By Dr Julia Gumanova, Professor of Moscow State University, Faculty of Foreign Languages, an expert in cross-cultural communication, Moscow’s top English teacher.
“What?! You do not know the beginning of Pride and Prejudice by heart?! Get out of my car!! You are not one of us! You can go home on foot through the forest!” That’s what I heard from my colleague and boss, the Head of Chair of English for the Humanities of Moscow State University. We were driving to her dacha (a Russian country house) where there was a party planned, to celebrate her birthday. We started talking shop, as we teachers often do – about how and what to teach the students. It was ... at the end of the last century. And I, a young teacher, an admirer of fancy foreign trends in language teaching, not a great connoisseur of “grey-haired classics”, had to make my way along a dark leafy country road for about fifteen minutes, until the boss, being a kind woman really, came back and took me on board again. After that incident, I learned by heart the first sentence from the famous novel by Jane Austen: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife". And my views on teaching foreign languages have somewhat changed.
I think this story perfectly illustrates the traditions of teaching foreign languages in the Soviet times. One of the principles was exactly that: as much classics as possible; huge pieces of text to be learned by heart, any deviations from the set programme – and you get thrown out of the vehicle (in most cases, fortunately, in the indirect sense).
Mixed feelings about the old days
My colleagues and I, who were educated in that system, recall those times with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we still remember that feeling of “shoot me now to put me out of my misery!” at the prospect of translating into English a hundred or a hundred and fifty sentences about the river Volga being longer than the river Lena, to practise the Degrees of Comparison. The sheer volume of the assignments would put you off forever. The content of the textbooks was just as desperate and dreary. For some reason, it always featured a Comrade Smirnov or Ivanov, very Soviet and incredibly tedious... He regularly drank tea, asked what time it was, went to the cinema, in a sort of a lifeless zombie fashion.
Lessons of Phonetics
A separate story were the so-called “speech laboratories”, or “phonetic workshops”. It was totally unrealistic to ever meet a real live native speaker of English, so all our knowledge about the phonetics/pronunciation of the foreign language was provided by an enormous tape recorder called Kometa (made in the USSR!). In my beloved College of Foreign Languages named after Maurice Thorez in Moscow, it took three or four students to carry a heavy tape recorder into the classroom, and passed for a jolly distraction. Occasionally, a couple of frantic black cockroaches would shoot out from the depths of the machine and run for their lives. It was, by all accounts, hilarious and broke the tedium of endlessly repeating syllables and tongue-twisters about Bill who was beaten in billiards and baseball.
The infamous "homereading"
But my personal pet hate was the lessons of “home reading”. Being a keen reader, I really didn’t want to consume and dissect the ideologically approved The Gadfly (we nicknamed it in Russian “Gadskaya mukha” – “a creepy fly” by phonetic similarity). There was another masterpiece - The Path of Thunder (known among the students as Pasasandra – as there is no “th” sound in Russian, it’s more natural for Russians to pronounce it as a “s”). The action takes place in South Africa: a young black guy falls in love with a white girl, and it all ends in tears, naturally. There was nothing wrong as such with these well-known books of classical literature, but the approach to using them as a teaching tool was rather heavy! Every character was analysed at a practically molecular level, in huge detail; the seminars consisted of retelling the approved opinions, rather than expressing your own point of view. And guess what you would get for the “unapproved” thoughts not taken from the official study pack? You got it – being thrown out (of the metaphorical car) and sent to the doghouse to rethink your attitude.
It's not all doom and gloom
However, it is now time to dilute the sad tale of woe with a good dollop of positive thought. From that very “Soviet” school came world class specialists – wonderful teachers, pedagogues, scientists, scholars – keen enthusiasts of the subject they loved; in our case, a foreign language. There are several generations of these professionals. Those who studied completely behind the Iron Curtain have a characteristic Russian accent, but no one is too upset about that in our tolerant global village, aka the world. Then there is my generation, who have experienced the joy of - if not student – but teachers’ study trips abroad. We sound quite authentic and are often complimented by “sympathetic” native speakers. And we are united by a solid and systematic approach to presenting and explaining the material. In this day and age of universal (and justified by the demands of modern life) enthusiasm for the modern communicative methods of teaching, students, if they have a choice, tend to go with a teacher who can not only play entertaining language games in class, but can also present clearly and in detail the system of English tenses, or explain logically, point by point, the main principles of usage of Modal verbs.
Will teachers become redundant?
I have recently read on the Net an opinion expressed by a not very literate young lady that in our modern era of computerised learning and interactive websites the role of a teacher in learning foreign languages will become redundant. This is of course far from being the case. The proof is in the students themselves. Curious and ever thinking, they vote for the teacher and not for the machine. This is the reason why my eighty year old mum, an English tutor with more than half a century of teaching experience, has a queue of kids’ parents who are keen to give “real knowledge” to their offspring. This is the reason why my colleague, friend and co-author of the Just English series of textbooks has become a successful teacher and language school manager in London, with clients ranging from school kids to top business professionals.
Мастерство не пропьешь
There is a Russian proverb “You cannot drink away your craftsmanship - Мастерство не пропьёшь!” (I know, a drink related one...) - meaning that what you know and what you are skilful at, will always stay with you, whatever you do and wherever you go. And it turns out now that we acquired the real skill, craftsmanship and professionalism in those remote Soviet times.
Much though would I love to finish my piece on this high note, I should add, for fairness’ sake, that the best results in teaching foreign languages can be achieved by combining the old time-honoured, serious methods with new trends in learning, using the newest technological achievements to our students’ advantage.