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Analysis & Opinion
19.06.08 Lost In Translation
By Sergei Balashov

“Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in spite of all of the problems it has to face outside of Russia, the Russian language remains the fourth most popular language on the planet behind English, Chinese and Spanish,” said the Vice President of the Center for Political Technologies Sergei Mikheev. “Russian language is an instrument of communication in a string of countries that occupy a huge territory, but it has been facing some serious problems over the past 15 years.”
Among these problems is the repression of the language in the CIS and Baltic countries, as all but two former Soviet republics declared their national languages as the only official ones, leaving Russian out of the picture. While the influence of sizeable Russian-speaking communities in those countries kept the language alive, a recent study conducted by the Eurasian Monitor Research Center gives a cloudy forecast for the future.

According to the center’s report, titled “Russian language in independent countries,” roughly 46 percent of middle-aged populations of former Soviet countries remain fluent in Russian, while the same number for people below the age of 18 is 14 percent lower. The decline is also evident outside of the former Soviet bloc, in countries where the traditions of teaching and learning Russian have been solid. “This is an obvious problem,” said the president of the Center for Political Trends Konstantin Simonov. “I often talk to Chinese students, and their knowledge of Russian is much worse than that of the older generation; we have clearly been careless about this issue.”

The government has been set on turning the tide, seeing language as the chief means of retaining influence over its former satellites and enhancing economic ties with the outside world. The year 2007 was officially declared as the year of the Russian language. Over 950 events were held, including international forums, conferences, and exhibitions dedicated to the promotion of Russian language, history and culture. “We can confidently say that this project has been successful,” said Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Yakovenko at the year’s closing event. “This unprecedented measure attracted international attention to Russian language, provided incentives to teach it, and boosted the activities of Russianists. The international community’s interest in our language, education and science, and all that defines our national endowment, has grown.”

Talking economy

The decline is downplayed as just a transition between the different incentives people have for learning the language. “The motivation for learning Russian is changing,” said a member of the Just Russia party Alexei Mitrofanov. “The new generations want to learn Russian to get more options for their future. People work, communicate and read scientific literature in Russian, and they have a strong need for the language. This will be the main motivation, and that’s what we have to base our approach for improving it on.”

The economic approach seems to prevail over the heavy emphasis placed on trying to restore Russian cultural influence. “I think the role of the language in spreading Russian culture around the globe is overrated,” said Director for the Russian Language Center in London Frank Althaus. “Russia should be promoted as a friendly place to visit. It should be welcoming to both tourists and businessmen, then more people will visit and that’s how you can promote the language and develop the ties.”

Althaus’ center teaches Russian as a foreign language, and its audience is very diverse. “We have a lot of people from the Eastern bloc countries, such as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, who are looking for jobs in Moscow. People are looking to learn Russian to get more career opportunities,” said Althaus. Still, this group doesn’t make up the majority, as about 70 to 75 percent of the center’s clients are UK natives, who have their own reasons to get into the once unpopular language.

“Now we have about 110 people attending our evening classes, and around 250 clients who are learning Russian for work reasons,” continued Althaus. “Some are interested in Russian culture, and some are simply looking to learn a few things before they come over for a visit.”

Althaus claims that the drive for learning Russian comes naturally. “Russia is seen as slightly more serious now. It’s a part of the mainstream, unlike 20 or even ten years ago. It’s opening up and more people are willing to learn about it.”

Missing the point

Recently, two initiatives aimed at promoting the Russian language in the media and on the Internet have been put forward, and both won strong support from the government. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke about the importance of developing Russian-language media outlets abroad at the World Congress of the Russian press in June. Putin pledged to throw whatever support the government can provide behind the Russian language media outlets, including online newspapers, underlining the need to maintain their independence and neutrality.

“If the Russian government starts supporting the media, it will be seen as if they are trying to get their message across by doing it, and that’s not a good thing” said Althaus. “Their willingness to support the media is wonderful, but it isn’t the solution for spreading the language and culture. I would rather ease up on visas and bring more artists here, and do something to improve the language exchange. That would really help.”

“Print media isn’t a good thing to invest in,” continued Althaus. “The internet is a wonderful source for all things Russian, and while 20 years ago we had to use three or four textbooks that were 30 years out of date, now we can just go on the internet and have it all, we can even listen to the actual spoken language this way.”

The Internet has been the other center of attention for the government. Medvedev suggested going even further, calling for introducing domain names in Cyrillic as soon as by the end of this year. Technical specialists, however, note that the possible difficulties with the different encoding that is used for Russian fonts could be a major setback. But the suggestion has enjoyed strong support at home. “It is a timely initiative that takes into account the popularity of the Internet,” commented Mitrofanov. “I think all such initiatives are relevant. We have the Internet in English, so why don’t we have it in Russian?” he added.

But Russian domains would be unwelcome among foreigners that take interest in learning Russian and frequently visit Russian news websites--a key audience targeted by any measures aimed at promoting the Russian language. “Putting internet addresses in Cyrillic would only complicate things,” opined Althaus. “When I go to the Izvestia website, I get all the Russian I need and all the Russian I want. I may have Russian fonts on my keyboard, but most people here who read Russian media don’t, and they’ll have trouble accessing those websites.”
What Russia is neglecting are more down to earth initiatives, that would grant all of the willing the opportunity to learn Russian. “The language isn’t taught as much, and we aren’t helping the situation in any way,” commented Simonov. “I recently talked to a Russian language teacher in Bulgaria, and she told me that she actually uses foreign grants to teach it. Russia isn’t helping these people.”
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