Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Speaking Russian in Portland

Russian food store in SE Portland

The other day I got a letter from the doctor's office with a multi-language insert. These are the languages that were included on the insert.

English. Spanish. Mandarin. Cantonese. Tagalog. French. Vietnamese. German. Korean. Russian. Arabic. Hindi. Italian. Portuguese. French Creole. Polish. Japanese.

Can you guess which are the most common languages in Oregon?

on the local train

If you guessed one of my favorite languages, you're totally right ;) According to this 2015 article, the winners are English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Russian. Russian is actually the third-most spoken language around here. (You can see your state's 2014 rankings on this map.)

advertisement on the city bus

That said, I agree with the headline of this article in the local paper:
Russian-speaking immigrants in Portland mostly invisible, isolated.

Sure, you'll sometimes hear a family speaking Russian at the grocery store, but the Russian speakers here tend to keep to themselves. I've met a handful of them since we moved to Portland, like a Russian woman who moved here after meeting her husband on a dating site, a Ukrainian man living in the suburbs with his family of 8, and colleagues from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. We even have Ukrainian relatives (D's) who live somewhere in the city, but we never hang out.

A lot of the people in these communities immigrated to the US to be able to practice religion more freely. The Old Believers and Pentecostals stand out the most to me, since they always dress in a special way. A local professor has created a website called Russian-speaking communities in Oregon with more information on the religious backgrounds of the almost 100,000 Russian speakers in the state. Another good read is Welcome to Portlandistan.

hairdresser in SE Portland

Just living in Oregon is a pretty good start if you're interested in the Russian language. Here are a few other ideas to help you with your studies-


Where to practice Russian in Portland, Oregon

We've done most of these things.

D makes the trek to the hot springs when his family visits town. I guess that would be a good opportunity for Russian practice but ugh, four hours in a minivan- I can't!

Here's Overseas Taste, our favorite food store so far. (Update: 'Good Neighbor Store' at 4107 SE 82nd Ave, Portland, OR 97266 is much bigger and Russian-ier.)

And we also tried Kachka, the hottest spot for American hipsters to try fancied-up stolovaya food. The food here is excellent, the prices unbelievable.

I didn't volunteer with ROSS but with another local non-profit that had plenty of Russian speakers coming in, including a lot of recently-arrived Ukrainians. (That's where I found this funny textbook for English language learners.)

in the classroom

At the language meetup, we met a really cool Oregon farmer. He's traveled thousands of miles in the name of botany, and Russia turned out to be one of his favorite places. Last I heard he was off on another visit there to research the облепиха, sea buckthorne. He uses Russian at home as much as possible too. For example, here's one of his farm catalogs-

That's right. It's got a bilingual index!

Even after living here for two years, I still feel like a reluctant Portlandian, but I admit this is a great place to be for anyone learning a slavic language. It's pretty cool to have all these local resources as well as support from a community of learners (the meetup group).

What language(s) are you learning?

What kinds of resources are available where you live?


  1. Wow! That's so cool. I didn't know there were so many Russian speakers in Oregon. My boyfriend did a work and travel program a few years ago and said he heard an American guy speaking Russian to his children on the bus. He was so excited.

    I looked at that map and was surprised to see the top languages spoken. I guess it depends on the region too. German is the 3rd most spoken and there is a HUGE population in Cincinnati, but not so much in Cleveland. Also, my hometown has a large population of Croatian speakers. My grandma was Slovenian and I'd love to learn the language, but I think I'll stick to Russian.

    When I go back to the USA I want to pick up Spanish again, and keep working on my Russian.

    1. We are language twins, Jasilyn! Spanish + Russian + maybe Slovenian :)

      Have you ever thought about taking a Spanish class in Ufa? I did that for a while in Kharkiv. It was definitely a challenge but the instructor had a really clever teaching method. I usually left the lessons with new words in both languages.

    2. No, that hasn't even crossed my mind! I think I should just focus on Russian since I still can barely understand it.

  2. Those who want to expand their contact with Russian-speaking people, but have a limited budget for travel, will find this information particularly helpful.

    1. Thank you, Robert! :) I hope it'll encourage other interested people living in Portland to be a part of the Russian-speaking community.