Call for steps to protect Russian

December 15, 2006

The world's fourth most widely spoken language is about to be overtaken. Nick Holdsworth reports

Languages, institutions, students and academics face threats in Eastern Europe

Viktor Sadovnichy, Moscow State University head, has called for urgent steps to protect and promote the Russian language.

New figures show that the number of Russian speakers - the world's fourth most widely spoken language after Chinese, English and Spanish - will halve within 20 years, meaning there will be the same number of speakers as there was in 1900. It will be overtaken by French, Hindu, Arabic and Portuguese unless more is done to promote it within the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, Professor Sadovnichy told the second assembly of the Intellectual Russia World Forum in Bryansk.

"Russian today is the native language for nearly 164 million people, including 130 million Russian citizens, 26.4 million in former Soviet countries and 7.5 million emigrants in the West," he is quoted by state news agency Itar-Tass as saying.

Up to 114 million people speak Russian as a foreign language or as their second tongue, but he said that a growing number of Russians preferred to use other languages. "We are witnessing more cases where Russian schoolchildren, who have studied at a college in London for a year or so, ask us to set exams in English," he said.

His comments were based on a study by the Russian Academy of Sciences Centre for Demography and Human Ecology, which studies ethnic migrations and analyses the position of ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics.

The study found that key factors driving the decline were reduced international prestige for the language that once dominated the communist world and Russia's fast declining population.

Growing adoption of native languages in the former Soviet republics for everyday as well as official use is creating a generation for whom Russian is an alien language and English the preferred choice of second tongue.

Fewer than 1 million people study Russian in central and Eastern Europe today, compared with 10 million in 1990 before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the centre estimates.

Moves such as the attempt by Tartarstan - a Tartar-speaking semi-autonomous republic in central Russia - to scrap the Cyrillic alphabet in favour of a Latin-based one; anti-Russian policies such as Turkmenistan's ban on the teaching of Russian; and Kyrgyzstan's relegation of Russian to a secondary position, have stoked anxieties in the Kremlin.

A law passed by the Russian parliament three years ago banning the use of foreign words in official debates has done little to stem the tide of references by ordinary people to "biznesmyen" and going away for "veekend" breaks.

Elena Lenskaya, deputy director of the British Council in Moscow and a former Russian Deputy Education Minister, said that although English was a study priority for many governments in parts of the former Soviet Union, Russian was gaining through tourism.

"Russian is not under threat at the moment but is deteriorating. But one must not underestimate the power of tourism and money, and today in most tourist destinations - even those not traditionally Russian targets such as Tunisia and Greece - you will find Russian widely spoken. Often when one tries to switch to English the locals prefer to speak Russian," she said.

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