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Russia: Speaking The Same Language -- In Russia, English Is 'In' (Part 1)

  • Jeremy Bransten

During the Soviet era, Russian was the Soviet lingua franca, the common language imposed by Moscow that bound people from Prague to Almaty. Now, however, that trend is changing. Throughout the former communist bloc, it is English that children and adults are learning, in greater and greater numbers. And if English was once the language of escape -- the key to Western immigration -- now it is the language of opportunity, even at home. In this five-part series on the ascent of English in Russian's former domain, RFE/RL looks at a sweeping change that is drawing Tajiks, Bulgarians, and even Russians further West.

English is far and away the most popular foreign language studied in Russia today. Thanks to the Internet, satellite television, and increasing contacts with foreigners, many Russians aspire to and are acquiring fluency in English.

Prague, 13 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian has always reflected the fashion of the times, borrowing liberally from other languages to add to its already vast native vocabulary.

In tsarist times, French was in favor and Russian adopted words such as "etazh" to refer to the floor of a building and "atelier," or studio. Today, modern Russians go out for a "bizness lanch" before heading back to the "ofis." But while many pepper their speech with borrowed English words, more and more Russians are aiming for, and achieving, fluency in English itself.

Even in Soviet times, Russia was known for its high-quality foreign-language teaching at the university level and at so-called "special schools" where primary- and secondary-school students were exposed to English and other foreign languages early on.

Aida Sadykova, professor of comparative linguistics at Kazan State Pedagogical University, talked to RFE/RL about the so-called "special schools" in Tatarstan's capital, which she said have maintained their high standards.

"If we speak about Kazan's specialized school where English is studied, these schools have a long tradition. I'd say that they are simply improving on this tradition. English is taught on a high level, starting in the second grade [of primary school]. Some subjects, such as mathematics, physics, and geography, are taught directly in English," she said.

Compared to a decade ago, Sadykova said the main difference is that those who study English have a chance to be taught by visiting teachers in Kazan who are native English speakers. Thanks to satellite television and the Internet, they can listen to and communicate with others fluent in English. As a result, instruction in both "special schools" and ordinary schools now emphasizes practical, oral communication.

"In these 'normal' schools, efforts are also being made to teach English in a different way, to concentrate on practical speaking skills. Compared to the '70s and '80s, when greater stress was placed on reading and translation skills and technical language, more emphasis is now placed on being able to communicate with people from other countries, using English," Sadykova said.

According to the latest statistics from Russia's Ministry of Education, released in the year 2000, two-thirds of Russian primary- and high-school students study English as their foreign-language choice. That adds up to 9 million students. By comparison, 4 million study German, the next most popular foreign language, while only about 1 million study French.

Eric Johnson, at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, is a librarian by profession and coordinates the operation of the 25 American Corners and American Centers across Russia. First opened in 1993, the American Centers and American Corners are funded by the U.S. State Department and offer a place for Russians interested in improving their English-language skills to borrow books, watch movies, surf the Internet, or join a conversation club.

Johnson told RFE/RL that young people across Russia are interested in acquiring English-language fluency. "I think most Russians understand that English is the international language of business, of trade, of commerce. It's the international language of communication, it's the primary language of the Internet. So I think almost everyone in Russia -- or most of the young people in Russia -- realize that one way to get ahead, one way to create more opportunities for yourself, is to study English and to learn English well," he said. "So although there are perhaps more opportunities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I think the demand for English speakers is also high elsewhere in the country, because banks need people who know English, all kinds of different companies need people who know English, so there's a demand there."

Aida Sadykova confirmed that in Kazan, the most sought-after university programs are joint degrees that combine English with another field.

"In the universities, it is now popular to have a major, let's say geography, plus English. So in effect many students have two specialties. There is a lot of interest in faculties offering such combinations. So students are not looking to just enter the foreign-language faculty, to become linguists, but rather to work with English and also acquire another specialization, let's say economics. Now there are faculties, such as law, where you can study jurisprudence and English at the same time," she said.

Darrel Fox, head of teaching programs at the British Council in St. Petersburg, agrees that practical considerations prompt many Russians to study English. Like the American Centers and American Corners, the British Council has offices in several Russian cities where Anglophiles can further their studies.

"We have students as young as 13 here, so they're obviously interested in language improvement for schooling. We have a lot of university students too and people who want to take internationally recognized exams such as the Cambridge Exam series, for example, possibly for work but possibly also for emigration," Fox said.

Regardless of students' motives, the trend is clear: English is "in" in Russia and there is every indication that it will become increasingly popular in the years ahead. After all, no one wants to be an "autsider" -- as the Russians say, of course.

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