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Globe and language bubbles

Learning Foreign Languages…and Not Speaking Them

I often get questions – how many languages do Russians speak? Do all Russians speak English? Aside from English, would the next favorite foreign Western language for Russians be French? Do Russian students ever have an opportunity to study Latin in school? Are Russian students interested in learning Chinese? Let’s explore.

Do Russians Speak English?

English First Learning the foreign language ad

English First Learning the foreign language ad. “Become the boss of your boss”

Most Russians do not speak other languages. Learning foreign languages has not been obligatory until this year (now the curriculum of all schools should contain a foreign language). Most Russians did study a second language at school and even at the university, but have a very limited level of knowledge of the language they studied.

I was fortunate to live abroad with my parents and study English with native speakers. I found such note in a diary of my dad: “Tanya is 8 years old. She already speaks some English. She has a thick Russian accent, but her English is anyway better than mine was, after I studied in school, at the university and did my PhD”. According to the National census of 2010, only 6% of Russians wrote that they speak English. According to other research studies (English First etc.), the percentage is higher, but still is around 10-15%. Discrepancies in numbers may be explained by the different samples – among urban population language knowledge percentage is higher than among rural population.

Why is the language learning so poorly organized in schools? My guess is that the main reason is the old and boring curriculum and lack of real language practice. Kids just do not see why they need to study the unnecessary subject. London is the capital of Great Britain. Ok. Making kids learn texts of songs, learning 100 useful phrases or even watching animated films would’ve been much more entertaining and useful.

Still, most foreigners know at least one Russian, who speaks English or other foreign language pretty well. Sometimes, really well. How did they master the language? Chances are most of them went to the specialized English-speaking schools, where they had many hours of English classes per week, professional tutors, special equipment to improve pronunciation and maybe even a chance to go on a study exchange program abroad. Some of the students later enhanced their language skills at the specialized linguistics institutes and/or at work or by taking the private classes. A lot of parents now make their kids study English with a private tutor in addition to school curriculum, although that is available only for families with above average income.

What About Other Languages?

foreign language dictionariesEnglish is indeed the most useful language to learn in the world now. If one speaks English, it is enough to travel and even work in the majority of the countries. However, historically that was not always the case. For a long time French was the preferred second language in Russia. Not for everybody of course. The majority of the population did not speak French, only people from upper social circle did speak it. They were usually taught French in childhood, by the native French speakers and spoke really well.

Now French is the third popular language, German is the second and Spanish is the third. The language, which is on the rise, is Chinese. A lot of parents think about the current demographic trends and want their children to have advantage at the workplaces of the future. So, their kids do study Chinese. Whether that will really give them advantage is questionable, but studying a language which is so different from Russian is of course beneficial for the development of the brain. Still, in absolute numbers the number of students who study Chinese is fractions of the percent.

How About Latin?

Unfortunately Latin is not studied in schools. A very few people (maybe medical students?) have studied Latin. Even the Biology departments of universities do not teach Latin as a separate subject. Students may have to learn parts of the body or botanical names in Latin, but they just learn the lists by heart. Learning such lists is not productive. The idea of studying Latin is to understand the roots of the words and how the language is built. I did study Biology at the university for 5 years and learned those lists. Guess what is the only Latin name of a plant that I still remember? Auga Reptans or the carpenter’s herb in English. Why I remember it? Because the Russian name of this plant (живучка ползучая) does sound really funny! (something like “a crawling living being”)

Are There Language Schools In Russia?

Yes, plenty of them. But most are concentrated in big cities and taking lessons is still quite costly. Of course there are so many apps, sites, chats and other free opportunities to learn languages. But learning a language takes a lot of hours and it is difficult to motivate yourself, especially for people who do not travel abroad or interact with the foreigners. There are 143M people in Russia, all speak Russian, so a Russian person has many fellow citizens to speak with in a native language. Also, all foreign movies are dubbed and most books eventually are translated into Russian.

Advantages of learning foreign languages

Advantages of learning foreign languages, www.kaplaninternational.com

I speak Russian (my mother tongue), English, German and some elementary Spanish. I studied German in school, but the only thing I remember from classes is that all stories in the textbook were about one character – a journalist named Schreibikus. I did not learn German in school, I learned it later, with a private teacher. Now I very rarely practice it and feel how the language fades. I do study Spanish now, although it goes slowly. But I really believe that the more languages you speak, the wider is the world.

Leave a Reply

  • Shaynie - 3 years ago

    A very interesting post! Thank you! The same is true in American shcools; you have to take a foreign language in high school (usually French or Spanish) but no one can speak it when they are finished learning.

  • Brooke Lorren (@Brookelorren) - 3 years ago

    Hola! Sehr interessant! (Just giving you some practice ;-) )

    I took six years of German in middle/high school and one year of Russian in high school. Then I took three semesters of Spanish in college.

    I was good at German, and pretty decent in Spanish, but I never used it after that (except for a trip that I took to Germany). I never learned that in Spain, they have a different accent than in Latin America, so the one time I went to Spain they looked at me like I had two heads. As for Russian… I forgot how to read most Cyrillic and, although my uncle married a Russian lady, I forgot how to use most basic expressions with her.

    Fortunately, I am once again relearning these languages. It is easier today to experience foreign languages than it was 10 or more years ago, because you can easily communicate with people all over the world in different languages, or watch YouTube in whatever language you want, or listen to radio stations from all over the world.

    But in a large country like the US, or I suppose Russia, I can see how it’s easy not to learn other languages well.

  • Andrey - 2 years ago

    Hi, Tanya, your blog is interesting :)

    As for myself I speak English well, and Italian and Spanish a little. Many of my friends speak English.

  • Богдан - 2 years ago

    Учить латинский для понимания происхождения слов – учить его для ничего. У школьников и так неплохая нагрузка в школах, ещё и латинский им ни к чему. Я учил латинский в университете и могу точно сказать, что это бесполезный язык.