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Friday, January 26, 2007

The Demise of the Russian Language

First Post reports on the demise of the Russian language (hat tip: Ruminations on Russia and Global Voices).

If Vladimir Putin gets his way, the next 12 months are going to be very special indeed. For he has decreed that 2007 is The Year of the Russian Language.

A rather late New Year's gift, you might think. But nyet: Russia's traditional 'Old New Year' - according to the Gregorian calendar - fell on January 13, so there is still plenty of time to celebrate this momentous declaration. Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be informing UNESCO and "all interested international parties" imminently.

This may seem a laughable and bizarre move, were it not a remedy for a serious problem. Numbers of Russian speakers have been declining annually since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian is the fourth most spoken language on earth behind English, Chinese and Spanish, but by 2025 it will be pushed into 10th place, eclipsed by French, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Bengali.

One of the main reasons for this is Russia's low birth rate: 700,000 speakers die out every year. And in the former Soviet republics, Russian is no longer the elite choice of second language - they would rather learn English now.

Similarly, in many Central and Eastern European countries, Russian has a major image problem: the older generation wince at the memory of their compulsory lessons under Communism. Even in the UK, British universities report decreasing numbers of applicants to Russian courses: as a subject it has long since lost its Cold War cachet. Arabic is the new must-speak.

But maybe Putin's New Year wish is not a pipe dream. One report claims that in Poland last year there was a twofold rise in Russian language university applicants and concludes that Russian is increasingly considered a requirement for a career in business.

If the Poles are up for it, then the rest of us have no excuse. Chego ty razdumyvayesh? (What are you waiting for?)

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