Before heading to St. Petersburg, SRAS coordinator, April Djakoniya, asked each of us to write down any volunteer opportunities we wanted to pursue. When studying Russian in America, one of the most helpful resources for me was native speaker volunteers, who were willing to sit through my poor Russian speaking and still always be very kind and helpful. I decided I really wanted to give back and was interested in meeting with Russians interested in English. At first, it was hard to get my foot in the door. April found some opportunities for me, and once more people heard I was a native English speaker and volunteer. A conversational group there, a brochure translation there, a quick drink with a Russian who just wanted to practice English, such opportunities were hard to refuse.
There are some pitfalls as a volunteer. Firstly, it takes up a lot of your time. As I said, you get many requests once people hear about you, and it can be overwhelming if you have a hard time saying no. For instance, one morning I got a phone call from a person I had met at a conversation group, asking that I do a quick read through of a document she had translated, and it needed to be on that day. I had no time, so I said no, but she was so worried about her English that I ended up taking my lunch break to do the read-through. It was not difficult, but after a while, you can get very tired. I am also not interested in becoming a translator, and even though it is still great practice, it can get boring. In addition, you can only legally be paid for translation work if you have a work visa, if not, then it is all free, very intense work.
Speaking English all the time can also impede learning Russian. Even during breaks at classes, we spoke English with the other international students, who are also keen on speaking English. In addition, leading English conversation groups, or speaking with Russian friends in English, can jog you out of the Russian language mindset.
When studying abroad, it is always great to meet native residents. You get a completely new angle on life, and you can keep in touch to keep practicing your language of study. However, as a native English speaker in particular, you can make some “false friends.” You end up speaking with people just so that they can practice their English, and in reality, you have very little in common.
It goes along with the problem of people only recognizing you as a native English speaker, and nothing else. In conversation groups, and even in my internship, I sometimes feel like my only “skill” is speaking English fluently, which is hardly a skill when you grow up in an English-speaking country.
The reason for writing this article is not at all to discourage you from volunteering as a native speaker. I absolutely encourage it! I just know that if I had known how tiring it could be, how easy it could be to fall into the trap of being a free translator, and how you have to establish yourself as more than just a native speaker of English, I would have tried to limit my volunteering time. Still, please volunteer, but make sure to say no sometimes!