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Several people who visited Russia told me they were surprised to discover that relatively few people spoke or understood English, even in the service industry in large cities. Generally speaking, the educational system and the environment in Russia contribute to this state of affairs.
In a 2014 survey by the Levada Center pollster, 70 percent of Russians said they did not speak any languages other than Russian. The question was:
Говори́те ли Вы бо́лее-ме́нее свобо́дно на каки́х-ли́бо иностра́нных языка́х, и е́сли да, то каки́х?
Do you speak any foreign languages more or less fluently, and if so, which ones?
The top languages that the respondents named were:
People in the 18–24 age group, college graduates, and residents of large cities were more likely to speak another language.
According to a different poll, 70 percent of Russians took English in school, 31 percent German, and 8 percent French. However, only 43 percent said the teaching quality was good (хорошо́) or excellent (отли́чно), and 39 percent said it was fair (удовлетвори́тельно).
Anecdotally speaking, it seems that in many Russian schools a foreign language is taught as something you pass an exam in and forget. Many schools still use the grammar-translation method with a lot of rote memorization and few authentic materials or native-speaker (носи́тели языка́) teachers.
To make matters worse, most Russians don’t really get exposure to other languages or a chance to practice. Films in other languages are usually dubbed on TV and in cinemas. In April 2018, 68 percent of Russians said they had never been abroad (за грани́цей). For Moscow, that number is lower at 36 percent. Most respondents Russia-wide (89 percent) said they had not been abroad in the last 12 months—for Moscow, that number is 74 percent.
Another reason may be that there is no real pressure to know another language well. In a recent study of what skills (на́выки) are desirable in employees, speaking another language did not even make the list. It is seen as a bonus that may lead to new opportunities but not as a requirement for getting a job or travelling. In this sense, attitudes to learning languages in Russia are somewhat comparable to those in the US. However, there is a glimmer of hope: most Russians agree that learning another language is important.
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