Saturday, February 7, 2015

Less Foreign Languages!

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - "Who and why are we creating divisions in Russia? Why do we give
children different educational opportunities? It is clear that the great amount of foreign textbooks in circulation suits publishers and their authors but we must first of all take care of the children.

"In our schools, students study 866 hours of Russian while they study foreign languages for 939 hours a year. The Ministry of Education and Science are going to make English exams compulsory which means English in Russia will be learnt like a second language. In what country will our citizens grow up in? ... This violates  our Russian traditions," thundered  Irina Yarovaya, the glamorously passionate and outspoken member of the Russian Duma, who is head of the committee on security and action against corruption and a member of United Russia.

Yarovaya seems deeply dissatisfied with the current Russian education system. In her opinion, it seems absurd that the Russian school system is devoting more time in its curriculum to studying foreign languages than even their native tongue Russian. This is perceived as more than just an imbalance. It is seen as a threat to the Russian language and traditions. She claims that instead of reading Pushkin's 'Eugene Onegin', students now read William Golding's novel ,'Lord of the Flies'!  'This is completely monstrous', barks out Yarovaya. She is not the only member of the Duma to hold such sentiments.In 2013 more radical opposition was expressed by Pavel Pokhigalov who proposed that schools completely abandon the study of foreign languages in order to prevent Russian emigration. He stated 'I am categorically certain that in this period of time it is not necessarily to study
foreign languages so that other people don't leave the country.' The flamboyant and amusing Vladimir Zhirinovsky once suggested that Russians give up studying foreign languages in order not to neglect and hence protect their mother tongue. 'If Russians continue to speak only Russian in Turkey, the Turks will be forced to learn Russian', he reasoned. 


Is studying foreign languages such a threat to the Russian language and traditions?  Some Russians argue that the intrusion of English words into Russian banalises their speech...' Why say 'Okay' when you can say 'Da'? and 'Why use 'cool ' so much?'  Some of those words in Russian television serial scripts betray a lack of originality and impoverishment of Russian....


This resentment at the unwanted intrusion of foreign languages in Russian cultural life is not without precedents. In the 19th century Russian writers claimed the popularity of French was either preventing or retarding the flowering of Russian literary culture.

However, in the 19th century Russians had more of an excuse.

At the turn of the 18th century a Russian written language based on Russian colloquial speech had not come into being. Orlando Figes writes, 'The essential problem was that there were no terms in Russian for the sorts of thoughts and feelings that constitute the writer's lexicon. Basic literary concepts, most of them to do with the private world of the individual, had never been developed in the Russian tongue: 'gesture', 'sympathy', 'privacy', 'impulsion' and 'imagination' - none could be expressed without the use of French.' (Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance, A cultural History of Russia ,Penguin New York, 2002, page 50 )

One of my school students, a 14-year-old boy called Timothy told me, 'Can you believe it that we spend more hours learning foreign languages than the Russian?  I think it is crazy!'

However, does learning a foreign language mean you often neglect your own native tongue?  Do Russians become less Russian by speaking English all the time? Just because language can mirror a particular culture does not mean the speaker automatically learns or absorbs the mentality. Language does not determine being any more than say, economics. We are not blank pieces of paper in which culture writes its own text but can critically reflect
and question the influence of language. For instance, Pushkin was fluent in French and English but this did not hinder him from writing a great novel 'The Captain's Daughter'. This novel is reputed to have been inspired by  reading Sir Walter Scott in French.

The best Russian writers, though inspired by French literature, did not slavishly worship it by churning out third rate French plays or novels.

They could be inspired yet express ideas in brilliant Russian. It need not be a case of 'either - or'. Either learn Russian or French. What is important is that while Russians should be inspired by foreign works. They should not be ashamed of their own language and culture.

They should remember rather than stifle or lose their own voice. Here lies the danger. Some Russians learn a foreign language as a means of escape where they can forget their past. In seeking to forge a new identity they would like to forget their native tongue. In this respect
Irina Yarovaya states,  'Russians must form a single civil identity'. 

She goes so far as to propose one single standardised authoritative school textbook on Russian literature. In fact, Russian officials are drawing up plans for a single standard Russian history textbooks. Many teachers fear that such proposals will discourage healthy independent thought in schools..Who is to define what constitutes a single Russian
identity? The issue remains highly provocative amongst Russians. 

Constantly raising this issue in the wrong way might divide rather than unite Russians.

Some Russians see in those proposals echoes of the times of repression when taking too much interest in Foreign languages and culture could encourage weary suspicion from officials.

When I visited 'The House of the Embankment', a central building in Moscow where as many as a quarter of the residents were shot  during Stalin's purges, I dropped into the museum.  When I studied the names and professions of some of the victims I was struck by how many teachers of foreign languages had been arrested and executed. I found the same frequency while dropping into the offices of 'Memorial'  in Moscow.

There are more sound reasons for opposing attempts to either discourage or ban the learning of foreign languages. Firstly, many Russian teachers would lose their jobs  at schools, at institutes, and as tutors. As trade-unionists, we are supposed to be defending
jobs not supporting ill-thought out proposals which would make school teachers redundant. We defend and don't destroy jobs.

Some Russians, if not all, require English to get jobs as airline pilots, stewardesses, and tourist guides.

Learning foreign languages can even help strengthen the Russian language because Russian tutors of Russian may need English to instruct students of Russian! We can easily use English to preserve rather than erode Russian. It all depends on how creatively and flexibly one uses  language. 

According to one survey in 2010, only 5.48% of Russians understand English. In an older survey, as many as 90% of Russian businessmen don't know English. If English has such an enormous influence on Russians by supposedly threatening their language, those surveys hardly vindicate this claim. It would rather suggest that some members of the Russian Duma are either exaggerating the threat or simply attempting to beat the patriotic  drum at a time of great crisis.

The threat to Russian language and culture posed by English is trivial compared to the recently  alarming proposals to shut down more than 40 % of Russian further education institutions for not being 'effective'.

Thousands of teachers at those institutions are set to lose their jobs including teachers of the Russian language and literature.

The Russian Duma has been conspicuously silent on this issue.

This is a greater threat to Russian traditions than the time set in schools for learning foreign languages. Who will defend the standard-bearers of Russian literature in threatened institutes?  Who will break the silence on this matter?

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