Studying Foreign Languages in Russia: From the Past to the Present By Tatiana Yakushkina

If you want to learn about a people's culture, you have to study its history since culture and history are indivisibly related. Studying foreign languages, being a particular aspect of the Russian culture, does prove the above statement: its history step by step repeats the history of the country itself. It is my goal here to present the foreign languages history in Russia in a brief summary with an eye to its most essential aspects and especially the modern situation.

The origins of this history went back to the fifteenth century, when the first interpreters appeared in Russia. Before that, an ancient Russian society did not need foreign languages. Like other European cultures in the Middle Ages, the Russian culture was permeated by religion, and only monasteries performed the educational function in the society. A few number of monks skilled in Latin and especially Greek used their knowledge in translating sacred books. The secular interpreters appeared in Russia very late, as the country was emerging into the new era.

The tsar Ivan IV (reigned 1547-1584), known as Ivan the Terrible, was the first Russian ruler who made an attempt to establish relationships with other countries. Under his rule, Moscovite Russia had diplomatic affairs with many European and Eastern countries as well as with the Vatican (requiring trained people in different languages), but we still do not have any information about a single school in the country where one could study a foreign language. It is known that half a century later, in the times of another tsar, Boris Godunov (reigned 1598-1605), a small group of 18 young noble men was sent to the British Island to study its language. (It was the time when Russia established a good economic relationship with England.)

In summary, the period we are dealing with cannot be considered the beginning of the history of studying foreign languages in Russia, as the languages were used by a limited number of interpreters only for diplomatic or economic affairs. What we have instead is a prehistory, the prologue; and the "play" itself begins when Peter I (reigned 1682-1725) came to rule the country.

A traditional, outdated character of Russian life ended by his almost revolutionary plan to create a new state and make Russia an important part of Europe. As the great genius of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin expressed it. Peter I "cut a window onto Europe." It was in this mission that the tsar earned his epithet "the Great." Taken with the idea to lead Russia out of barbarism. Peter concentrated his activity on modernizing the Russian army, and building a powerful fleet competitive with those of the British and Swedish fleets. First of all, the tsar's reforms required highly trained specialists in the military and shipbuilding areas. Aristocratic birth no longer sufficed; what was needed were ability and qualifications. A lot of Russian people were sent abroad, as we say today, "on an exchange program" to study the profession. Consequently, the threshold of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the enormous growth of foreign language-speaking people. Although there were still no schools to study languages in the country, the practical requirements of a changing country made the study of foreign languages in Russia a social necessity.

It should be mentioned, that when the foreigners were first admitted into the country, the Russians observed them with suspicion: their clothing, behavior, and faith seemed very strange. Especially strange and even scary was their language. All these factors together made foreigners insidious strangers in the Russians' minds, and a foreigner was not trusted in Russia for a very long time. Almost the same attitude was expressed for those who spoke a stranger's language. To be an interpreter in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries was sometimes dangerous.

Peter's reform policy caused a broadening of perspectives and an openness toward the culture of the rest of Europe. In the times of Peter's father, tsar Alexey Romanov, to wear a Europe-fashioned dress or hairstyle was enough for a person to be degraded. Now it was the tsar himself who forced Russian nobility to shave their traditional long beards, wear wigs and shortcut European dresses, and study foreign languages. After a while, people began to learn languages not only because the tsar and the market demanded it, but because they also identified themselves with a modern spirit, and with the educated cultural elite.

In 1755, the first Russian university along with two institutions of secondary education for nobility and middle class was opened in Moscow. While middle class children were taught music, singing, painting and technical sciences, young Russian nobles were obliged to study general sciences (math, geography, philosophy) and languages. Three-year courses of Russian, Latin, and two other foreign languages were part of their educational program.

Thus, it was only in the second half of the eighteenth century that the first centers for studying foreign languages appeared in Russia. Catherine the Great (reigned 1762-1796), who considered herself not only Peter's adherent but a person of enlightenment, contributed a lot in developing the educational system in Russia. The country was covered with the net of public schools. Along with public schools, hundreds of private boarding schools for men and women were opened in all of the big cities. The curriculum included good manners, dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, and the learning of one or two foreign languages. The model became pervasive, and even in public schools 18 hours a week were scheduled for foreign languages.

Each country council determined what foreign language should be taught in the region. There was only one criterion: the usefulness of the language for the country community. Under Catherine German by origin), it was German that was dominant in the country. In the nineteenth century the hegemony of the French language and culture spread in Europe, reached Russia, and for the entire century, French became the second spoken language of an educated Russian society. French almost expelled Russian in the court and in noble homes, just as Pushkin described it in the poem "Eugeny Onegin": his Tatiana had a Russian heart but could not read or write Russian.

In this period, no one went abroad to study languages. Native speakers became the teachers of German and French in Russian schools as well as in Russian families. Since the 1830's, a special tsar decree allowed Russian nobility to teach their children at home if they wanted. This privilege became the target of many jokes and complaints in Russian culture. A hired teacher lived in a family for many years and in every-day conversations practiced with the children his or her native language.

As for English - the third foreign language taught in Russia -- it was not very popular in these two centuries, but fluency in English distinguished a person from those with an average education.

Greek gave way to Latin, and the latter served as a special code for the Russian academia. The great scientist and poet, Mikhail Lomonosov, the first President of the Russian Academy of Science, demanded that within the Academy walls everyone had to speak only Latin. Although in time this demand lost its strictness, Latin remained an obligatory language to learn for those who wanted to become high school or university students.

Thus, during the period of only two centuries, the studying of foreign languages had become an important component of the educational system in Russia, and it was in the sphere of foreign languages that the educated Russian elite experienced a sense of its identity.

This tradition was not interrupted when the monarchical period of the Russian history was ended by the revolution. A good command of a foreign language remained a type of person's bon ton even in the working class and peasants' society. In the USSR the study of foreign languages, as the system of education in general, were to serve the needs of the state. Since it was considered that a soviet person speaking languages could propagate Communist values, the study of languages was encouraged in the country. Five years at secondary school plus two years at college was the minimum period of time for every soviet student to learn one of the languages: English (which from the end of the 1950's has become especially popular), French, German, or, more seldom, Spanish.

The struggle with capitalism, during the Cold War, was especially intensive in the sphere of education. Learning a language meant learning the socialist advantages. Students learned and discussed many topics concerning different sides of life: sports, science, education, culture, medical assistance, etc. Almost all of them were built on the same comparative scheme: what people have under capitalism, and what they have under socialism. In addition to that, a special class was scheduled for reading and discussing political news. In the 1970's there was only one newspaper published in many foreign languages, Moscow News, that was available to soviet people. It is quite clear that all events were interpreted from only one official perspective.

The country was in informational isolation with very limited possibilities for people to visit foreign countries. The teachers had never been abroad, and the language they knew was bookish and old-fashioned, although it was a perfect language of classical literature.

This system of training languages created a double effect. On the one hand, since the learning of languages had no practical use, the subject had never been popular among students, and only highly motivated students achieved good results. On the other hand, a lot of Russian people, having graduated from a soviet school, speak foreign languages. Almost everyone remembers several phrases or words.

The modern Russian history begins at the end of the 1980's when the whole world learned two Russian words, "perestroika," "restructuring", and "glasnost," "openness". Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to renew the Soviet Union and save the Communist Party ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the Communist Party. Policies more oriented toward the needs of the people began in the country.

The economic and political changes of the last ten years have made learning foreign languages the number one problem in Russia. A teacher no longer urges the students to study languages; the real world teaches it better than the most experienced instructor. The opened borders, the integration into the West, the economic upturn, and the growing tourist business made an interpreter one of the highly required and well-paid professions in the country. Foreign companies and joint ventures with their stable wages draw people like magnets. The numerous opportunities to study abroad, which has recently come into vogue in the Russian society, created the army of private teachers and little companies. These factors, along with the Russian tradition of educational self-improvement, led to an unforeseen boom in language studies. A soviet student studies one foreign language; a modern student - in many schools -studies two. For a special fee, parents can ask the school administration to hire a teacher of the third language. Humanitarian high schools try to include in their programs even one of the ancient languages.

Now a standard Russian secondary school looks like the following. It has II grades: one through four is elementary school, five through nine is middle school, and II to 12 is high school. Traditionally, from the very beginning of their school life, all the children of the same grade are divided into groups (called "classes" in Russia) with 25-32 students in each. They will study in the same groups all II years. Each group has its mentor and the same schedule, studies the same program, and works as one team in extra-curricular activities.

Students begin to learn a foreign language from the fifth grade. This is the moment when "the class" is split: traditionally on all levels of Russian school, foreign language is studied in small groups with 10 to 12 people in each. Depending on the school's funds and staff, the administration will open one, two, or three language classes.

It should be emphasized, in comparison with American students, that Russian students learn a lot of grammar from the very beginning. It is our strong belief that language studying cannot exist without grammar, and to be well on his or her way to really develop power with the language, a student has to learn grammar. A good language is a grammatically accurate language. A teacher will explain a grammar rule in class, and students will practice it in many exercises, both in class and at home. To truly grasp the rule, students will practice it in developing their speaking abilities and reading skills: a text, topic, vocabulary, and grammar material are integrated.

Home reading and translating is another specialty in training foreign languages in Russia. This is the activity to be done without a teacher's help. With the teacher, students will answer questions, retell a text, analyze difficult grammatical features, and discuss cultural realities.

Since the goal of a foreign language program has changed to accent communication and additional cultural information, a lot of attention is paid to developing communicative skills of the students and their cultural awareness. The topics for discussion and vocabulary are focused primarily on everyday situations, the communicative activities have become more various, and the cultural information more "unofficial".

After the ninth grade, all the students have a final exam in the foreign language. Those who succeed, will reinforce and refine their studies at high school; those who fail have an option: either drop out of the class or learn the language in special groups.

Since the soviet era, the schools with extended programs in foreign languages (now a lot of them are reorganized in humanitarian high schools) have become very popular in the country. There, students begin to master the language from the first or second grade, having three, five or six hours a week for the main language, and from the seventh grade two or three hours for the second language. The programs of such schools are enriched by special courses in the foreign country's history, geography and literature. In some schools, students study several general courses in a foreign language also. The main problems in such schools are the lack of textbooks and of teachers. The first one is being solved by ordering books from foreign catalogs which are terribly expensive. The second cannot be solved until the general economic situation in Russia is improved: teachers, who do not receive their modest wages regularly, have to leave the teaching profession.

Foreign language teachers and interpreters are trained in the country at special colleges or universities. To become a university or college student, a young man or woman has to have a high school or a secondary education diploma and participate in a competition. The latter means that he or she has to pass three to five exams and score a certain number of points. The difference between the number of applicants and the number of students that can be accepted to a college creates a competition for admission. Each college has its own minimum score. Today there are six to eight applicants for one student's place. Of course, prestigious colleges and universities have even stronger competitions, and an applicant should be well-prepared to meet such competition.

Nowadays, when everything has been changing in the country, and the government cannot support higher education, the colleges are forced to survive on their own, just as the Russian proverb says: one must sink or swim. They accept a number of students who can pay for their studies without any competition. For the rest, attending college or university is still free.

To receive a diploma, a student needs to successfully complete his or her major program (the major, by the way, should be chosen before an applicant seeks admission). Since studying languages in Russia is considered studying philology, not just language training, a foreign languages program includes: the number of general courses in philology, linguistics, literature, philosophy, culture, pedagogy and psychology; theoretical lecture courses and seminars on the history of the language, phonetics, grammar, translation and interpretation, lexicology, and stylistics; classes on Russian, Latin, and two foreign languages; and a three-month teaching training course at a middle school.

In addition to that, students in Russia are obliged to do research. Along with oral exams and written tests at the end of every semester and of an academic year, they are required to present a term paper that summarizes their research in one of the theoretical or practical aspects in language learning. The diploma thesis at the end of the fifth year crowns the program. This is the research (made, of course, under the scientific guide of a professor) that sometimes accumulates the student's work of several years. Debating the objections of his or her diploma in the presence of a special faculty commission, a student will defend the thesis and receive a diploma grade.

In comparison with the American system, the Russian system of education appears "overweight" with theoretical subjects. This is what makes us both strong and weak. Our students have a wide outlook; they know much about what American students may have never heard. At the same time, when they begin to work, they complain that it takes them a couple of years to adapt the theory to practice.

It is trivial, but the destruction of an old system does not mean a new system automatically comes into being. The present situation is entirely new to Russian history, thus not only permitting but in fact requiring us to reflect anew on what our state and social institutions should be. Among all of them, schools are the most discussed in the country.

The present state of Russian education differs from the past in many points. It is released from the communist ideology. It is oriented toward an individual who has received the right to choose the school, the program, and the way to study. It is diverse. Now one can find in Russia any school one likes: a technical lyceum, classical high school, private boarding school, Russian Orthodox school, Cossacks military college, or a school which approves new pedagogical technologies. And over and above there remains the problem referred to as the "Russian education": Shall we follow our own path and save our traditions, or shall we adapt our schools to the western or American models? Should our education be free or not? Should our students have II or 12 grades at high school? What subjects should be included in the program? No clarity exists on any of these points. Russian education is hotly debated.

Tatiana Yakushkina, Russian exchange scholar
University of Northern Colorado
Foreign Language Department
501 20th Street
Greeley, Colorado 80639

Article appeared in the Journal of the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers, "PEALS", Volume 36, Number 1, Spring 1999