly decent Russian.  I was lucky enough to have a host family who were willing to converse with me in Russian whenever there was the opportunity.  This obviously encouraged me to use the language on a regular basis.  The worst part was probably when we were presented with the test on the first day: 140 questions (all in Russian) – quite intimidating!  But I was subsequently put in the right class – so I survived this initial shock.

The other students (both in my class and at the college) were very friendly and as a result there was a good atmosphere whilst I attended the school.  Everyone seemed keen to converse in Russian, something which was useful as it meant we spoke Russian almost all day.  School social activities were more than adequate and my travel arrangements from the airport were problem-free.  The cultural programme was quite diverse but followed pretty much the same format each month.  This is in part due to the weather, which prevents some activities from being undertaken.  However I was still able to get a good feel for the region and there was nothing to stop me from visiting sites and museums on my own.  For me the balance between free time and lessons worked very well.  Four lessons of study each day proved to be more than enough and each day I could return to my host family as and when suited me.

St Petersburg may have a population of just under 5 million but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by its size.  I mainly ate with my hosts family but there were some reasonably priced restaurants along Nevsky Prospekt which is the main area of the city.  Living there for three months was not that costly and everything is cheaper than we are used to in Western Europe.  Unless that is you want to buy designer clothes were you can expert to pay the same, if not more!  My host family were very warm and this was my opportunity to speak with local people out of class.  They were keen to correct my mistakes as well.  With regards to safety as long as you are sensible you should be fine.  Everything, from shops to cinemas stay open quite late – usually about 10.00pm.

A word to the wise: Anyone planning on visiting St Petersburg in September should go supplied with a goodly quantity of insect repellent and ‘mossie’ cream.  On my first night I received 25 bites – fine thereafter once I started waging chemical warfare on the insect world – but be warned!

I tended to stay in at night but there is a plethora of nightclubs all over the city for those who like that kind of thing.  I often went to the theatre or ballet and tickets are both cheap and very easy to get hold of.  They are sold pretty much everywhere (and the school will help if you’re not sure).  During the day I was spoilt for choice culturally and the student card you can buy (organised by the school) is a must.  It granted me free entry to the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum which are two of the main attractions of the city.  However the museums do close for one or two days a week when they are given their weekly clean (so pick your visiting days wisely).  Just check your guide book or ask the school cultural team who can help you buy theatre tickets.

I found the hostess who provided my accommodation in St Petersburg welcoming and helpful, she aimed to make my stay in St Petersburg as pleasant as possible. As previously mentioned she was keen to talk to me and this was useful as far as my study of Russian went.  My three months spent with Ludmilla went smoothly – one obvious advantage was the proximity of the apartment to the school – a mere twenty minutes on foot.  She was located centrally in the city and this made sight-seeing much easier as I could often walk to and from my chosen museum or theatre.  I would certainly recommend her to other students.

I was very pleased with the service I received from CESA.  My queries prior to travelling were dealt with quickly and I was grateful for their checking my visa application and the all important letter of invitation.  CESA’s staff were friendly and helped me prepare for my trip.  The Briefing Pack they sent me before I travelled also proved to be very interesting and was read many times.

I plan to return to St Petersburg next summer so that is evidence enough that I enjoyed myself.  I would encourage others to go, but one must bear in mind that it is a difficult language.  I would say that the entire trip was incredibly memorable and my final treat was to see Putin at the airport on the my day of departure.  The whole experience in Russia was brilliant, both educationally and also on a social level.