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UK struggles with language of Russian diplomacy

By James Coomarasamy
Presenter, Newshour

image copyrightReuters
image captionRussian speakers would understand the subtle change of the name Boris

We have heard a lot about Britain's financial deficit over the past few years but not much - until now - about Britain's linguistic deficit.

A report by the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee has concluded a lack of Russian speakers in the Foreign Office left Britain's diplomats ill-equipped to anticipate the events in Ukraine.

According to the report, an absence of Slavonic know-how meant Britain had been unprepared for the most serious East-West tensions since the end of the Cold War.

The consequence: a drive to recruit Russian experts.

In a speech last week at the international affairs think tank Chatham House, the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, announced the government was actively seeking diplomats and spies who knew their soft signs from their hard signs, who looked at the backwards "R" in "Toys Я Us" and saw the final letter in the Cyrillic alphabet.

image copyrightAP
image captionThere has been criticism of the lack of Russian speakers to closely analyse President Vladimir Putin's speeches

Proficiency in the language of Pushkin and Putin is once again a desirable asset.

In the short term, the emphasis will be on Putin rather than Pushkin.

The new recruits will presumably spend their time dissecting speeches about military doctrine and foreign policy.

Perhaps they will take a leaf out of the Russian-born American writer Gary Shteyngart's book.

For a recent article in the New York Times, he watched nothing but state-run Russian TV for a week, to get a sense of the world-view most Russians experience.

For those of us who have studied Russian and lived in Russia, the renewed valuing of our language skills is a double-edged sword - a source of satisfaction, tempered by the profoundly depressing reason why those skills are back in vogue: Mr Hammond's assessment Russia "has the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security".

The parliamentary report pinpoints a more general falling away of language skills in Britain's diplomatic service, but Russian has suffered worse than most: according to the figures, only 27% of posts associated with a level of proficiency in Russian are filled by someone who meets the required standards.

The Russian language

  • Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet
  • There are 33 letters in the Russian alphabet: 11 vowels, 20 consonants, and two pronunciation signs
  • The letters are: А, Б, В, Г, Д, Е, Ё, Ж, З, И, Й, К, Л, М, Н, О, П, Р, С, Т, У, Ф, Х, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ъ, Ы, Ь, Э, Ю, Я
  • There are only three tenses in Russian
  • The same word can have different meanings, depending on which syllable of a word is stressed

So, what is being lost? Beyond dealing with the cold, hard facts of a potential military threat, I would argue that, for improving relations in the longer term, the real value of language skills is in the "softer" sphere of diplomacy - understanding Russian culture and history is key to understanding where the Russian public is today and where it may be tomorrow.

In other words, reading the language of Pushkin could help to explain the popularity of Putin.

From the initially confusing Cyrillic alphabet to noun declensions and cases, Russian isn't a straightforward language, but it's a hugely rewarding one.

It's not just a gateway to the well established greats of Russian literature, but to a rich gallery of sayings, aphorisms and folktales, which still play a prominent role in popular culture.

I remember the short-lived satirical puppet show "Kukli" ("Puppets") using one of those tales as the basis for each episode.

You might recognise the puppets' faces, but if you didn't get the references, you were lost.

An appreciation of Russians' love of word play can also bring insights.

Here, is one small example. Many people at this month's march of remembrance for the murdered politician Boris Nemtsov were carrying banners with his photograph and name. Or, at least, that is what a non-Russian speaker might have assumed.

In fact, the word was not "Борис", the Russian spelling of Boris, but "Борись".

That extra, rogue letter, which resembles a small English b, is the previously mentioned soft sign: a silent Cyrillic character that alters the sound of the previous letter.

In this case, it also changes the meaning of the word, transforming the murdered politician's name into a statement of intent.

"Борись" is the imperative form of the verb "бороться" - "to fight" or "to struggle".

Linguistic neglect

Russian as an academic subject has seen its popularity dwindle in recent years.

For geopolitical and economic reasons, Arabic and Chinese have become more desirable languages for Westerners to study.

For a leadership in the Kremlin smarting from the loss of empire and feeling threatened by Nato's eastward expansion, it is not hard to see how this linguistic neglect might reinforce the sense Russia's interests are not taken seriously in the West.

Ironically, when there was a chance to raise the profile of Russian culture here in Britain, it fell foul of the tensions over Ukraine.

Although not many Britons would know it, 2014 was the UK-Russia Year of Culture. As the diplomatic relationship soured, the profile of the event was lowered.

In Russia itself, language learning has been flourishing.

As the country opened up to the outside world, there was an upsurge of interest in foreign languages.

Focus on language

The younger generation of Russians is far better travelled and more comfortable speaking English than their parents.

And the Russian government has embraced the change. The Education Ministry has proposed making a second foreign language compulsory in Russian schools and, from 2020, including a foreign language as one of the three core subjects in the unified state exam - putting that on a par with Russian and maths.

But, that is beginning to sit uneasily with the current nationalist mood in Moscow.

image captionRussian students are embracing English language skills

As Russia has begun to close in on itself over recent years, some voices have suggested this embrace of foreign languages - with English foremost among them - may not be so healthy after all.

In January, Irina Yarovaya, an MP from President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party argued Russian schoolchildren were spending too much time studying foreign languages and not enough studying Russian.

In a report for the party, she was quoted as saying that the large number of hours schools were devoting to teaching foreign languages was "undermining Russian traditions".

What Russia needs, she seems to be asserting, is more patriots and fewer polyglots.

In Britain, the government is saying that patriotism and language skills go hand in hand.

Related Topics

  • Language
  • Vladimir Putin

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