May 2002 issue

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Russian rise

Economic outlook

'Russia is and will continue to be a dominant player in the global community,' asserts Rob Jensky at Language Link in Moscow. 'Even with the break-up of the former Soviet Union, Russia is still the largest country on earth and home to some of the largest depositories of mineral wealth known to exist.'

Jensky further points out that, whereas the overall short-term outlook for the US, European and Japanese economies is recessionary, Russia is on course for positive economic growth. 'This makes Russia attractive to investors on both sides of the Atlantic,' he says. '[In addition], Russian is already the fifth-most spoken language on earth. Given these two circumstances and the fact that Russia has entered a period of political stability, learning Russian appears to be a ‘smart move'.'

Increased economic prosperity in the country certainly attracts investors, which in turn helps build enrolments for the language learning industry. The Russian economy has achieved three consecutive years of economic growth, but many analysts are unsure as to whether such a positive economic performance can be maintained in the long-term.

Although the Economist Intelligence Unit in the UK acknowledges that Russia's economy has gone from strength to strength - strong oil prices in 2000 and 2001 and the price advantage for Russian exporters when the ruble fell in 1998, are attributed as major growth factors - it raises doubts about the sustainability of the economy in the medium-term because of 'weak investment outside the oil and gas industries, the slow pace of banking reform and falling international energy prices'.

Nevertheless, according to a report in the Washington Times, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told US business investors earlier this year, 'We feel the sources of Russian economic growth have been put on a stable footing. Our priority for 2002 is to further integrate Russia into the world economic system.'

There are several factors driving demand for Russian language studies in Russia, and schools in the country are looking forward to increased student enrolments in the future, as Amy Baker reports.

Language teaching institutions in Russia all report that demand for Russian language tuition is slowly rising, as the economy prospers (see right) and interest in the language - for business, educational or personal reasons - gains pace.

'A large portion of students are interested in [making] further business contacts with Russian businesses,' reports Alexander Soukharev, Director of the Centre for International Education at St Petersburg State University. Slava Bochlov, Manager of the International Department at EducaCentre in St Petersburg, adds that students also study for pleasure or because of their university studies at home.

Rob Jensky, Managing Director of Language Link, based in Moscow, points to a further reason for the growth in enrolments. 'We receive increasing numbers of emails from Russian families,' he says, 'who have emigrated overseas some time ago and now wish for their overseas-born children to study Russian for reasons of culture and heritage.'

While markets such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Mexico and Brazil are all showing some signs of interest in Russian language tuition, schools agree that it is Europe and the USA that send the majority of international students to Russian language schools. 'Language Link receives the majority of its clients from three areas: Europe, North America and Russia itself,' says Jensky. At Liden & Denz language centre in St Petersburg, which has seen student numbers triple in the last five years, Walter Denz says, 'Most of our students still come from Europe.'

Denz continues, 'For a European student, Russian is hardly the first foreign language, which means that generally our clients are older than students wishing to learn English or Spanish. Last year, the average student age at the school was 32 years.' At Language Link, Europeans are generally aged between 28 and 40 years old, while Americans are generally younger university-age students who are studying for one or two semesters overseas. Key nationalities across a range of institutions include German, Swiss, British and French.

Many students are recruited via links with tertiary-level institutions overseas, although Jensky says that following the financial crisis of 1998, many colleges and universities in the USA 'either downgraded or closed their departments of Russian and Slavonic studies'. However, this trend seems to have reversed now, as he cites two new agreements with colleges in the UK and USA to provide university-accredited courses. Other sources of recruitment are agents - who account for 80 per cent of enrolments at Liden & Denz centre - and websites.

Because of the high number of university students who choose to study in Russia, Soukharev highlights courses comprising aspects of Russian literature, Russian orthodoxy or Russian art as being requested by students, alongside conversation, grammar and translation classes. Denz adds that supplementary group lectures at his school have a strong focus on intercultural issues, which seems to be a trend across the board. Jensky says, 'We have added a cultural component to most of our Russian language courses. Without understanding culture and traditions, it is difficult for the students to fully understand how the language truly functions in a society.'

Russian schools are regarding Asia as a potential source of students for the future. Bochlov says, 'I think [our business] will grow in the future as we have more and more economic and political links [with Asian countries].' At St Petersburg State University, Soukharev names China, which shares a long border with Russia, and Taiwan as current important student provider countries.

Schools predict a greater nationality mix in their classrooms in the future, as interest in Russian language acquisition grows worldwide. According to Jensky, this is already evident in their website visitors. 'There is increased activity coming from members of the CIS and other countries tied to the former Soviet Union,' he says. 'In fact, these countries account for roughly half of all visitors who do our online Russian language test.'

Liden & Denz is Swiss-owned and has always attracted high levels of native German speakers but this is now changing. 'Last year, we sold courses to students from 35 countries with German speakers falling below 30 per cent for the first time,' comments Denz. 'If the economy continues to grow, foreign investment will go up and we will certainly profit from that. The current boom in tourism, in particular to St Petersburg, which celebrates its 300th anniversary next year, [also] means more leisure students for our language school.'