For those Native English teachers who live and work abroad, I feel that it is important to illustrate the cultural context of the classroom, as well as focus on instilling excellence in our teaching.
In the article below, I describe my experiences as an ESL teacher and teacher trainer in Russia. Please note that my teaching methods, being an American, differed significantly from those of my colleagues. Students learned from both their Russian English teachers and from me; neither method can be defined as superior to the other. The cultural norms and economic conditions influenced student behavior in the classroom.
As teachers and as guests, we must be aware of the cultural contexts and we must be flexible, cordial, and open to adapting our teaching to best fit the needs of our students.
Russians at the Siberian institute where I am posted as an exchange scholar display a deep love of foreign languages – not just English but also German, French and Chinese, among others. This institute also houses a department called American Cultural Studies. Despite these educational variations, Russian student curiosity for all things foreign does not seem as direct or open as that of the American students I know who come to Russia to study. Perhaps this is because Russian cultural behavior is based upon a blend of thirst for contact with the outside world mixed with a great xenophobia of being contaminated by foreigners. Certainly, Russian culture, particularly in Siberia, is unique. Siberia seems neither European nor Asiatic, yet displays features of both cultures. Now, after decades and even centuries of periodic isolation, Russian students here are expressing more curiosity and interest in foreigners and everything foreign.
Throughout history, various European languages have been popular in Russia. The Tsar Peter the Great (ruled 1682-1696) traveled to Europe and brought back German engineers and scientists to help modernize his country. Later, Catherine the Great, born a German, became the leader of Russia (ruled 1762-1796), and she helped make the German language popular in the 18th century. Significantly, in 1755 all the professors, with the exception of Lomonosov himself, at Moscow University were Germans. Later, in the 19th century, French served as the lingua franca for the Russian nobility. Many of the aristocrats spoke better French than Russian. Now, in recent decades, English has become extremely popular in the Russian Federation. English is perceived not only as a global language for educational reasons, but also as a gateway to international business opportunities and a popular venue for entertainment: songs, videos, podcasts, etc.
When Soviet Union came into being in 1917, Foreign Language Teaching (FLT) was considered an unpopular subject, as the attitudes toward non-Russian cultures and languages were often negative. As can be imagined, French suffered the most in the early Soviet era, because this language had been associated with the Russian aristocracy. Later, however, the Soviet party line advocated “foreign languages for the masses,” offering foreign languages throughout the educational system. Yet studying and using foreign languages never gained the blessings of the Soviet regime. People who learned these languages were suspect: it was thought that either they wanted to emigrate, or had suspicious yearnings toward western culture.
As a young American woman traveling to the USSR in the 1980s, I was conditioned by American scholars to question those Russians who spoke a foreign language. My interactions with those who spoke English or French were also filled with suspicion. Were these people spies for their government, or defectives wanting to flee Russia? All through Soviet times, from their own and from the foreigners whose languages they studied, such language learners were perceived as lacking Russian loyalty and patriotism. Soviet multi-linguals were branded as dissatisfied with their own language, culture, country, and world.
Nevertheless, many Soviet scholars learned foreign languages. Every day I interact with people who were trained in English during the Soviet era. These older colleagues at the institute, who teach English and English Linguistics, have told me that it was not easy. “At that time (Soviet Era) we had no access to the native speaker; we had no books from English speaking countries,” said Masha, a professor1 of English philology. “Today teaching English is a lucrative profession; we all may choose to take on private students, in addition to our regular curriculum workload.” Masha’s assertion was confirmed quickly. In less than a month of my arrival to this institute, many people – students and professors – asked me if they could refer ‘private’ students’ to me. “These students want your expertise and your native fluency,” said Natasha, another instructor, “and they will pay anywhere from 500 rubles to 1500 rubles for 90 minutes of your time.”
During my teaching tenure at the institute I was able to observe the teaching conditions and methods my colleagues utilized. Russian teachers employ very little communicative methodology: It is not considered serious, having come from the West. Russian teachers also maintain their professional boundaries by having complete control of the classroom, in terms of teacher talk, and in terms of movement. The teachers often switched from Russian to English, to ‘help’ their students grasp concepts; some teachers also interrupted and criticized their students when they spoke. Clearly, teacher authority was not to be challenged or questioned.
Many of the Russian students I encountered had never taken classes from an American. I was able to gain input from my students. Camilla, a young woman from group of masters’ students, said: “We were so shocked at first when you taught us. You walked around, you made us stand, catch balls, perform debates and play games with papers…this was shocking. Our Russian teachers are very strict; they never get out of their seats and sit at the desk, often speaking more Russian than English to us. We don’t play: we study.”
The conditions and the students shocked me. Most of my classrooms lacked proper equipment; some had old blackboards that were impossible to write upon. I had no projector or smart boards, and the classrooms were small, 10x12 square meters, with old wooden desks crowded into the room. It was impossible to rearrange the desks to create different environments; I could barely squeeze past desks to get to my seat. Although the classrooms were warmly heated in the winter, the sunlight all year glared into the rooms, making it hard to see or work. Ironically, after four months of teaching in this environment, I discovered that there were excellent classrooms, with smart boards, and conference rooms with projectors and Internet capacity. These rooms, however, were not designated as accessible for English Language majors. Instead, the department of theoretical linguistics, and the administration, used these rooms for special conferences and courses.
My Russian students bewildered me as well. Although the class size was small, the attendance rate was abysmal, with only four or five students out of a total of ten to fifteen ever showing up for a lesson. “They do not pay, so they do not care,” said Irina, a language teacher. “Don’t take it personally; we all have this problem.” A master student also told me directly: “We have to study English, but we prefer Chinese. My double major is English/Chinese. I will go and live in China, become a teacher of English. My English is good enough now. I’m tired of studying, but I still go to Chinese classes.” Still other students reported that, with the economy, they preferred to seek work, as singers, as waitresses, or working in business, and all they needed was the diploma. “We will pass no matter whether we show up or not,” said one young master student, “So why come to class when I can work?” Although many students had never had a native speaker for an instructor, they did not seem to think that a native speaker was worthy of their attention. (In contrast, my colleagues were delighted to ask me linguistic and cultural questions from the moment I walked into the department until I left at the end of the day).
During my tenure as an exchange scholar, it became clear that students were passing exams without performing up to academic standards. Getting the certificate or diploma by any possible means was more important to some students than gaining true knowledge of their subject. The implication of corrupt practices in Russian education is difficult to face. Corruption remains deep-rooted and stems from various social, historical and cultural reasons, too complex to delve into with this article.
The USSR was a state that often forced its citizens to learn to survive by making useful and lucrative connections with others. Today, with economic conditions still on the downturn, people remain resigned to corrupt practices. “What can be we do?” said Alex, a 21-year-old English major, “We know everything is broken and corrupt. We also know that we have to solve all our own problems. The administration isn’t going to help – not the police, not the university, no one but friends. So we pay when we must and depend upon our friends.” Another student, Marina, commented: “I just need the certificate so I can work. I got the job through my mother’s friends and I’ll learn what I need on the job.”
Nevertheless, Russian students at the institute respected their teachers. They understood that these instructors and professors were working for low pay, yet they were dedicated to supporting student success. When I observed classes, I noted that a strict hierarchy existed between student and teacher. At the same time, an obvious affection existed between teacher and students. To convey respect, Russian students spoke to their teachers using formal means of address. To respect the institution of education, both teachers and students dressed well when attending classes.
Russian teaching methods appeared strict and old fashioned. The bulk of the classes I visited employed grammar-translation methodology, with teachers and students reading texts line-by-line and translating back and forth between Russian and English. The in-house book specified the so-called ‘communicative’ activities. They included: filling in a CLOZE exercise, translation from English to Russian and vice versa, matching exercises, and analyzing charts and other forms of data. Generally, students were not expected to move from their seats or interact in pairs or groups with their peers. Some of my teaching colleagues, however, would make up interactive games: pulling a phrase from a basket and translating it, or offer poetry reading contests and other contests to stimulate individual presentations before a peer audience.
“Another shift in our language teaching,” said Olga, an instructor, “is the fact that our students have access to much more English than we ever did. They can play those communicative games online. Our institute is pedagogical: it is a serious minded place with courses designed to teach language and linguistics.” Olga’s comment rang sharply in my ears; I disregarded her implied belittlement of communicative methods, while heeding the shift in English accessibility. Russian students are no longer isolated from American and other world English contexts: They can surf the net and interact using digital technology. Russian television has also dramatically increased the amount of English used in advertising. Finally, Russian students have several different kinds of work opportunities to go abroad and work while practicing their English. Russian language majors no longer sit behind an Iron Curtain and learn English via Shakespeare and Dickens and O’Henry. Instead, they’re watching Sex in the City, and downloading videos and music via Torrent or watching them on YouTube.
In Russia, formal language education is again undergoing transitions, via governmental mandates that higher educational institutions must be ranked, merge with other like-minded bodies, and become economically profitable. Student attendance numbers are down – partly due to the decreasing population, ad partly due to a lack of interest. Those students who have money often opt to attend private English language institutes. “They really teach you there; it’s not about boring theory, it’s about real language,” said Maxim, a wealthy 21year old son of a telecom businessman. “I can get my diploma in business, but I’m studying English at the ABC School, not at the institute.”
What are the trends for the future regarding English language teaching in Russia? Some scholars are predicting that the current economic downturn, combined with the war in the Ukraine, the sanctions imposed by the USA and Europe, will cause the Russian state to again close its doors to the West. Others speculate an exodus of bright Russian students, as hard times approach again. But some feel that digital technology, globalization, and the Internet will all serve to keep Russian students, despite economic hardships, connected to the world. One can only wait and watch.
1 To protect my colleagues, all quotes are pseudonyms or anonymous.
2 Please refer to Ledeneva, A. V. (1998). Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange (Vol. 102). London, UK: Cambridge University Press.