Teaching Russian as a foreign language

An Indian student reading a Russian textbook. Source: Alamy / Legion Media

An Indian student reading a Russian textbook. Source: Alamy / Legion Media

Russia Beyond’s Education Editor explores how long it takes for an average foreign student to learn Russian and to be able to read classics like Leo Tolstoy’s works in the original.

Teaching of Russian as a foreign language (RFL) is one of the most popular subjects among foreign students coming to study in Russia. It is present on the curriculum of almost any large university that has a philological department.

After completing this programme, a student does not only become proficient in Russian, but is also qualified to teach it as a foreign language.

Maria Lebedeva from the Pushkin Institute of Russian Language tells RIR about pitfalls that await students of Russian and about what future teachers of Russian are taught.

What are students likely to find difficult while learning Russian?

When it comes to the actual language, students who have never learnt Russian before their arrival in Russia, will have to tackle three areas: phonetics, vocabulary and grammar.

The Russian sound [ы] for example presents no difficulty for native speakers but is a nightmare for most foreign students. Soft and hard consonants are also a minefield because in Russian they are used to differentiate words, e.g. мат [swear language] and мать [mother], брать [to take] and брат [brother].

In vocabulary, the challenge is not only to learn new words but also to grasp their collocations. For example, native speakers of English will have to remember that in Russian we say “strong rain” (сильный дождь)rather than heavy rain, or “stiff tea“ (крепкий чай) rather than strong tea, and that our grass is not long but tall (высокая трава).

Also, Russians wash their head (мыть голову) instead of their hair. As for grammar, the most difficult areas are verbs of motion and verb aspects. For a native Russian speaker, there is no difficulty here, we use the right forms without even thinking: Сейчас я иду наработу [I am on my way to work]. But: Каждый день я хожу на работу [Every day I go to work]. Or: Каждый день я иду на работу пешком, а возвращаюсь на такси. И когда волнуюсь, я покомнате хожу [Every day I walk to work but I take a taxi back. When I am anxious, I pace around the room]

If you ask an ordinary Russian native speaker to explain why they say иду in some cases and хожу in others, they will not be able to explain. At more advanced stages, in addition to the идти-ходить pair, students have to tackle the verbs: прийти, уйти, отойти, перейти, зайти, обойти, пройтись and so on.

What does a teacher of RFL need to know?

In addition to a detailed study of the language system and teaching methods, future teachers usually familiarize themselves with the intricacies of teaching different aspects of the language: vocabulary, phonetics, grammar; of teaching students how to work with text as well as specifically reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Foreign students study Russian. Source: TASS

Future teachers of Russian also usually complete programmes in ethno-linguistics, cultural and regional studies. There is an important new trend; language teaching with the use of digital technologies; so RFL programmes usually feature it too.

What are students taught?

Along with traditional Russian grammar courses and language practice, different universities offer less conventional programmes. For instance, a Russian-language film club, Russian dance classes in Russian, drama studios, and discussion clubs. There are also dedicated programmes for business Russian, Russian for tourism, diplomacy, and medicine.

How long does a comprehensive Russian course take to complete?

It takes around 460 academic hours, or six to seven months of intensive studies (six academic hours a day four times a week) to reach the B1 (threshold) level. Of course, it is clear that the number of hours can vary depending on conditions, schedule, students’ native language and ability.  

If by a “comprehensive course” you mean reaching the C2 (near-native) level, then calculating the exact number of academic hours is more difficult. For the majority of foreign students, this level is almost unattainable.

At what level can a student read Tolstoy in Russian?

It depends on the text: “After the Dance” and “War and Peace” are two different things. At the C1-C2 level, reading his best-known novels is difficult but possible. But they need to be read with a dictionary and commentaries. Incidentally, this is what I would recommend to many native Russian speakers too, since many Russians no longer know what many of the obsolete words mean.

What are the good places to learn Russian in Russia?

Judging by my experience and my colleagues’ opinion, the best places are the Moscow State University, the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia, the St Petersburg State University, and the Pushkin Institute.

And in other countries?

Russian speakers are very well trained in Estonia and Finland, Germany and Austria, Italy and Hungary. In the USA, there are many wonderful experts in the Russian language and students who study RFL there are very well trained, I have found.

Traditionally, Slavic countries – Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland – have a very strong school of teaching Russian. Also, China, as well as Vietnam and South Korea have many excellent centres and schools that teach RFL.

Much attention is now being paid to the professional support of RFL teachers abroad, with long-established schools and centres being revived and new ones being opened. Therefore, I believe that in the near future we shall see the Russian language strengthening its positions abroad, with teachers paying more attention to their professional growth and developing ties with the leading RFL teaching centres in Russia.

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