Political fall-out hits Russian

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Tom Dickins sorts out the myths from the facts behind the worldwide decline of a great language.

In 1882 the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote, "on days when I have doubts and on days when I have troubled thoughts about the fate of my motherland, you alone, oh Russian language - great, powerful, honest and free - are there to sustain and support me". These words are as familiar to Russians as are the lines "There'll always be an England While there's a country lane" to English people. Yet, to teachers of Russian outside the Russian Federation, Turgenev's verse has a somewhat ironic resonance.

While the fate of Russia, and in particular the policy of economic reform, receives unprecedented critical attention abroad, the number of students learning the language is declining alarmingly.

Many secondary school teachers of Russian are forced to abandon teaching the language and to concentrate on their other degree subject or, indeed, on subjects in which they do not necessarily have formal qualifications.

The decline in Russian can be explained by a combination of external socio-political factors and widely-held misconceptions about the role, nature and status of the language. Many potential pupils and students have been negatively influenced by the break-up of the Soviet Union and by distressing and sometimes shocking images of contemporary Russian society presented in the media. Equally important factors are the increasing counter-claims of other subjects in the national curriculum, the current preoccupation with European Union languages, the perceived difficulty of Russian, exaggerated fears about the problems of replacing Russian teachers, and worries over the availability of teaching materials.

There are numerous schools in Britain, such as the Latymer School, Edmonton; St Benedict School, Derby and Wolverhampton Girls' High School, where imaginative language policies have enabled Russian to overcome traditional prejudice and to compete successfully with other European languages on equal terms.

Russian frequently proves an attractive and popular option when it is allowed to enjoy a degree of parity in the curriculum. Unfortunately, in all too many schools pupils are expected to take crash courses beginning in Year 10 or 12 and the subject remains under the permanent threat of closure.

As a result of the decline in the numbers taking Russian A-level, university recruitment has also suffered severely. The Queen's University, Belfast, and the University of Edinburgh have both recently announced that they are to stop teaching Russian to degree level. Concern is such that the Higher Education Funding Council for England is currently conducting an enquiry into the state of Russian and East European Studies.

The problems are by no means confined to Great Britain. Throughout Europe Russian studies are in decline. In the former Soviet Bloc countries Russian has experienced a staggering reversal. At the International Finals of the Russian language Olympiad for Schoolchildren, held in Moscow from June 27 to July 3, the teacher accompanying the Slovak team, Milan Zeman, described the situation as "catastrophic" and estimated that no more than 10 per cent of Slovak pupils now study Russian. Similar expressions of despair were to be heard from Czech, Hungarian, Romanian and Polish teachers of Russian. It has been estimated that there are now just 3,000 pupils studying Russian in the former GDR, compared to 30,000 in what was previously West Germany.

As for other west European countries, France remains the most committed to Russian teaching at secondary-school level, but even there it is contracting rapidly. In southern Europe it maintains little more than a symbolic presence. Russian only appears to be increasing in importance in a few isolated areas where there is a significant volume of trade with Russian speakers, such as parts of Poland and southern Finland.

Friedrich Zavarsky, who accompaned the Austrian team at the Olympiad, has recently analysed in detail the state of Russian language teaching in Austrian schools. He has demonstrated that the high point for Russian learning was during the period of Gorbachev's reforms, when the West positively supported Glasnost and Perestroika, and that the numbers studying the language now roughly mirror those of 198485.

He concludes that "it is possible to observe a strange interrelationship between the given political situation (in Russia) and interest in the study of Russian". He also points out that there is no obvious parallel with other languages. For instance, interest in English did not decline in Austria at the time of the Vietnam War.

Zavarsky has identified the alleged difficulty of Russian as one of the factors discouraging take-up. However, the Olympiad, which was attended by more than 200 pupils from as far away as Peru, Vietnam, India and the United States, illustrated once again that Russian does not pose insuperable linguistic problems for schoolchildren.

The overall standard of the competition, which consisted of an optional written test and a series of compulsory oral tests, was exceptionally high and the enthusiasm of the participants was immense. The seven British participants emerged with a series of medals, including one gold, awarded to 17-year-old Adam Fergus from Shrewsbury School. Adam and several of the other members of the British team expressed a strong desire to continue with Russian at university.

It is very debatable whether Britain is currently producing enough good Russian speakers to take full advantage of the potential opportunities for foreign investors in the CIS. The market has the capacity for considerable expansion. The Russian Federation alone has a population of around 140 million and Russian is still widely spoken throughout the former Soviet Union, especially in the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Demand for Russian graduates in business, commerce and the financial services sector is greater than at any time in the past.

As Vladimir Kvint remarked in the Harvard Business Review: "The climate for international joint ventures has never been better. Russians know that without co-operation with the West, the country cannot survive, let alone prosper. "

The basis for any future expansion of Russian studies in Britain must be an increase in the provision of Russian teaching in secondary schools. There is a sufficient supply of qualified teachers and native speakers keen to offer Russian, but they frequently find their expertise under-used and career progression depending on their other subject(s).

Russian does not seek to be treated as a special case. However, there are strong educational and practical justifications for according the subject a higher status, especially in those schools which already employ staff with Russian language skills.

Tom Dickins is a senior lecturer in Russian at the University of Wolverhampton

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