Modern English breaks stranglehold of Soviets

September 22, 1995

British cultural studies, a new trend in the teaching of English in Russian universities, is breathing life back into a language strangled under Soviet isolationism.

In the years since the collapse of communism, demand for English language teaching throughout the CIS states has boomed, with teachers and students demonstrating a particular hunger for contact and communication with native speakers, radio, television and other contemporary British media.

During the lonely years of life behind the Iron Curtain, when all but a tiny privileged elite were denied access to the outside world and "communication with foreigners" was a punishable offence, English was taught as a dead language, dry grammar and vocabulary taken from the ideologically-approved pages of Shakespeare and Dickens.

The explosion of openness, contact and information witnessed in recent years has been both welcome and confusing: with many highly qualified lecturers and bright students puzzled by the nuances of contemporary English.

Now leading linguists are moving to fill the gap - and design courses to provide the cultural context within which English lives.

Svetlana Ter-Minasova, dean of the faculty of foreign languages at Moscow State University, has introduced courses in "the world of the language under study". Students now spend a third of the time allotted to language studies on this.

Professor Ter-Minasova, known as an influential and innovative force within the university, presents the cultural context through both Russian and English eyes. "The idea behind this is very simple," she says, "to give the fullest possible picture of the country. Foreigners frequently notice things that native speakers often take for granted."

How a language is moulded by its culture - and the effect of culture on its usage - are crucial to the understanding and communication of its subtleties, she believes.

Russians are often surprised to learn that in Britain relations between university lecturers and students are informal and that English is a language characteristically concerned with the feelings of others: she cites words such as "disabled" for invalid; "unwaged" for unemployed and "senior citizen" for pensioner as examples of "new forms of linguistic expression which do not hurt the individual's feelings about race, age, sex and other issues."

This move to breathe life back into the teaching of English - still largely embedded in the fine, but dry traditions of minute attention to grammar and correct syntax - can be found emerging throughout Russia.

A thousand kilometres east of Moscow in the Urals city of Perm, until recent years a closed city because of its military-related industries, Yuri Pinyagin, head of English at Perm State University, has just returned from a four-month fellowship at Strathclyde University, Scotland, where he was researching a new book.

His three-section book, Great Britain: Aspects of History, Culture and Way of Life, which takes a detailed look at the English, Welsh and Scots, should be published in Russia next year. The book will be in English and is designed to be used as a basic text by all English language students at Perm University - and elsewhere - as an introduction to British life.

"The problem with such books in previous years was that they borrowed or stole chapters from English books and simply reproduced them without change. But there are many facts which were not understandable by lecturers of English, let alone the poor students. My task is to adapt the text to the extent it is understandable by the average learner of English in Russia," said Professor Pinyagin.His extensive personal knowledge of Britain, gleaned from visits over 20 years as an official interpreter, coupled with careful, selective reading during the fellowship, promises to add a valuable text to the armoury of ambitious young students, many of whom have their sights set on jobs with foreign firms or overseas work.

Moscow University student Marina Gyn, who has studied in the United States, but has yet to visit Britain, acknowledged the value cultural studies have in supporting effective fluency in English. She said: "Speaking the language is not enough - you must be able to understand and respond within the context of a conversation. This is what cultural studies is all about."

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