Friday, 30 March 2012

A guide to the Общежитие - part 2

ДАС (DAS) isn't really that bad when you get used to it, it was just a bit of a shock for me at first after having not been a student for a while. There were a few things that needed changing (like the fact that my mattress had several big holes in it with springs sticking out of them that poked me every time I moved in the night), but it does have advantages over, say, главное здание (the main building) - it may have cockroaches and no internet, but it doesn't have rats. We used to debate this for a long time - is internet worth rats?

The building is set up as follows. There are two buildings linked by a long entrance hall only a couple of stories high. Two guards are stationed at the entrance to check everyone coming in - they scrutinise your student card with the upmost attention, as if they hadn't seen you enter the building every day for the last six months. It's the same when you leave with a suitcase - you need special permission to do this, presumably in case you steal the kitchen sink. The thing is, it would literally have to be the kitchen sink because there is nothing else to steal.

Anyway, after you get past them, the entrance hall contains the столовая (stolovaya - cafeteria) where they serve food from 7am to 10pm every day, the читальный зал (chitalny zal - reading room/library), the entrance to the old swimming pool (now without water), and, bizarrely enough, up a flight of stairs, the entrance to the solarium (messages about skin cancer have yet to reach Russia).

The entrance hall. The fence-like thing is where you come in, the reading room is up the stairs at the back, and the dining hall is on the left.

The dining hall. The food is not bad and really cheap.
The читальный зал is unusual. Firstly it is unheated, which means you have to wear you coat at all times or risk being found frozen to the table the next morning. Secondly, all the books are at least thirty years old, and are mostly copies of various scientific journals, i.e. totally useless. Thirdly, there are no electric sockets in the place, but there is a giant teddy bear. I had a very circular conversation with the custodian about this. I kept asking her if there were any electric points in the room, and she kept repeating that this was a library, as though this self-evidently meant that electricity would be right out.

If you continue to the end of the entrance hall and into one of the корпусы (corpusy - blocks) you will get to the shop, which is basically a small convenience store, except with better prices, where everyone buys their water. You will also see the lifts, which you can take if you are tired of life. Personally, I think it would be less painless to play Russian roulette, but everyone is allowed to choose their own way of dying, I suppose. They never stop level with the floor, wobble alarmingly as they move, and you can hear the chains groaning as they pull you up the building. I wouldn't be surprised if one day they gave up entirely and the lift plummeted to the basement. And although a small part of me remains convinced that if you jump just before the lift hit the ground you would be ok, most of me knows this wouldn't work. Assuming you don't die, you may also end up stuck for hours if the doors fail to open, which they used to do not infrequently (they have been a lot better for the last couple of months). One of my friends came back late at night to find people shouting for help stuck between the 5th and 6th floors.

The lifts and stairs. NEVER step through the lift doors without checking first that the lift is actually there - sometimes it isn't and you will plunge to your death.
On each floor, there are a bunch of dorm rooms and two kitchens. The rooms are mostly two rooms containing two people each with a bathroom shared between them, but sometimes you are lucky (like me), and get two people in one room with a bathroom to themselves, and sometimes you are unlucky and get six people in a room all sharing one bathroom.

ДАС corridors may look like you are in a horror movie about a mental asylum, but this is, in fact, not true.
The kitchens each contain two sets of four electric rings and three sinks. There are actually several broken cookers behind a low wall, but these are rusted shut, and anyway, they are not plugged in. Baking cakes is right out, but on balance, this is a good thing.

Another unusual thing about ДАС is the fire alarms, which go off at least once a week as people have a stupid habit of smoking in their rooms. The fire alarm is first in Russian and then in a series of other languages. For the English version they found someone from the 1950s to tell you that, "there is a fire in the hostel. Please collect your documents and leave the building by the emergency exits. Do not use the lifts". However, if there is a fire in the night you will be burnt to a crisp, because the fire alarms only go off in the corridors, and are not loud enough to get through doors. The first time I heard the fire alarm, I thought that there might actually be a fire (I know, how stupid can you get?), so I went to the end of the corridor and tried to take the fire escape down to the ground floor. Big mistake. You can't get down to the ground that way - it only goes down to the second floor and then is blocked off. Plus, when I climbed back up to my floor I found the door had locked behind me, so I had to keep climbing up the fire escape until I found a door I could prise open with a biro.

The basic problem with ДАС is that it was built in 1971, and they haven't done anything to it since. Forty years ago it was apparently really a great place to live, and walking past the now-padlocked balconies on every floor, you can see this (kind-of). Now, however, I think the best thing to do would be to demolish the entire building with one of those giant cannon balls on a string and start again.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A guide to the Общежитие - part 1

The общежитие is basically a Halls of Residence, and mine is called ДАС (Дом Аспиранта и Стажёра). There are several in МГУ, but none as bad as this one. I'm not just saying that - before I got here my Russian teacher in London told me the worst thing that could happen would be that I ended up in ДАС. So of course I emailed the school before I got here to ask where I would be living, and whether there was any possibility of choosing, but, as in everything, they were singularly uninformative, instead repeating the mantra, "just come to Moscow. Everything will be sorted out when you get here". I'm not quite sure why I fell for this. I must have temporarily taken leave of my senses.

ДАС on a good day. This is actually entirely the wrong kind of light for ДАС, which should only be photographed in drizzle under a steel grey sky in order to accurately capture the atmosphere of the place

More ДАС I'm afraid. But look - the snow is melting!
And so it was, that at 6am one dark, decidedly autumnal morning in late September I pulled up outside the building, right in front of a collection of those massive bins that populate New York alleys and exist solely for vampires, murderers and cats to jump out at you from behind. At this point, it did occur to me that this might be one of the bigger mistakes I have made in my life. What I could see of the building looked like it should be condemned. The driver took me into the totally deserted entry hall, where after some discussion, the guards let me through. I was then taken along a corridor, complete with paint peeling off the walls, and after banging on one particular door for some time, the driver abandoned me to the mercies of the old woman who opened it. She told me that the room I had been assigned was already full, but that this wouldn't be a problem, they would fit me in anyway, and packed me off with a slip of paper to find another old woman at the other end of the building six floors up. This woman, who should be given a part in the next film about the Bastille, or some medieval prison, had a cough which sounded like she had the plague, was mostly covered in an enormous shawl, and had the biggest collection of keys I have ever seen, all strung on a massive metal circle. I kept expecting her to cackle as she looked for, and then tried to prize off the requisite keys from the keyring.

We set off to find the room. Naturally when we got there the keys didn't work, so the old woman bashed on the door until it was opened by a half-asleep and totally bewildered girl who is now my room mate. Although there were two beds in the room, one was on its side against the wall with a desk in front of it, and the mattress had been moved to the other bed. The undaunted old lady broke the desk into pieces and dumped it in the hallway before departing, and I exchanged a few words with my new room mate before she went back to sleep and I lay awake on my bed, trying to calm myself by reciting poetry. Unfortunately, I soon ran through all the don't-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down, madness?-This-is-Sparta poems I know, and went onto Julius Caesar and the inevitability of death, which isn't the best for cheering yourself up.

Actually, I was very lucky to end up in the room I got, because as it later turned out, some people sleep six to a room, and have to do their homework on their knees sitting on their beds. I can imagine this for a few weeks, but for four years of a university course?

Monday, 26 March 2012

How does a Russian stove work?

This has been bugging me since I first got here, because I don't like not knowing how things work. I first saw a Russian stove in the Volkonsky's home in Irkutsk - it is a massive thing that goes right through the centre of the house, so that its corners stick out into multiple rooms.

So... I'm not the world's best photographer, but the big white thing is part of the stove.
The stove is designed to solve Russia's biggest problem, i.e. that it gets a bit nippy in winter. So how do you heat a building using the minimum amount of fuel and fuss? As you know, the problems with open fires are two fold; firstly, most of the heat goes out the chimney and is wasted; and secondly, feeding the fire is a full time job. A Russian stove gets around this by channeling the hot air through a labyrinth of brick passages in the stove. The heat is transferred to the bricks, effectively creating a heated wall in one part of the room. The bricks stay hot for a long time and radiate heat at a lower temperature than say, metal would, so you don't need to constantly feed the stove. In fact, you only need to fuel it twice a day. There is little smoke generated because the fire in the stove is so hot - hot enough the turn iron red. According to (yes, there is such a place, and it claims to be the most interesting page on the web), the stove has an effective range of 20 feet. The only downside is that you might kill yourself with carbon monoxide, so you first have to open all the dampers (little doors on the stove separate from the main door for fuel) to let enough air in to burn the wood down to coals with no blue flame showing, and only then shut them all and go about your normal business.

Of course, bricks take hours to heat up, so this type of heating is only suitable for climates where you are going to need to continually heat a space for a very long time. Like say, from November to April. 

Traditionally, there might be a bed above the stove called a лежанка (as in "приятно думать у лежанки"), and in peasant houses people used to take baths inside them, because they made their stoves big enough to fit a grown man inside. This is a bit too much like Hansel and Gretel for my taste, but maybe I am just paranoid.

A Hollywood producer in Moscow

On Friday I went to a talk by a Hollywood producer who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. He was what people used to call "a singular gentleman", but (or perhaps because of this?) he had some interesting stories to tell about his experiences working with and for the super-rich in Russia.

A brief outline of his life: He grew up poor in Beverly Hills, jealous of the lifestyle of his more privileged friends, and started work straight out of high school. Over the next twenty years he started various businesses, always with the aim of finding something that would make him rich. Unfortunately, nothing he turned his hand to was successful for more than a couple of years, and he ended up coming to Moscow in the late 90s with the idea of being a link between Hollywood and the Russian film industry. The financial crisis in '98 put a bit of dampener on things, but eventually he got himself hired to bring an American movie star to the Moscow Film Festival. Since then he has made a living arranging for film stars and singers to attend the birthday parties/film festivals/business openings (delete as appropriate) of wealthy Russians, with the occasional sideline into helping out rich people from other countries. Basically, if you have a lot of money, live within the borders of the old Soviet Union, and want to meet a movie star, this is the guy you call.

He has brought more eighty "stars" to Russia and related countries over the last ten years. Most of them wanted to visit Moscow strip clubs and also Red Square, to experience the illicit thrill of standing at the heart of [former] enemy country and reminisce about how they watched tanks rolls across it when they were children. He has arranged parties for members of the Gaddafi family, the wife of the President on Azerbaijan, various Russian bankers and oligarchs (who appear to have really long birthday parties - all the parties described were multi-day events - does everyone really go for the entire time?), and, perhaps strangest of all, he arranged for Ramzan Kadyrov to meet Jean Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank. He joked that this last one didn't make him very popular with the human rights people. Ho ho ho. Those pesky human rights people.

Anyway, these are a few snippets of advice from his talk:

1. If you life is threatened, ring up your Chechen mates
Whilst arranging one event, some Russian gangsters tried to shake him down. They told him that if he didn't give them half the money he was being paid he would never leave Russia alive. So he phoned up one of his Chechen friends, who lent him a couple of his people to take with him to the park where he was supposed to hand over the money. When they arrived and the Russians were told whose people he had with him, they apologised, said the whole thing had been a mistake and that of course they didn't want his money. The Chechens said they thought it must have been a mistake, but just to make sure everyone understood the situation, they told the Russians that if anything happened to this guy [the producer] they would hunt them down and kill them all.

2. If you want to get to know people (and if you don't, you should), open a restaurant
The only reason anyone opens restaurants is to meet people. It is the best way to make contacts quickly, and it means you can hang out and people will come to you, instead of you needing to traipse around the whole city. Of course, this does mean that your interests are not aligned with those of the people putting up the money for the restaurant, but hey, more fool them.

3. Speaking Russian is totally unnecessary
He claimed to negotiate business deals with people in Russian, without speaking a word of the language, and only finding out after the fact what he had agreed to. This cannot possibly be true. People here are smart and would take him apart in about five seconds.

4. To avoid having to pay bribes, make friends with the Head of the FSB
Actually, I thought this was inspired. He was asked whether he paid bribes, and he said he had never paid a bribe in Russia (which he had to say, really, being a US citizen). The way he avoided it was by making friends with the Head of the FSB, and having a photograph of him and various Chechen people on the wall of his office. Then, whenever anyone came to see him, he would find a way to bring these friendships into the conversation, and hey presto, no one dared ask him for any money.

The main problem with what he said was that you had to stop after every sentence and consider whether you believed him or not. If you're a salesman, especially if what you are selling is your network, it pays to exaggerate what you have done and who you have met. Probably half of what he said never happened. But even so, this man's world is so far removed from anything I have ever, or will ever, encounter, that it seems incredible that both his life and mine are taking place in the same city. Moscow is an interesting place.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Большой Театр

I have been to the Bolshoi twice recently - once to see Ruslan and Ludmilla, and once to see Boris Godunov. I don't know what it looked like before the restoration, but now it is stunningly beautiful. As the BBC reported at the time, the renovation cost half a billion pounds, and took six years. They cleaned everything using vodka and squirrel tails (huh?), and replaced the frescos and gold leaf. I am not generally a fan of too much gold - I think it can look very heavy and over the top, but the effect in the Bolshoi is not like that - the place is light and sparkling.

The tickets are also a fraction of the price you pay in Covent Garden. The most expensive grade of tickets, barring I suppose what I guess used to be the royal box, cost around £100 if you buy them on the website of the Bolshoi itself (which most foreigners don't - they use tour companies instead and hence pay much more). In Covent Garden you would be paying double that on a normal night. The main problem is getting your hands on tickets, which can sell out months in advance. When the theatre reopened in October last year there was a big fuss made about tickets for the earliest shows, because ticket touters paid homeless people to stand in line all night so they could be the first to get hold of tickets.

So if you are ever in Moscow, I definitely recommend going to see something here. The sets were gorgeous, the music was amazing, and the audience appreciative (well, for Boris Godunov anyway. Ruslan and Ludmilla was a done in a modern setting complete complete with naked people wandering around the stage for no apparent reason, and so was a bit odd). Plus the subtitles are in English, so you can understand what is going on.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

How old is old?

Russia is not the place to come if you are a single women above the age of twenty-five and are anything other than supremely comfortable with that. Or at least that's been my experience. Whilst travelling from Vladivostock to Moscow this summer, the most common question I was asked was about my age. The conversation usually went something like this:

Local: How old are you?
Me: Thirty
Local: Thirty??!!! What do your children think about you leaving them to go travelling?
Me: I don't have any children
Local: No children? What does your husband say about that?
Me: I'm not married

At this point, several people basically told me to get a move on, one man asked me, quite seriously, if I realised that no one would marry me now, and one woman recommended a particular shrine in Siberia to me, where women went to pray to God to send them a husband and children. The point of this is that ideas about age are slightly different here, partly because life expectancy is lower. In 2009 CNN reported that the chance of a 18-year-old man reaching retirement age in Russia was only 50%, vs. 90% in the West. In this context, leaving it till past thirty to get married and have children is leaving it a bit late.

Yesterday I had a conversation about mid-life crises with my english conversation class. I explained that this was something people might go through around the age of forty-five or so, to which one man pointed out to me that in Russia that was a bit late to be having a mid-life crisis, when you might well only live for another ten years (he was slightly on the pessimistic side here - life expectancy at birth is 62.8 for men and 74.7 for women. Still, the figure for men is more than fifteen years lower than the comparable figure for men in the UK).

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Paying for language school

Today I needed to pay for the next couple of months of language school. "Oh, ok," you say, "so you went into the school and paid by credit card", at which point I fall off my chair and roll around on the floor laughing. Hellllooooo?! [knocks on computer screen]. We are talking about a country where I need to get a form filled out and signed in order to take a suitcase out my apartment building. Let me explain to you the ways of paying for language school.

Task 1: Find the director of the school
You might think this would be easy, that he would be in his office, between the hours of, oh, say, ten and three in the afternoon, but in thinking this way you would be completely wrong. In fact, on any particular day, he might not come in at all, or he might spend the entire day in the cafeteria. When you have found him, you tell him that you want to extend your stay in Russia, and then he tells you approximately how much this is going to cost you in roubles.

Task 2: Collect the money
Since almost everything is done in cash here, you now need to assemble $1,500, using cash machines. This will almost certainly take up a couple of days, unless you feel like risking your debit card being stopped by the bank and causing you the mother of all hassles.

Task 3: Get first lot of forms
Now you have so much cash you can't close your wallet, go and find the director again. At this point he will then fill out and give you your first two forms and two copies of your contract, which you will need when you try to extend your stay in the общежитие (this is a whole other story).

Task 4: Swap one form for another
Take one of the forms, go downstairs to a different office, and swap it there for another form.

Task 5: Go to bank
Take both forms, and then take a tram for 20 minutes and find the bank. There is only one bank you can use, so don't bother trying anywhere else. When you get there, you will be required to stand in a queue for at least half and hour, at which point the lady behind the counter (it always is a lady) will take both of your forms, and use the information on them to fill out two more forms. She will also stamp your existing forms. She will then give you all four forms back, and you will need to stand in another queue in order to give someone else your massive wads of cash. This person may well then tell you that all the computers in the bank are currently broken so they can't take your money, at which point you must resist the urge to tear your hair out. Eventually they will start working again, at which point she will take the two forms the first lady gave you, stamp them, tear bits off, staple receipts to them, and give them back to you.

Task 6: Back to the director
Go back to the school, taking with you the four forms you have collected, and show them to the director. He will take two of the forms back, photocopy them, and give you the photocopies. He will then update your student card. Then take your two remaining forms to another room and give them to the people there, along with two passport photos of yourself, a copy of your contract, and your passport. They will in turn give you a piece of paper that you can show the police if they stop you, explaining that they [the school] have your passport.

Task 7: Wait ten days
After ten days, go back to the final room and collect your passport and a photocopy of your new visa indicating that you are going to be a student for another two months. Congratulations! Now you must go back to the общежитие and do the same thing there.

Total number of forms/ miscellaneous pieces of paper: 6. Affect on blood pressure: terrible. As to why this is all necessary, I have no idea. There must be a small mountain of paperwork on me scattered around Moscow, or there would be, if I wasn't convinced that as soon as I have left the room they just tip it all in the bin. But, as one librarian said, after my friend exploded on hearing how many forms she would need to fill out to get a library card, "bureaucracy makes life interesting."

Monday, 19 March 2012

Spring in Russia

Today the temperature went up to 4 degrees Celsius. Spring is here and the snow is beginning to melt, which means it is time to un-sellotape the windows in my room. In January when the temperature first went down to -20, my roommate and I duct-taped all round the windows. This didn't stop the cold air getting in, so we then tried to insulate all round the windows using foam sticks they sell here for that purpose. That didn't work either, so we papered over the worst-offending window with newspaper, again without much success, except to deepen the already permanent gloom in the place. Finally, facing a choice between light and warmth (I was already sleeping under 13 layers at this point, and it was still getting colder), we sellotaped the curtains together and to the wall. We unstuck the curtains sometime in February, and today, we opened the window for the first time since December. This may sound gross, but you have no idea how cold it gets here - it went down to -35, which is the coldest I have ever experienced. Anyway, all the Russians do it too (probably without the curtains bit), so it wasn't just us being pathetic.

The authorities here have been preparing for the melt as well. People have been breaking up the top layers of snow (presumably to increase the surface area), and for some reason they have also been slicing off the front part of the snow blocks that cover all the flower beds, so there is a gap between the snow and the metal railings that delineate the flower beds from the pavement. I have seen people do this so I know it is happening, but I am not sure why. Trying to allow air to get to the soil? Trying to ensure when everything melts it goes into the soil and not all over the pavement?

Sunday, 18 March 2012

British scientists discover...

This is something that came up in my English conversation group a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about "what women want" or something, and for some reason one of the students asked me if I knew any jokes about British scientists (I didn't). Apparently here in Russia there are lots of jokes about British scientists doing bizarre or pointless research. So if someone has done some research to show that alcohol makes you drunk or something similarly self-evident, they will say that it was probably done by a British scientist. I am not sure what to make of this, especially because it is not only in Russia - another student said there are lots of Czech jokes about British scientists as well. Not really complementary, but definitely interesting.

The joys of В Контакте

Russians don't really use Facebook that much, instead they have В Контакте. I have no idea if this is better for keeping in touch with your friends, but it is a lot more useful for learning languages. On В Контакте you can watch films, TV shows, music videos etc etc, in Russian, for free. This is probably illegal but people seem quite relaxed about copyright here. Currently I am watching the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast in Russian whilst trying to read Lermontov. The songs are pretty distracting, because since I know all the words in English (and why not?), I keep trying to predict how they will translate them whilst trying to keep the rhymes (like "large" and "barge" when Gaston is singing about how many eggs he eats).

But the best thing so far about В Контакте is a Russian soap opera set at the beginning of the 19th century called Бедная Настя. It's weirdly addictive, a bit like Sunset Beach (with similar production values and believability of story lines). I think it was made for the hard-of-thinking, because everyone speaks really slowly, so I can actually understand what they are saying. Plus, like Sunset Beach, nothing ever happens. You can skip four or five episodes and the same people will still be in the same room talking about the same thing, which means lots of repetition of vocabulary. One girl spent three episodes complaining about being locked in her room, trying to pick the lock with a variety of knitting needles, combs, hair pins etc, before it occurred to her that she could just climb out the window. Another scene involved a serf theatre rehearsing Romeo and Juliet in Russian, with the барин yelling at some poor serf girl about how could she not know the balcony scene - EVERYONE knows the balcony scene. I can't think of any British soap operas where people quote Shakespeare (although to be fair, this may be because I don't watch any British soap operas). Yes, so Бедная Настя is fantastic, even if they do dance to pop music at their balls.

Is the basement infested with asbestos?

On the whole, I think it is. I looked online at some photos of asbestos cladding around pipes, and it looks like what is in the basement of the общежитие by the washing machine room. The pipes that have fibres flaking off them continuously. Since I have been walking by these pipes four times a week for the last six months, this is less than ideal. It also means I should probably do the rest of my washing by hand in my room. I tried this last week and it made me very grateful for washing machines - it takes an age, the soap is a pain to get out of the clothes, and then you have to wait two days for everything to dry. On the other hand, it is a lot better than lung cancer.

There is a possibility that the whole building is, in fact, made of asbestos.


This was three weeks ago, but I’ve only just managed to borrow a cable to transfer my photos from my camera to my computer. Maslenitsa is a week long religious and folk festival before the start of Orthodox lent. It may have originally been a festival to celebrate the Sun and the end of winter. Nowadays it is the last week in which Christians are allowed to eat milk, cheese and other dairy products before Lent, so people make pancakes all week long.

I went with my roommate to Suzdal, a town on the Golden Ring. Suzdal is the Russian version of Lacock, in that it has been protected from development and hence is used in all period dramas, with the locals often roped in as extras.

We got there on the Friday night, after an epic journey from Moscow bus station that took us 6 hours and involved passing three car crashes, all to cover the same distance as from London to Nottingham. I suppose this is why the oligarchs have helicopters. On the Saturday morning though, the horrendous journey seemed worth it. Suzdal was covered in snow, and not the way Moscow is where it looks like someone has spray painted the snow deep brown, but snow like in movies, which somehow never gets dirty or slushy.

Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral

Believe it or not there a river in this picture

We traipsed down to the open air architecture museum, where the day began with a parade that involved some people in traditional costume and other people dressed as geese, followed by Round 1 in the Goose Fighting competition. Unfortunately, these geese were lovers not fighters, so it took a lot of coaxing from their keepers before they started biting each other. As I understand it, technically it is supposed to go to First Blood, but the audience got bored way before that and started yelling, so the organisers ended the fight and determined the winner based on points (I have no idea how that works). 

Next came climbing up a pole to grab a prize stuck at the top. Presumably for reasons of increased grip, most participants seemed to think this was best done wearing as few clothes as possible. I should note that it was pretty cold, probably twelve below zero or something, with a biting wind, and it snowed pretty much non-stop. If you made it to the top, apart from the adoration of the crowd, you got a roast goose. 

How to get hypothermia in pursuit of a goose
Throughout the day there was traditional music and dancing, sledging, rides in horse-drawn sleighs, a game which involved hitting your opponent with a pillow until they fell off a log, and a never-ending tug-of-war. There were no teams, passers by just piled in on whichever side looked like losing, and then left when they had had enough, to be replaced immediately by others. And whenever it all got too cold, you could buy hot pancakes and tea, spiced wine or sbiten, a honey-based drink. Alternatively you could go and sit in the wooden church, which was warm (this option was very popular).

Trying to knock your friend off a log with a pillow

Jingle bells

Not sure why there was a sword fight but hey...

Massive snowball fight which resulted in the total destruction of the snowhouse (this was the aim)

The following day was pretty much the same but in a different location, and ended at around 4pm with the burning of the baba, a figure of a woman who personifies winter.  After that, everyone rapidly disappeared, and we were left with another mammoth journey back to Moscow, during which we left one person behind after stopping for a toilet break in the middle of nowhere.  Travelling in Russia is not without risk.

Goodbye, Winter!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why are the English bad at learning languages?

One of the first things I noticed when I started at my language school here was that 60% of the student body was from East Asia (China, Japan and Korea).  I hadn’t given much thought to what nationalities would be in the school, but if you’d asked me to guess, I wouldn’t have come up with there being twice as many South Koreans as British people. Why were the Koreans studying Russian? The answer I got from everyone was that it would be useful for a career in business. Russia (along with Brazil, India and China) is one of the BRIC countries, a group of key emerging market countries that are expected to be at the forefront of the shift in global economic power away from G7 countries to the developing world.

If Russia is going to become increasingly important, why aren’t more British students studying Russian? If we are all going to be competing for a piece of the economic growth here, a big advantage will accrue to countries that can field workers familiar with both the language and the culture.

Russkiy Mir, a foundation set up to promote Russian language and culture around the world, estimates that 300,000 Chinese and 150,000 German school children are studying Russian. In England and Wales I estimate the number is more like 12,000-15,000, i.e. Germany has more than ten times the number of children studying Russian than England and Wales.

Russian is a minority language in the UK, and is probably only offered by a small number of schools, but these low numbers are part of the wider problem of language tuition in English schools. There has been a fair amount of comment on language learning in the press (well, in the Guardian anyway), but sometimes it seems to me that people just accept that English people are bad at languages, as though it were some law of nature we couldn’t change if we wanted to. There is often an unspoken feeling that foreign countries superior to us in language skills have an “unfair” advantage, because they watch US films, listen to US music and play US video games.

But there is a simpler explanation as to why so few English people speak a foreign language: we don’t study them for very long. England requires children to study a foreign language for 3 years (ages 11-14), compared with an average of 8.2 years across a group of other nations investigated by INCA, an organisation that compares education policies across countries [I added in Germany and the US, using Texas as a stand-in for the latter].  Note that Welsh and Scottish children seem much better off [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Source: INCA, Texas Department of Education

English children also study languages for fewer hours per school year than in other countries. At age 14, the government recommends that children in England study a foreign language for 72 hours across the school year, compared with 126 hours in France, and 114 in Germany. [Figure 2] The combination of fewer years of language teaching, and fewer hours in those years, means that at the end of compulsory education, an English child will have had 70% fewer hours of language teaching than their equivalents in France or Germany. [Figure 3] Ta-da! There’s no magic stopping us from learning languages, we just don’t put the hours in.

Figure 2. Source: INCA, own estimates

Figure 3. Source: INCA, own estimates

All this suggests a fairly simple route for improving the foreign language skills of the average school child – teach them for longer. According to a Eurobarometer survey from 2005, 78% of people in the UK agree with the statement “everyone in the European Union should be able to speak one language in addition to their mother tongue”. If we are serious about this we have to make a longer period of language tuition compulsory.

There are three main objections I can see to this. Firstly, it is difficult to learn languages, so it’s not fair to force less academic children to study them; secondly, we don’t have enough language teachers to pull this off; and thirdly, there isn’t enough space on the timetable to double the number of hours a week children spend on languages.

As I sit here, taking a break from trying to stuff Russian verbs into my head, I can’t honestly say that languages are easy. In fact, I often complain to myself that if only I had started learning Russian at six rather than sixteen, I wouldn’t have to bother with any of this. And that is the answer – start teaching languages at primary school. It makes no sense to only begin teaching languages to someone when their natural ability to learn them has already fallen off dramatically. Of course, you could argue that there are too many children with English as a second language to worry about teaching children anything other than English in primary school. But obviously, since I brought it up, I don’t think this a good argument. Less than 10% of British people speak a language other than English as their mother tongue. Even allowing for some skew towards young people, this doesn’t seem prohibitively high to me, since Germany has a similar proportion of its population with a mother tongue other than German, and they manage to teach languages just fine.

I don’t think finding language teachers should be an insurmountable problem either. Primary schools could have one language teacher each, who would teach all the classes in that school, or language teachers could be peripatetic and teach at several schools in one area. If there aren’t enough qualified people in England, hire qualified foreigners.

The third obstacle, that there isn’t enough space in the timetable, is the most difficult. It depends on what our priorities are. What do children need to learn?  How do we compare the importance of a foreign language with the importance of drama, or history, or design? It should at least give us pause that other countries almost uniformly give languages a much higher priority than we do.  Which brings me back to my own situation, sitting in a tiny box room in Moscow, trying to learn Russian. I am doing this because if I want to work in an international organisation, from the UN to the EU to the World Bank, I need to speak another language. Speaking a foreign language is an advantage in many companies, and this will only become more true, if the economic prosperity of the UK comes to depend more and more on the BRICs and other emerging markets. An ability to cut shapes out of MDF is not, however, likely to be required.