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.
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.
English 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.
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”)
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.
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.
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.