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Saturday, 10 October 2009 12:24

Russian Speaking Foreigners Have Increased Worldwide

By Vladimir Emelyanenko

MOSCOW, October 10, (RusskiyMir) - “Russian is in demand around the world once again” - Interview with Yuri Prokhorov, rector of the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute. In recent years, the ranking of Russian in terms of spoken languages worldwide has decreased. The number of people studying Russian, however, is increasing. To explain these apparent contradictions, RusskiyMirDotRu spoke with Yuri Prokhorov, rector of the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute.


RusskiyMir: Dr. Prokhorov, according to various data (the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center, UNESCO), Russian dropped from fifth place to sixth-eighth in terms of languages most commonly spoken. What is the reason behind the declining status of Russian around the world?

Prokhorov: I don’t really agree with the assertion that its status has declined. There is often confusion when people talk about the number of people who were forced to study Russian at one time and the number of people who actually use it. In all the former socialist countries, people were required to study Russian, but that doesn’t mean that they spoke it.


From experience I can tell you about going to countries where six years of Russian study were required. Take ten people from those countries. In the best case, eight of the ten cannot speak Russian and two simply do not want to. In the worst case, eight don’t want to and two simply can’t.


So, measuring how well a language is known by how many people have studied doesn’t work. It is true that the number of people studying Russian has declined significantly. As for the number of people who speak Russian, that’s disputed. I would hold that this number has increased. When the Soviet Union declared that approximately 1.5 billion people spoke Russian, that assertion had no relation to actual statistics. It was related to politics.



RusskiyMir: What is your basis for saying that the number of Russian speakers has increased?

Prokhorov: The existence of the world's large Russian diaspora has meant that a number of civil servants in these countries are beginning to speak Russian. Our tourists are actively traveling around the world. Many hotels in a number of countries now have managers who speak Russian. Yes, the Russian language has declined in terms of numbers of students, but it has grown in terms of those who actually use it for communication. It is continuing to grow.


Russian is in demand around the world once again. In the EU, for example, there is a small but steady increase in people who have an interest in studying it. Their reasons include the creation of joint ventures, business development and the need to work in Russia. They’re studying the language, often independently.



RusskiyMir: In recent years, even eastern Europe (Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the former Yugoslavia) and Germany have seen a surge of people interested in studying Russian.  On the other hand, Russian schools are being closed on the Baltic, in Georgia and in Ukraine...

Prokhorov: This is the new reality. In eastern Europe, there is increasing demand. For example, in our institute the largest group of students are Polish and Hungarian economists. Students are still coming to us from these countries. They need Russian for work. Each year, we have students from seventy-five countries come to us. Lawyers come, as do those in the tourist business, philologists and businessmen. In other words, we get those whose knowledge of Russian can get them a job in their country. Most frequently we get people from Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland and Germany.


Generally, the presence of economic need in a relationship is the best way to promote the Russian language. With regard to the CIS, the “reality” is often not connected with the Russian language itself, but rather with political attitudes to Russian. The “persecution of Russian” that occurs in the media in a number of CIS and Baltic countries contradicts the reality, which is that people in these countries use Russian and study it in school.


The elite, those who reject it, are engaging in a certain form of self-determination characteristic of young independent states, which we can understand, but in some of the CIS countries, the titular language is unknown by up to 40% of citizens. I am also convinced that this is abnormal. If a person is a citizen of a country, he should be respectful and speak the official language.



RusskiyMir: Is there a need to promote Russian in those countries where its status is changing?

Prokhorov: However many relationships there are determines the degree to which language is needed. This rational approach in eastern Europe has led to a situation in which people have ceased viewing Russian as an ideological irritant and something unnecessary that they were forced to study.



RusskiyMir: What about the people who want to study Russian? How is that group changing?

Prokhorov: Our institute has students from everywhere, even from as far away as Australia and Argentina. Each year there are 3,000 students from seventy-five countries. So when we talk about national groups, everything is more or less stable. The only thing changing are the quantitative characteristics of the students.



RusskiyMir: With the advent of the economic crisis, there’s been an interesting trend among foreign business leaders and specialists working in Moscow and St. Petersburg. To save on expenses, many of them are no longer using translators and instead learning Russian themselves. What needs to be done in order to make this trend more entrenched?

Prokhorov: There’s no need to do anything, as this is a self-regulating system. Our roads provide a simple example. When there were few cars on the roads, there was one way of communicating. When a lot of cars appeared, people began to yield to other drivers wanting to turn left. Why? Because after ten meters, they would find themselves in the same situation.


As soon as a person experiences a material - real! - need, he’ll begin looking for ways and places to satisfy that need. It’s the same with language. All the sensible managers can speak the language of the country in which they’re working. This is part of their understanding of belonging to their class. One can’t live in China without learning at least a few words. To understand or not understand is the third issue. When it’s necessary, however, everything comes together.


I think that in our institute today, and not only here, there are a lot of businessmen and groups from the embassies. They need it. They have the bread - their own native language - whether it’s Hindi, Russian, German, whatever. The way the world is today, there’s also butter - English. But try to spend a month living on bread and butter alone; your stomach won’t tolerate it. You need something else. You need to make a sandwich. This is what I try to convince people of - put Russian on top. It’s both advantageous and tasty.



RusskiyMir: What is being done at the state level to make it advantageous to add Russian to this sandwich?

Prokhorov: A lot is being done, especially in the last six years. If you compare things with how they were in the mid-1990s, when nothing was being done, you’ll see that the federal target program for Russian is doing quite a bit. The Russkiy Mir Foundation is finding interest in other countries.



RusskiyMir: Bilingualism has long been the norm in the European Union. They argue that this is quite natural for their societies. What sort of role can Russian play in a multilingual system?

Prokhorov: It’s already built into it. The presence of demand determines the place. Right now, the dollar is worth 35 rubles and everyone is learning English. When the ruble is worth 35 dollars, what language will they be studying then?


I have a hunch that it would be Russian. Right now, in order to live like everyone else in the civilized world, Russian speakers need to know English. Recently, the British sounded the alarm bells; there are fewer foreigners studying English. The British Council is worried.


The second trouble is not so recognizable. As the language of international communication, English is detaching itself from culture. A Hindu may speak with a Malay in English, or an American may speak with a Chinese person in English. What kind of culture stands behind this? None. This is superficial conversation. There are the issues of Australian English, American English, etc. These languages are different; they’ve taken root at the local level. But as the language of international communication, the language has become divorced in many ways from the culture.



RusskiyMir: Could Russian fall into the same situation as English and be a language of international communication, divorced from a cultural context?

Prokhorov: On the one hand, as soon as it begins to acquire the status of an international language, any language gives the possibility of existing in this culture. On the other hand, it’s only that form that allows for its existence in a foreign environment and culture. Take any Russian-language newspaper in the CIS, for example. How do Russian-speaking Moldovans write?


Here’s an example: “In two weeks there will be elections for the premier of the municipality.” Allow me to translate that as “city mayor.” In other words, non-Russian ideas are conveyed in Russian. It’s a fact that language is always tied to a certain reality and culture. Foreigners tell me that the scariest construction in Moscow is “it’s not far.” For them it’s like a trip to another country. If someone from Luxembourg takes a bus in Moscow for fifteen minutes, rides the metro for thirty or thirty-five minutes and then walks another twelve or fifteen minutes to get where he needs to, then he might has well have traveled to another country.



RusskiyMir: A Kazakh and a Kyrgyz meet, or let’s say a Kabardin and a Georgian. As a rule, they will speak Russian. Is their communication also divorced from a cultural context?

Prokhorov: Somewhere Kazakh or Kyrgyz will appear. In the second case, it will be Caucasian culture. Russian gradually leaves. There is virtually nothing Russian, or nothing Russian at all, that they have around them. I ask Russian teachers in the Baltic - ethnic Russians - the question: “On the basis of which mentality do you speak there?” They reply, “of course, on the local in a lot of ways.” This despite the fact that Russian is their native language.



RusskiyMir: How do the British solve the problem of language being divorced from culture and mentality? How is it with our situation in this respect?

Prokhorov: The British have acknowledged the problem, and we are going through a certain historical period where both experience and problems are building up. For example, we have a lot of immigrants who don’t fit into our culture and have no intention of doing so. And we don’t insist that they do, as we are certain that this is something that they need, not us. They used to think like that in France and, as a result, there were a lot of problems with nonintegrated immigrants. There needs to be a certain degree of adaptation among immigrants, and we need to enable that to happen.



RusskiyMir: Are there any national and sociocultural patterns of spoken communication that either hinder or help in teaching Russian to foreigners?

Prokhorov: In general, yes. However well a foreigner has mastered Russian, we can very quickly identify him as someone who is not from our culture. Once, when I was in Berlin, I visited two lovely old Germans. I went into a room that was very cold. They say, “If you’d like, we can adjust the temperature.”


I went into the bathroom, which was arctic cold. Again, they said, “If you’d like, we can adjust it.” I told them that I understood the word, but to show me what it is. They showed me a device in the kitchen that lets them save on electricity by setting the right temperature. Then they spent a long time explaining how to use the electric teakettle, asking me, “Will you have tea?” It was very cold last December, and I replied, “I will.”  And then they asked me a question that threw me off for a moment.


They asked, “How many cups?” That’s German common sense. Pour less water to save on that, as well as on electricity. There are national patterns and peculiarities of speaking in any language. People from Moscow, Vladivostok and St. Petersburg are all going to have different ways of speaking. A friend and classmate of mine was born in Yakutsk. When we studied together, at first I couldn’t understand some of the things he would say, like “How cold it is in Moscow!


In Yakutsk, it’s thirty degrees below zero, but I don’t get so cold because it’s dry. It’s humid here, and fifteen below freezes me to the bones.” I simply couldn’t understand how someone from the north could be cold with only seven to fifteen below.


A Russian will not ask, “how many cups will you have?” The Moscow tendency to say “it’s not far” is hardly a distance at all for a Siberian. Someone from Yakutsk feels cold in Moscow. These are patterns from different realities and cultures, and they will definitely appear in communication.



RusskiyMir: In your view, is Russian able to return and assert its lost position in the world, or has its time passed? Has the time come to consider it a regional language?

Prokhorov: Language is a product. As a philologist, I understand that language is a treasure trove of culture, so this is something I don’t need to be convinced of. But as a person who teaches Russian to foreigners, I know that I have a customer. For him, language is advantageous for purchasing a product. As a philologist I have to convince my client that for a certain amount of time I am teaching him a language and its advantage. But it’s something you have to be able to sell. For a long time, however, we have presented it as an ideology or as an introduction to a culture in the highest sense of the word.


A different culture and its perception are complex even for a trained person. One must first live in the language environment, be caught by its patterns, and only then begin recognizing and fitting to the reality. You see, today, nobody needs to be persuaded that the Russian language is a treasure trove of world culture and that great works have been written in the language.


But when I tell 3,000 students at our institute that if they learn Russian, they will be paid 20% more for their work, then they begin to understand. But if I tell them that they will be able to read Pushkin in the original, they run away from me. This isn’t what they came for. If a foreigner discovers that he likes Russian, gets carried away by Russian literature and makes his way to Pushkin, well, thank God for that!



RusskiyMir: Doesn’t this degree of pragmatism distress you?

Prokhorov: I’ve spent my entire life on issues concerning the interrelation of language and culture. Let’s make a judgement based on reality. It’s quite simple, actually. The more I teach Russian to people and explain its advantageous for them, the better that will be for language. Out of those 3,000 students, at least ten or so will make their way to Pushkin. And this is already the result that we should be striving for.

Interview conducted by Vladimir Emelyanenko  


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