Can we speak Russian – in English?

Can we speak Russian – in English?

“Thank God we speak Russian” someone replied in response to a Facebook post on English-language citations as a criterion for international university rankings. This reaction embraces virtually everything that the ‘internationalised’ educator faces in Russia. Not a surprise: Russians are reasonably proud of their history, rich in cultural and scientific achievements, all clearly documented in Russian. But, what about the rest of the world, one could argue? That is where the problem seems to be rooted.

Like many, if not most big nations, Russia is too concentrated on itself, too focused inwards. A globalist could ridicule us, but globalism is not yet everything. Although English is no doubt a contemporary lingua franca of at least natural, life and social sciences (still not sure about humanities) – as was Latin, or German, or French not so long ago – its chances for completely seizing the sphere of education are still uncertain. The major reason is that the labour market is far from being global, and even further from being completely English. Hard to believe for some English-speakers, but it is feasible to be born, to get a good education, a good job, and to die without speaking a word of English. There is no specific need for being trained in English amidst non-English surroundings which generously offer a non-global career, whilst still providing social and cultural opportunities.

There is however one concern that makes me compose this very article in English. When I think of the chase for brains who perform much better when the best of them are concentrated in one place, I then think of globalisation as a mighty tool to achieve such a concentration. Meanwhile, burdens of tradition and token self-sufficiency prevent the majority of academics – not to mention the less internationalised social groups – from actively fathering or even merely facilitating introduction of lectures, practical courses or seminars in English as the key component of any academic internationalisation initiative. Professors are not against courses in English (although many of them might not be well-prepared to offer such a course themselves). It’s rather a vicious cycle of decrease in number of international students and low demand for courses adapted for such students.

Lack of internationalised researchers

In general, the Russian system of higher education seems to acrobatically balance between the will to be reasonably open at the level of fundamental and basic research, and an unexpressed intention to keep its labour market basically closed on itself. This leads to the gap in numbers of active and internationalised researchers of postdoctoral level, a serious challenge for an innovative economy. Those already internationalised from within tend to get out, or at least settle ‘on two chairs’, while those internationalised from outside do not feel encouraged enough to enter.

An apparent and well-known solution is to attract and invite already well-established scientists by some hefty and generous offers, a bit like planting mature trees in a polluted industrial area. This promises short-term benefits, and one could even collect some fruits next summer. But when the gardener turns his or her back, it would be absurd to expect the oasis to go on blossoming.

Supportive environment needed

The real problem is creating a friendly and open academic environment. How could this task be realistic enough when the surrounding majority is not supportive, and does not even seem to share this very idea? It is a dramatic risk to chase for outlook, and to leave the internals alone as they are. If the newly-opened labs headed by leading scientists were left to live on their own behind high walls of  respectful support, while masses of students flow around those walls without any contact, the forecast would be rather pessimistic.

One of the most serious objections I have heard to introducing many courses in English is: “Shouldn’t we rather entrust giving such courses to professors who have better English skills than home professors?” This objection would be reasonable enough if it didn’t imply that we can’t do anything until a sufficient number of such lecturers come and settle in Russia. Not easy for me to imagine thousands of such missionaries arriving in Moscow and other cities of Russia.

Right now, nothing is ready to fill the gap between top-level research projects, natively internationalised and ground-level academic routine. To still rely on numerous Russian-speakers in the former Soviet area seems unreasonable, as the influence of Russian shall inevitably decline with time, and it would hardly compete with English globally. Most pragmatically, one would generally prefer an international student of biology or chemistry giving all his time to his exact subject rather than studying extra cultures and languages.

The question now is, will it be special short-term study modules or summer schools to be promoted first? Or should Russian universities force parallel curriculum streams? Will it be new scholarship initiatives, or a programme to invite lecturers with international experience? There can be many paths towards filling the gap, but any strategy shall succeed only if it addresses wider circles of students, and among them Russians.

By Andrey Kitashov, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia