Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Language Lessons From Pushkin to Politics

Living in Moscow is bound to shake an English-speaker's complacency about the need to learn a foreign language. At least rudimentary Russian is required to break out of the expensive cocoon of an English-language-only existence.

Basic Russian is invaluable not only for simply leading a somewhat normal life in Moscow, but it's also helpful in avoiding embarrassing situations.

I realized that my Russian needed brushing up after I thanked the hostess at a dinner party for a very skuchno (boring) dinner when I really meant vkusno (delicious). It was again time to juggle Russian declensions, verbs of motion which I had studiously been avoiding, and the subtleties of the perfective and imperfective verb forms.

In recent years, Moscow has witnessed a boom in the number of Russian language courses available to the non-native speaker, from the businessperson who could care less about Pushkin to the accomplished linguist looking for some fine-tuning.

One of Moscow's oldest, biggest and most prestigious schools is the Moscow State Institute of International Relations' International Language School (76 Prospekt Vernadskogo, Tel. 434-8227), which offers intensive courses in Russian at both the elementary and advanced levels. The 40-year-old institute, which is part of the Foreign Ministry, also has offerings in Russian translation and literature as well as programs in 48 other languages.

According to students and teachers, the institute is thoroughly professional in its teaching methods, which include the use of interactive computer programs. Instructors take an individual approach to each student, whether they are in a group or not, and frequently give oral and written tests.

The school offers a four-week crash course in "survival Russian" at a cost of $260 per week. The course consists of 20 separate 50-minute lessons per week. Studying at this clip, students reported being able to communicate at an elementary level in post offices and shops after about two weeks.

The institute also offers a more standard course lasting between two and six weeks, with each week consisting of between eight and 16 50-minute lessons. One-on-one lessons cost $13 per session, group classes with two students cost $9, and classes with three to four students are available for $7.

A special course focusing on business Russian runs for two to four weeks and includes 20 hours of lessons each week at the same rates. A student who completes the business course is expected to have a reasonable competence in speaking about practical management matters, making presentations, conducting negotiations and dealing with marketing and financial issues.

The Kitaigorodsky School (Moscow State University, Tel. 939-5716) was founded in 1977 by Galina Kitaigorodskaya and offers perhaps the most dynamic and innovative Russian classes in Moscow.

Take, for example, professor Nina Kuznitsova, who during a recent class was leading her lesson with verve, moving about the class like a choreographer at a dance rehearsal. Classical music played in the background, and Kuznitsova used games, songs and theater skits to teach vocabulary and conversation.

"We try to give students confidence in their ability to speak Russian rather than just the passive learning of grammar rules," she said. "It is also a lot more fun learning in a group."

Students give these methods rave reviews. "After the first several weeks, my comprehension exploded," said a young German man. "Now, when I watch TV, I'm able to get the gist of it."

Courses cost $10 per 45-minute academic hour. Most groups get together for about 15 hours a week.

The Berlitz Sovincenter School (12 Krasnopresnenskaya Naberezhnaya, Room 347, Tel. 253-8223) is part of the international chain of language schools and uses a more traditional, intensive method of teaching. Students are thrown in the deep end, with teachers speaking only Russian during lessons.

At $25 per lesson, this school is more expensive than others and has a more formal, business-like atmosphere. Students sign a contract for 30 45-minute lessons. Unlike the philosophy at the Kitaigorodsky School, Berlitz's general director, Natalia Uvarova, said the school encourages private lessons as the best way for an adult beginner to learn Russian.

"People are less shy in a private lesson," Uvarova explained.

The Pushkin Russian Language Institute (6 Ulitsa Volgina, Tel. 330-8929) was founded 25 years ago to train foreign teachers in Russian language and culture. Recently, the institute broadened its scope and now offers language courses specializing in Russian law, economics and translation, in addition to the more ordinary grammar and conversation classes. Despite the innovations, the institute has a slightly more academic atmosphere than other schools.

The institute offers a choice of private and group lessons and has night classes, too. As with Berlitz, students sign a contract specifying how many hours of instruction they want and then set up a schedule. Lessons are held at the institute, but arrangements can be made for a teacher to come to the home or office. A 45-minute lesson costs $10; group classes are $150 a month for about 15 academic hours a week.

Moscow International Higher Business School or "MIRBIS" (36 Stremyanniy Pereulok, Tel. 237-9220), offers general and intensive Russian-language courses, business Russian and the rather unorthodox opportunity to live with a Russian teacher, as well as specially tailored courses in literature and art. The cost is $5 per academic hour in a group class or $10 for private classes. Students may use the computer and video facilities.

Among Moscow's universities, Moscow State University (Tel. 939-2070) and the Russian University of Friendship of Peoples (Tel. 434-7380) both offer intensive and traditional day and night courses at all levels. Students highly recommend these courses not only for the language training program but also for their broader offerings on Russian culture. Private lessons are about $7 per academic hour and group lessons $5.

Private instructors are a good option if you do not have the time to spend traveling back and forth. The best way to find a qualified, experienced Russian teacher is through the recommendation of friends or through the language schools themselves.

Be wary of teachers found through blind advertisements as sometimes the expertise of these instructors only consists of speaking a little English. Also, watch out for pushy teachers who want a commitment over the telephone. It is a good idea to insist on a trial lesson. And, keep in mind that the going rate in Moscow is between $10 to $15 an hour for a teacher to come to your home.