What does Russia do to promote the Russian language?

Russian language promotionGhent, Marina Sevcova - The Russian government currently seems to be very much preoccupied with the position of the Russian language in the rest of the world.

Statistics have shown that the number of Russian speakers has fallen dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which has prompted the Russian government to introduce a number of measures to remedy the situation.

Government efforts to promote Russian include a variety of programmes, some led by government agencies and others by leading educational establishments. This is intended to increase the number of Russian speakers, as well as improve the economic and political position of Russia globally.

This article will provide a historical background to the promotion of the Russian language in Russia, as well as giving an overview of the means currently being used to promote Russian both at home and abroad.

Historical background

Over the past 10 years, the Russian government has actively started to focus its attention on the preservation, development and promotion of Russian not just on the territory of the Russian Federation, but also abroad. The campaign for geographic expansion and the popularisation of the Russian language was supported by the Russian Empire back in the 19th century, and in the 20th century it was one of the Soviet Union’s main political goals. After two decades of retreat, Russia has launched a new campaign to promote its national language in order to improve its economic and political position within the international arena.

By the end of the 20th century, the number of Russian speakers had reached approximately 350 million people worldwide. However, statistics from 2005 show that the number of Russian speakers has dwindled to a mere 278 million. One of the reasons for this decline - which amounts to nearly 40 million Russian speakers - is the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that 14 non-Russian republics gained independence, and their government elites quickly started using their newly found freedoms to enact linguistic policies, depleting the Russian language of millions of speakers. New linguistic policies have allocated more educational resources to the teaching of indigenous languages and the reinforcement of local cultural traditions, causing a lack of government funding for education in Russian. This is one of the main reasons why the number of Russian speakers has declined so dramatically.

The status of the Russian language

However, the Russian language still plays an important role both in the lives of the Russian people and the Russian-speaking populations abroad, continuing to be one of the official languages in countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The number of ethnic Russians living outside Russia is estimated at approximately 20-30 million people. The largest communities of ethnic Russians abroad are to be found in the USA (around three million people), in Israel and in Germany. It is the most geographically widespread language in Eurasia, the eighth most spoken language by native speakers and the seventh by the total number of speakers. This puts Russian just below Bengali and Portuguese and slightly above Japanese and German.

Additionally, modern Russian is used for international and inter-state communication in a variety of different spheres in central Eurasia, Eastern Europe and in the countries of the former Soviet Union. This is why Russian is one of the official languages in the UN and the official language of UNESCO and other international organisations. Russian is also one of the most commonly used languages in cyberspace and, in 2013, it was ranked second, after English.

The Russkiy Mir Foundation and Rossotrudnichestvo agency

Therefore, in order to promote the Russian language, the Russian government has founded a number of organisations and initiated programmes to develop and promote the Russian language in Russia and, more importantly, abroad. Such efforts seem to be intended to shift Russian from its Soviet-era identity as the language of “interethnic communication” to the status of a genuine “global language”. In 2007, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree, in which he highlighted a need for such an organisation, ultimately resulting in the creation of the Russkiy Mir Foundation. After seven years, this foundation has opened 80 centres worldwide. Its work is modelled on existing cultural and language outreach efforts employed by Germany (the Goethe-Institut), China (the Confucius Institute) and the UK (the British Council).

Russkiy Mir’s central mission is to popularise Russian, as the language is believed to be the core element of Russian culture, and to support educational programmes for learning Russian both in Russia and abroad. Russkiy Mir has therefore initiated a large variety of projects in order to increase the number of people studying the Russian language, culture or history. For example, annual assemblies are organised by Russkiy Mir in Moscow, where a large number of discussions and different interactive and hands-on sessions are held on the most important linguistic, cultural and philosophical issues.

In 2014, the executive director of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, Vladimir Kochin, defined its greatest achievement as follows:

"Our main achievement in recent years has been the formation of a functional core around the Foundation, consisting of a wide range of partner organisations from more than 125 countries worldwide, uniting teachers of Russian, students and pupils, artists, writers and supporters of the Russian language and culture. This, certainly, is the foundation’s main achievement, and has provided us with a base for the further development of the Foundation’s activities." (Translated by the author)

Its partner, known as Rossotrudnichestvo (or the Federal Agency for the Affairs of the CIS States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation), works slightly differently. This agency is more political than educational. It aims to create a positive image of Russia abroad as well as protecting the linguistic and cultural needs of ethnic Russians living abroad. The creation of Russkiy Mir and Rossotrudnichestvo represents a worldwide campaign by Russia to expand its influence through the vehicle of the Russian language.

“The programme for the promotion of the Russian language and education in Russian” by the Pushkin State Institute

The cooperation between the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute, Russkiy Mir, the International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature and the Russian Society of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature and 20 other leading higher education establishments represents one of the most successful education programmes for the promotion of Russian. This “programme for the promotion of the Russian language and education in Russian” is widely known in Russia because of the diverse nature of its projects, which include courses in Russian for foreign students, online courses for language training, thematic festivals and campaigns in support of the Russian language and mobile language schools. The Institute promotes learning courses with extremely low fees, with a one-month course (24 hours a week including accommodation) costing just 28,200 roubles (450 euros).

The initiators of this programme believe that, today, information technology and Internet communication play a crucial role in the promotion of any language. An Internet portal known as "Education in Russian" has been established as a result. This portal consists of online programmes and courses that teach Russian as a foreign language. At the end of these courses, students receive a qualification under the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (TORFL) programme, the levels of which match the guidelines of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

The project "Ambassadors of the Russian Language in the World" was launched by the Pushkin State Institute to promote Russian language learning abroad. Volunteers are sent abroad from different language sectors to teach Russian to anyone who wishes to learn it. In 2015, 3,680 young professionals were sent to teach Russian to foreign students and introduce them to Russian literature and culture. During previous years, volunteers could only visit neighbouring countries, but in 2005, this radius was expanded and volunteers had an opportunity to visit countries as far away as Peru and Ecuador.

Efforts made by the V.V. Vinogradov Russian Language Institute

The Russkiy Mir Foundation and Pushkin State Institute are not the only establishments to promote the Russian language and culture. The V.V. Vinogradov Russian Language Institute affiliated to the Russian Academy of Sciences also actively participates in promoting Russian both in Russia and abroad. This institute is the official language regulator within Russia itself. Its activities have included the establishment of a lexical and grammatical structure to modern Russian, overseeing the development of dictionaries and a large body of research concerned with the study of social and pragmatic components affecting the formation of the Russian language.

One of the V.V. Vinogradov Russian Language Institute’s most important projects is an online corpus, which is known as the "Russian national corpus". This corpus currently contains more than 600 million word forms as well as a number of subcorpora including a corpus of Russian poetry and a corpus of Russian dialects, for instance. This corpus is mainly intended for linguistic and academic research, making it popular among linguists and language professionals from the Russian language industry both in Russia and abroad who visit the site every day.

Additional government efforts

The majority of the previously mentioned programmes and foundations receive state backing. The Russian government approved the federal target programme “Russian Language” (2016-2020) in 2014, for instance. This programme aims to improve conditions for the all-round development of Russian as the official language in Russia, and as the language of inter-ethnic communication abroad, as well as to improve the conditions for promoting Russian in Russian schools in other countries, especially in the CIS countries. By 2020, this programme will have increased the number of teachers using new teaching methods for teaching Russian (information technology). It will also have increased the number of professional translators of literary works written in the languages spoken by the Russian people, improved the quality of online sources and added to the number of Russian schools abroad and increased the textbooks, teaching aids, and non-fiction books written in Russian and provided to Russian language centres abroad. All in all, the Russian government plans to invest about 7.6 billion roubles (around 113 million euros) into the programme, with 6 billion (around 90 million euros) coming from federal funds.

The Russian Government also awards the Medal of Pushkin to foreigners for their achievements in art and culture, as well as foreign translators who have contributed to promoting the Russian language and culture abroad. This award was established in 1999, and by 2012, 678 foreign citizens from 90 countries were rewarded for their contributions. For example, one of the recipients was Václav Klaus, the second president of the Czech Republic. In 2007, Vladimir Putin awarded Klaus the Medal of Pushkin for promoting Russian culture. It has been suggested that this was due to the fact that he spoke Russian in conversations with Putin. Another recipient was the Belgian sculptor, Olivier Strebelle, whose sculpture «The Abduction of Europe» was considered to have enriched Russian culture. It was gifted to Russia by the Belgian government and has been on display on the Square of Europe in Moscow since 2002.

The promotion of the Russian language is an important item on the Russian government’s agenda. The main aim is to encourage an interest in Russian in foreign countries by assisting Russian universities to establish international contacts with other foreign educational establishments. The strong position of the Russian language on the international stage should, therefore, increase Russian influence worldwide, not just politically but also economically.







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