Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Why Don’t Russians “Want” to Learn English?

by Giovana Mete

Giovana Mete is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois and majored in Psychology and Spanish. Giovana is currently working as an addiction’s counselor at Nicasa Behavioral Health Services. Her plans include attending Trinity International University this fall for a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling. Her goal is to become a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.

In this blog, I will explore the motivations for Russian citizens to learn the English language in their home country. I will focus on the lack of English usage in Russia with an emphasis on the barriers to learning English in comparison to other countries - the barriers to learning English include a variety of historical and social factors. I will be asking the questions, “Why do most Russians (81%) only speak their mother tongue while the rest of Europe seems to be learning English (BBC, 2014)? What are the motivations to learn English in Russia? What are the barriers to learning English? Why aren’t more Russians using English as a lingua franca (LF)?”

In Russia and beyond, the Russian language is used as a LF as it is “the most geographically widespread language in all of Eurasia and it’s the most popular native language in Europe.” There are around 138 million Russian speakers in Russia, “followed [...] by Ukraine (14.3 million), Belarus (6.9 million), Poland (6.9 million) and Kazakhstan (3.8 million) [and]... among first languages, Russian accounts for 2.3 percent of the global population in Europe'' (Babel, 2021). Sharing the same language makes it significantly easier to communicate across these countries.

Although Russian is widely used in Eastern Europe, English is not very common in Russia as only 11 percent of Russians speak English. Regardless of this small percentage, English is still the second most popular language in Russia (Sorokina, 2017). According to the EF English Proficiency Index, Russia received a moderate score in comparison to 100 other countries and regions. Russia is on the lower end of English proficiency in Europe (EF Epi). It makes sense that Russians would not be learning English as there are more Russian (221 million) than English speakers in Eastern Europe (212 million) (Babel, 2021).

Source: https://englishrussia.com/images/newpictures/Foreign-celebrities-in-Russian-ads/0019a3fb9b7331ca1115539db2a262a7_full.jpg

There are different reasons for the use of Russian as a LF; one argument is that Russian needs to be used to communicate in learning minority languages in Russia. Minority languages are dying and some groups in Russia want to revive their own national languages by teaching them in school. Since they live in Russia, and speak Russian, it furthers the need to use Russian as a LF in order to learn the minority languages. The Russkiy Mir foundation states, “world experience shows that getting rid of a lingua franca is not always an easy task and is certainly not always an essential one” (Russian, 2008).

One significant reason Russian is a LF in Eastern Europe is due to Russia’s strong zone influence after Germany lost most of its power in Eastern Europe in WWII. The Germans lost the War on the Eastern Front and lost control of Poland - Russia gained more power and influence in Eastern Europe including the Slavic country of Poland. Once the US realized the Soviet Union’s goal for “target(ing) large Russian-speaking populations in Eastern Partnership states with propaganda [...] to turn them against Western institutions'' the US lacked trust again as well as Eastern Europe; Russia’s “willingness to [...] military power against its neighbors has often alienated those who might otherwise align themselves with Russia rather than the EU culturally or economically” (Bond, 2017).

During the existence of the Soviet Union people were encouraged not to speak with foreigners. Even as the Soviet Union ended and Russia became much more open, they were still accustomed to their previous way of life. Many Russians have not traveled beyond the border of the former Soviet Union, so they were not forced to learn another form of communication.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the US-Russian relationship was restored until 2014 when Russia rejected the agreed upon bipartisan strategy to further cooperation on global issues and increase foreign investments and trade. The US helped Russia join many institutions to ensure security, but Russia did not cooperate. In 2014, Russia attacked Ukraine and the US stopped the Bilateral Presidential Commission as well as their partnership with Russia; the country was aggressive with Georgia and Ukraine as well as competing with the US. Russia’s goal was to disrupt NATO and the EU as well as make the democratic system look bad (US, 2021). The US and Russia were back to square one with their different colliding ideologies: communism vs capitalism (Lefaucheurc, 2018). So, it makes sense that today, Russians still do not want much to do with the US as many Russians do not approve of the American ideology and vice versa.

Americans still hold negative views of Russians in day-to-day life which demonstrates the long-lasting impact of US-Russian relations and highlights one of the main reasons Russians do not feel the need to learn English. In a research study, Americans were asked to rank their sentiment towards the Russian country and Russian citizens from 0 (cold, unfavorable) to 100 (warm, favorable). As one would expect, during the time periods that Russian and US governments had good relations, Americans ranked Russia and Russian people as more favorable. However, in 2020, they received a ranking of about 29 which is towards the lower end meaning more unfavorable (Smeltz, 2021). Not only do typical Americans often hold negative views towards Russians, but Americans are often cautious since they have been taught to believe that Russians can be spies and should be wary of their questionable behavior. A Russian man living in the US said, “People would see a young and beautiful Russian woman working in a prestigious position and instantaneously conclude she is employed by Russian intelligence. I don’t say these things from movies, but from real life and real [people]'' (Abel, 2017). This shows that common Americans hold unfavorable views about Russia and that there is a stigma surrounding typical Russian people.

Until more recently, there was not much of a practical use for Russians to learn English as they were politically, economically, and scientifically powerful and independent. The Russian language is still necessary for Russia as a LF for scientific reasons; for example, it would be very difficult for Russian scientists to switch to English as all their scientific communication is already in Russian and can communicate with a wide variety of Eastern European countries scientifically. Also, for other national groups in Russia such as the Khakas (Turkish indigenous people of Siberia), it would also be difficult to switch to English or Turkish. Changing languages often requires a more necessary and intentional reason than simply having the desire to work with more countries if it is not essential (Russian, 2008). Zoya Proshina makes it clear that academic works are seldom completed in English due to the requirements of dissertation as most Russian grant-supported research is required to be in Russian. Russian academics want to be well known everywhere but the requirement to write in Russian stops that from happening, so they have a smaller group of academics. If they were allowed to write in English, they would be able to use it as ELF and be more well-known (Proshina, 2008).

Although there are not yet enough reasons for Russians to learn English, it is possible it would be useful in the future as English-speaking countries continue to hold more power in many different aspects, English may become more necessary. Also, it is likely that younger Russians will travel more and find a use for English and begin to unlock previously unexplored cultures and unique opportunities.

References

Allen Abel. “What It's like to Be Russian in the U.S. Right Now.” Macleans.ca, 17 July 2017, https://www.macleans.ca/society/life/what-its-like-to-be-russian-in-the-u-s-right-now/.

Babbel.com, and Lesson Nine GmbH. “How Many People Speak English, and Where Is It Spoken?” 2021, Babbel Magazine, https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/how-many-people-speak-english-and-where-is-it-spoken.

Babbel.com, and Lesson Nine GmbH. “How Many People Speak Russian, and Where Is It Spoken?” 2021, Babbel Magazine, https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/how-many-people-speak-russian-and-where-spoken.

Ian Bond. “Contested Space: Eastern Europe between Russia and the EU.” Centre for European Reform, 09 March 2017, https://www.cer.eu/publications/archive/policy-brief/2017/contested-space-russian-and-eu-relations-eastern-europe.

Dina Smeltz, Brendan Helm. “Despite Political Tension, Americans and Russians See Cooperation as Essential.” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 16 Mar. 2021, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/research/public-opinion-survey/despite-political-tension-americans-and-russians-see-cooperation.

“EF Epi 2020 - EF English Proficiency Index.” EF EPI 2020 - EF English Proficiency Index, https://www.ef.com/wwen/epi/.

“Languages - Languages.” BBC, BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/european_languages/countries/russia.shtml.

Lefaucheurc. “What Will Russia Do after the War?: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, The National World War II Museum, 3 Sept. 2018, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/what-will-russia-do-after-war.

Proshina, Zoya. English as a Lingua Franca in Russia. 2008, https://web.uri.edu/iaics/files/10-Zoya-Proshina.pdf.

“Russian as a Lingua Franca.” ФОНД РУССКИЙ МИР. 22, Oct. 2008, https://russkiymir.ru/en/publications/139605/.

Sorokina, Anna. “How Russians Learn English and Why They Fail at It.” Russia Beyond, 28 Sept. 2017, https://www.rbth.com/education/326271-how-russians-learn-english.

“U.S. Relations with Russia - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 3 Sept. 2021, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-russia/.

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