By Hayden Hayes, undergraduate student majoring in International Studies and Russian
The decision to study abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was one of the most important decisions of my life and it was made possible by the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship that I received for the summer of 2017. It was my first time leaving the country, as well as flying, and I did not know what to expect. Many of my friends and family had never heard of the Central Asian country I was traveling to and wondered why I had chosen Bishkek to enhance my Russian language skills, rather than Moscow or St. Petersburg. Prior to departure for my 30 hours of travel, I began to ask myself these same questions. However, upon arrival in Bishkek I realized why Kyrgyzstan was the perfect place to study Russian.
After settling in with my host family, I began my intensive study of Russian at the London School of Languages and Cultures located in central Bishkek. My weekly schedule usually consisted of 20 hours of class every week, with lessons specializing in grammar, writing, reading, and conversation. In addition, we participated in individualized tutor sessions and excursions to cultural destinations on a weekly basis. Each class session was entirely in Russian, which was coupled with the complete immersion of living with a host family. This immersion in the language at all times contributed toward a rapid development in my language skills.
While in Bishkek, I lived in an apartment building from the Soviet era on the outskirts of the city with a Kyrgyz family, which spoke both Russian and Kyrgyz. My host family was definitely a rewarding part of the trip, as they were eager to help me practice the correct pronunciation of new words and discuss the news of both Kyrgyzstan and the United States. One of my favorite memories will be the long conversations that took place with my host dad after dinner about various topics of politics, culture, and life. Some of the most interesting talks centered around the upcoming Presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the nostalgia for the Soviet past that is shared among the many members of the older generation in the country that lived during the Soviet era.
During my time there, I noticed that most individuals in Bishkek speak both languages, but some of the people I met spoke only Russian. The appearance of Russian in Bishkek is due to the migration of Russian speakers to the area during the Soviet era, however, in recent years there has been a push to focus more on Kyrgyz language education in schools, as well as the implementation of a Kyrgyz proficiency requirement for possible Presidential candidates in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Part of the reason that I chose to study in Bishkek was due to the fact that there are fewer English speakers in the city
My host family did not speak English, which forced me to learn the language at an even faster pace. In conjunction with this, my daily twenty-five minute commute by marshrutka (local shuttle vans) also forced me to use the language in a colloquial context as I communicated with fellow passengers. The minimal amount of English speakers in Bishkek proved vital as it forced me to improve my weakest language area: speaking. Prior to the program, I found myself being able to understand the grammatical concepts of the language, but having a difficult time expressing my thoughts in spoken language.
After completing the program, I found that my speaking and listening abilities greatly improved as I can now hold substantial conversations on everyday topics. Part of this was due to being constantly immersed in Russian everywhere I went in Bishkek, but the most beneficial part of the program were the Language Partner sessions that were organized through the London School. These two-hour peer tutoring sessions took place three times a week after classes. During these sessions, we would meet with a local student and explore the city together while only speaking Russian. These activities greatly improved my speaking ability and provided an insight into the cultural and political views of my generation in a country 7,500 miles away from home.
Now that the program is finished and I have returned to Ohio after my two-months in Bishkek, I plan to continue studying advanced-level Russian at Ohio State and hope to improve my language skills even more while at home. In addition to this, I plan to study more about the politics and culture of the area as it is truly fascinating. I hope that I can return to this country someday and once again enjoy its beautiful landscape and the hospitality of its people.