Interest in foreign languages growing in Russia, despite low proficiency

Russians prefer English and German over French, Spanish and Italian. Source: RIA Novosti/Alexey Kudenko

Russians prefer English and German over French, Spanish and Italian. Source: RIA Novosti/Alexey Kudenko

Most Russians are convinced of the need to study foreign languages. According to statistics published by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center in November, 92 percent of respondents consider English the most important foreign language to learn. Yet in spite of this, Russia lags behind the developed world in terms of English proficiency.

At the end of November, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) published the results of a poll about foreign languages. It asked Russians which languages should be studied in school, whether or not children will find foreign languages useful in everyday life, and which benefits can be gained from knowing foreign languages. One thousand six hundred Russian residents from 130 towns and cities answered the poll, which was the first of its kind run by VCIOM.

The vast majority of respondents (92 percent) think children should study foreign languages in school. That statistic rose to 98 percent in Russia’s biggest cities – Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Nearly three-quarters of Russians (74 percent) are convinced that their children and grandchildren will benefit from knowing other languages. The majority of those who answered “yes” to this question were young people (82 percent of respondents in the age 25-34 category answered “yes”) and had a higher education (81 percent).

No more than 5 percent of respondents in each category disagreed that future generations would stand to benefit from knowledge of foreign languages.

The most important languages, according to Russians

According to respondents, English is the most useful foreign language (92 percent), followed by German (17 percent), Chinese (15 percent), and French (10 percent). Only 2 percent of respondents expressed interest in studying Spanish and Japanese, while Italian, Arabic, and Finnish were outsiders, receiving just 1 percent each.

Employers echoed these opinions. According to job search website Superjob, English is preferred in 96 percent of job vacancies that require knowledge of a foreign language. German is mentioned in 59 percent of vacancies, while French and Italian are requested in 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Chinese and Spanish are required in no more than 5 percent of job openings.

VCIOM’s Director for International Research Olga Kamenchuk said foreign languages are always among the most important subjects that parents mention to sociologists about their children’s education. “Today, more and more Russians are realizing the importance of studying foreign languages, even though our country still isn’t very mobile. We travel relatively little,” said Kamenchuk. 

According to statistics, the majority of world travelers are from big cities. This explains the difference in attitudes toward foreign languages. “Russians are increasingly sensing the fact that the world is expanding,” Kamenchuk said, explaining the motives behind the poll.

A source at the Russian Ministry of Science and Education said foreign languages have been a mandatory subject starting in second grade (seven and eight year-olds) since 2011. However, each educational institution independently chooses the number of hours dedicated to foreign language study. Schools also have the option of introducing a second foreign language starting in fifth grade. In 2020, foreign languages will comprise a third mandatory Unified State Exam, after Russian and mathematics.

Foreign languages as the basis of a successful career

Among the advantages to knowing foreign languages, respondents noted the ability to communicate with foreigners, the convenience of traveling abroad, the ability to read books and films in their original language, and wider opportunities for study. One-fifth of respondents said knowledge of a foreign language offers better chances of getting a high-paying and prestigious job.

Head of the Department of Foreign Languages at the Higher School of Economics Irina Yakusheva partially confirmed the results of VCIOM’s survey. Not counting English, which is mandatory for students, she said the most popular languages are German, Spanish, Chinese, and French.

“The market has changed every year since the department was created. Students can choose a second language from among eight options: Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Italian. The biggest competition every year is in German and Spanish,” Yakusheva said. Chinese was in major demand at the beginning of the 2000s, but since then it has faded in popularity.

Marketing Director at the Kelly Services recruiting agency Zhanna Volkova said knowledge of foreign languages gives applicants a big head start in their career. “With respect to job placement at Western companies, knowledge of a foreign language on average adds 50,000 rubles ($950) to your monthly income, as well as the opportunity to train at Western companies, because all of the training is in English,” she said.

However, according to representatives of the Superjob website, only 5 percent of job applicants were fluent in English as of October. Fifteen percent said they knew conversational English, while 57 percent indicated only a basic level of English. Twenty-one percent of respondents had absolutely no knowledge of English.

In November, education company Education First published a research report called English Proficiency Index 2014, in which more than 750,000 people from 63 countries took English language tests. According to the results, Russia has a low level of English, ranking 36th in the index, next to China (37), Brazil (38), Mexico (39), and Ukraine (44).

However, Russia has improved in the last seven years, bumping up its ranking by five slots. According to the authors of the report, English has become an important element in the Russian economy in recent years. That said, the market for studying English in Russia lags behind the other BRICS countries and is focused in Moscow and St. Petersburg.


First published in Russian at Kommersant.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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