English in the school system
All students in Russia start learning a foreign language at the age of 10, which corresponds to the fifth grade of public school. As a rule, Russian students can choose to study English, German, Spanish or French, with English being the most popular of the four. English is taught by non-native speaking specialists with a university degree in the teaching of one or two foreign languages. Emphasis is commonly made on reading and writing skills rather than on conversation, although that is changing due to the growing popularity of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.
Since 2008 students graduating from secondary school are required to pass the Unified State Examination (USE), an exam which tests all compulsory subject areas. This exam also serves as the admission test for universities. In 2010, 92% of all graduates who took the USE in foreign language chose to be tested on English. The USE English segment awards a passing grade to students with a proficiency level corresponding to skills tested on PET and FCE on the Cambridge ESOL Exam. The average grade for the USE in English in June, 2010, was 56% in cities and 42% in the countryside and poorer regions.
The majority of Russian 15 year olds tested in reading, math and science in 2009 by the OECD performed at the baseline level of proficiency or lower (level 2 and below of 6 possible levels). This is a below-average score compared to OECD member countries. The Russian Ministry of Economic Development has voiced concerns about underfunding in schools preventing the training of the technically innovative workforce Russia wants to create. Underfunding is a particular problem in rural areas which have difficult attracting qualified teachers, particularly foreign language specialists.
English at Work
Russia’s economy is propelled by commodity exports like oil, natural gas, aluminum, and steel. The defense and aircraft industries are also major industrial employers. However, the nature of these industries means that they are dominated by large companies negotiating enormous trade deals via a small number of employees proficient in foreign languages. Most employees in these sectors do not require English for everyday work.
Over half of Russia’s labor force is employed in the service sector, where the need for English is low. The government is pushing to shift Russia’s economy to technology and innovation, providing seed money and funding technology incubators. This shift will also require increased English proficiency in order to be successful.
Although often not required, English is seen as a professional bonus which enlarges the salary offer to a candidate from 30% to 100%. For that reason, recruitment agencies usually recommend that candidates certify their English knowledge by taking an international English test before applying to a managerial position at an international company.
Culture and Attitudes towards English
By the end of the 90s, with the opening of Russian society and the development of the economy, attitudes towards English have shifted dramatically. Today English has a positive, trendy image, particularly amongst young people. It is seen as an important means of international communication and a necessary professional skill. Parents are eager to pay for private tutoring in English when they can afford it, and thousands of English-language tutoring centers and schools have sprung up to satisfy that demand. However, older generations were not brought up in the same system, and the absence of English-language education they received as children is reflected in their low level of English proficiency today.
The awarding of the 2018 World Cup is spurring the government to reform foreign language requirements amongst its 800,000 employees. In December 2010 the Russian Ministry of Economic Development published a document on strategy for innovation stating that by 2020 it plans to have 20% of civil servants speaking a foreign language. Fluent English will become a requirement for new civil servants in 2012. Although many top-level politicians and officials speak fluent English, less than 1% of all civil servants have studied abroad.
Even though English is increasingly present in everyday life in Russia, imported movies and TV are always dubbed. There is sensitivity to the borrowing of foreign words, and laws prevent the use of non-Russian words in advertising and signage. Russians are proud of the cultural and scientific heritage of their country and in general do not want to see their language changed by borrowing from foreign languages.
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