Do you need local languages to travel successfully in Eastern Europe?
So what is actually not in Eastern Europe today?
Firstly, if you think that Eastern Europe includes Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia then you are living in another era still! 😂
Ditto for the 3 Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which are better classified as ‘Northern European’, even though Latvia has a sizable Russian-speaking minority.
Further to the south lies ‘Southeastern Europe’ comprised of the Balkans and stretching all the way to Greece in the south, as well as, Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea.
So what does that leave in Eastern Europe?
Eastern Europe as a region today is made up of the remaining former parts of the USSR that lie in Europe so that’s Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.
Moreover, both Kazakhstan and the 3 independent countries in the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) could make a case that they should also be included in Eastern Europe. However, I would argue that they lie in separate regions which are partially European and partly Asian.
But doesn’t everyone speak English there?
Traveling to Eastern Europe and assuming that English is widely spoken would be a huge mistake.
The proficiency scores for English in this region are poor. Education First gives the countries in this region as a grade of ‘low proficiency’ in English which places them in the 4th lowest of the 5 categories in their grading system.
That means that English is spoken at the same level as in Latin America and China in this region. As a comparison, countries in Central Europe have a ‘high proficiency’ in general.
A large part of your experience will depend on whether you spend your time in touristic or local places, you socialize with young or older people, well-educated or less-educated and whether you are in urban or rural areas.
Russian is the main lingua franca and is spoken well by almost everyone in this region so on average it will be the best investment of your time to learn unless you plan to stick to one particular country or region with a different local language, like in Lviv, Ukraine where I was learning Ukrainian in late 2016.
So what are the advantages of speaking in the local languages over English?
1. Prices: with the local languages you will be able to get local prices
2. Easier to make friends: communication is easier
3. More information: local tips are normally not in English
4. Less stressful traveling: more language skills = less stress
5. Leaning the languages is fun: dopamine-like rush!
Learning languages is exciting. It gives a dopamine-like feeling when you are making progress.
It’s also an intellectual challenge and you will understand your own language better afterwards as you must break down the new language in order to learn it. This will give you food for thought with your native tongue.
So where should I learn Russian as a foreigner in the region?
If you are a North American or a European then I recommend that you learn Russian in either Ukraine or Moldova in a city that has a lot of Russian-speakers like, Kiev, Odessa or Chisinau.
*Featured image courtesy of Giammetti Foundation