September 7, 2017

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova of Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia, offers insight into English language learning in Russia. She explores which of the three barriers on the way to international communication is the most difficult to break down and explains how this can be done. This article is based on her Keynote Presentation at The European Conference on Education 2017 in Brighton, UK.

Teachers open the door.
You enter by yourself.

A Chinese proverb

As is well known, there are three main barriers on the way to international communication: linguistic, cultural, and psychological. All of them are extremely difficult for non-native speakers. However, the first two are more (linguistic) or less (cultural) obvious (which does not make them easier to be shattered), while the third one is much more hidden and, therefore, less taken into consideration.

It may be considered to be “the worst” – or, rather, the most difficult – because though it is common to all mankind (not nation-specific like the other two barriers), it is unseen, unrealizable, incomprehensible, hidden very deeply in the human psyche. Naturally, the most pivotal problem of foreign language learning and teaching (FLLT) is the psychological barrier. This kind of barrier is strong and difficult to be broken down because, besides being invisible, it is based on a very strong feeling of fear.

Indeed, a foreign language may be considered to be a most complicated and frightening object of studies for the following reasons.

1. It is an immense, unbounded field of knowledge including both the outer and inner worlds of human beings reflected and moulded by their languages. Thus, the volume of knowledge to be acquired is gigantic and, actually, uncoverable (a Russian proverb says: “Nobody can cover the uncoverable”).

2. The situation with FLLT is so extremely difficult because a natural human language is not only huge in size, but also changing nonstop, every day, every hour being spoken and written by thousands, millions of native speakers, the “owners” of the language under study.

3. FLLT is a very hard and at the same time very delicate thing, because language is not a sum of facts to be remembered and words are not labels attached to objects of reality. Their meanings may be deceptive because of cultural differences lying deep in the native speakers’ conscience and vision of the world, i.e. determined by the cultural barrier.

All this makes FLLT a very complicated psychological process of entering the world which is foreign: strange, alien and scary. It is like entering the jungle full of dangers. In this situation both the teacher and the student feel strained, tense, uncertain (if the teacher is non-native: native speaking teachers have other weak points). This barrier of fear of a failure, of making a mistake in foreign languages and cultures, fear of something which cannot be known in full is a very powerful psychological factor that complicates the FLLT situation and interferes greatly with communication.

All the above-mentioned psychological problems of FLLT are more or less universal, that is, common to all nations and cultures. However, they may be nation-specific which is determined by the history and culture of a nation.

“Teacher is almighty God, Tsar and Ruler. Student is a humble believer, a subordinate, a slave.”

The situation with the psychological barrier in Russia has been complicated and intensified by the following historical and cultural aspects.

1. The position of a non-native foreign language teacher is more difficult than that of a non-native student everywhere but especially so in Russia because of culturally traditional relations between a teacher as the boss who knows everything and a student who knows next to nothing. Students expect their teacher to be a know-all which makes the non-native teacher even more vulnerable. This tradition is deeply-rooted and dates back to very old times. This kind of teacher–student relations is historically grounded and has always been based on the principle: Teacher is almighty God, Tsar and Ruler. Student is a humble believer, a subordinate, a slave. These ideas seem to be characteristic of oriental cultures. In China numerous statues to the great Teacher – Confucius – present him as a giant looking down on a tiny little pupil kneeling at the feet of the giant. In Russia we have no statues of this kind but the tradition is the same.

2. The teacher-oriented tradition was even more intensified in the Soviet Union.

In the early years of Soviet power, established in 1917, the attitude to foreign languages was negative: they were treated as luxuries of “people’s enemies” – aristocracy and bourgeoisie. The most unfortunate one was French as it was most closely associated with the Russian elite society.

However, in the late 1920s, after heated debates, foreign languages were returned to secondary school curricula. As usual, a pendulum swung forth, one fashion substituted for another one: a new campaign with the slogan: “Foreign languages – to the masses” soon introduced foreign languages into all educational institutions with the same enthusiasm as the previous campaign had banished them.

Since that time foreign languages have always been part of the curriculum in the Soviet system of education, but the official attitude to them was far from being positive till the end of the Soviet Union. In the 1930s and 1940s foreign languages were “out of fashion” as a suspicious subject that led straight into the arms of “potential enemies”, which actually meant the rest of the world. People who studied foreign languages were also suspicious as they were potential spies, potential emigrants and/or potential cosmopolitans. The idea behind it was that they lacked loyalty and patriotism because they did not seem to be satisfied with their own language, culture, country, or world.

This attitude, slowly growing milder with years, remained dominant to the end of the Soviet period.

“Even when we were completely cut off from the English-speaking world, we kept studying English – risking our reputation, career, sometimes freedom and even life.”

When I chose English linguistics as a profession it was a difficult and dangerous step. My father was very worried about me when as far back as 1956 I decided to enter the English Department of the Philological faculty at Moscow State University because he knew that to study foreign languages in general and English in particular was suspicious as it was “the language of a potential enemy”.

However, in Russia we have been learning and teaching English, as well as other modern languages, under all possible and impossible circumstances – for better, for worse, for richer and for poorer. Mostly, for worse and for poorer. Even when we were completely cut off from the English-speaking world, we kept studying English – risking our reputation, career, sometimes freedom and even life. For years and years it was not a promising career as it is now. It has always been “love for love’s sake” – a keen and deep interest in the culture and way of life of other nations.

For decades, under such circumstances, generations of teachers, who never set their eyes – or ears! – on a native speaker of a foreign language, taught generations of students without any proper equipment, without authentic FLLT materials, developing chalkboard theories and poor-but-honest, necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention techniques, and they did it brilliantly, to do them justice. However, under the unnatural circumstances of complete isolation from communication with the world where languages under study were actually used (which eventually turned them into dead languages), the teacher orientation was even more intensified. The main reason for this was mass production, a large-scale enterprise.

3. Since the time of the Soviet Union modern languages have been a must on the curriculum of both secondary and higher education.

Thus, it stopped being the piece-work of foreign language teaching to the elite offspring of Russian aristocracy, it became mass production. It required special mass-production techniques and mass-production-oriented teaching materials.

The standardized, centrally governed foreign language teaching used standard textbooks and was meant for standard, uniform students with standard motivation or rather a lack of it. A result of this tendency was that FLLT became even more – entirely – teacher-oriented, and the needs or problems of an individual student were ignored. Again it went very well both with the collectivist culture of Russians and with the neglect of the individual which was a pivot of Soviet ideology: to be individually minded was a great sin, people were taught to subordinate their individual needs and desires to the needs and goals of the collective. And all this went very well with the general pedagogical tradition in Russia from times immemorial.

“Learning a foreign language, like no other subject, requires a special psychological approach, the atmosphere of relaxation, trust, even love and faith.”

This resulted in intensifying the traditional rigid, severe and distant kind of teacher-student relations which is quite dangerous because learning a foreign language, like no other subject, requires a special psychological approach, the atmosphere of relaxation, trust, even love and faith. However, the mass-production situation of teaching an obligatory subject is not exactly favourable for establishing the atmosphere of love and friendship or any special attention to the problems of the individual.

As a consequence, FLLT in Russia has accumulated valuable experience in doing its job under all kinds of possible and impossible conditions, including political and social emergencies. This experience is deep-rooted and stems from various social, historical and cultural reasons. One important social reason is that the USSR was a multi-lingual state with Russian as lingua franca. Soviet linguists were committed to the cultivation of the standard Russian language, to prodigious lexicographic activity including publishing learner’s dictionaries of Russian, to the teaching of Russian as a foreign language on a very large scale. As a result Soviet scholars developed original linguistic and pedagogical theories concerning FLLT.

4. However, at present the situation in this country is even more complicated because the era of intercultural communication has revealed a present-day purely Russian problem: a conflict of cultures between teachers and students.

This kind of a clash of cultures is very dangerous because it is not a habitual conflict between generations, between the young and the old. A conflict of cultures here is worse than that between different nations. It is more dangerous than the latter because it is especially well-hidden, almost incomprehensible: the conflicting communities use the same language and belong to the same nation. However, they were born and educated in different countries with different – even opposite – ideologies, value systems, etc. – the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

As a result of all these real challenges and serious problems, the situation with FLLT in the New Russia leaves much to be desired. The old traditions, though diluted by the new technologies, still prevail, and a fear of a very strict and severe FL teacher (and often equally strict and severe parents – a third force in the process of teaching and learning situation) is still a stumbling block to such a delicate thing like foreign language learning.

There is ample and substantial evidence against the abnormal situation in this filed provided by students, teachers and parents. Here is only one example given in an article entitled “Russian Children in an American School” by I. M. Pravshina. Russian children’s answer to the question “What is good in the American school?” (where they spent some time) is describing the problems of our education very vividly. “The students are treated respectfully, they are not discriminated by public announcements of bad marks. No one screams at students, there is no harsh, rigid, iron discipline, a student may get up, drink some water, return to his/her place, sit in an easy position. No child is hurt, humiliated, called names, one feels like ‘a human being’ in such a school. Because of all this school years become 10–12 years of happiness. That is why American children usually love their school, while we often hate it.” (Pravshina, 2010, p. 38)

The next most important question is: “What is to be done about this problem/challenge/wrong situation? What is the best way to improve the situation?”

The answer to “How to teach?” seems “easy” to be formulated, as compared with “What to teach?”, but very difficult to put into practice. The inverted commas with the word “easy” imply that there is nothing easy about any language. However, it is “easy” in the following sense.

There is a great variety of motifs, aims, intentions, etc. of FL learning. There is an even greater variety of learners with their different psychological peculiarities, their own ideas, likes and dislikes. If we add to these two factors a third one, namely, the learner-oriented approach to FLT it becomes clear that all the varieties of students require a great variety of ways, techniques, methods of teaching a foreign language. The actual choice of them depends on the objectives of the course, the needs of the students, and also on the teacher’s individual ideas, knowledge, likes and dislikes. Thus, the “easy” answer to the question “how to teach” is: foreign language teaching must be learner-oriented. Then all methods may be good and right because each of them, no matter how odd it may seem to you, may be right and good to some learners with their different individual motifs, ideas and peculiarities of psychology.

A wrong or bad method is only the one which is proclaimed and advertised as “universal” which implies “right and good for everybody”. It might be possible only for robots but not for human beings.

“Teachers must learn to be patient and caring for students, they must learn to see and respect students as personalities in their own right.”

Learning a foreign language is a very difficult and often unpleasant psychological process. And the role of the teacher in this sphere of education is more important that in any other because a nice, patient and loving teacher helps the learner to lose inhibitions more than any methods or gadgets.

The “easy” answer is: it is the duty of teachers, our duty to change the present-day situation as we are in the position of “masters” of the situation.

Consequently, our very urgent task nowadays is to bridge the gap between the teacher and the student. To do this, teachers must learn to be patient and caring for students, they must learn to see and respect students as personalities in their own right.

I got this eye-opening experience on my first visit to Britain having got a British Council scholarship for studies at University College London about 40 years ago. It was there that I realized that there were only two marks or comments given to students for their papers/home tasks: “good” and “…to think about it”. It became a symbol of a new – unheard of before! – kind of teacher-student relations, and its principle was: give support, do not frighten away!

Using a well-known metaphor, the teacher can either “light up the torch” or “fill in the vessel”. My appeal to all teachers is: Do not put out the torch, because then no one will be able to fill in the vessel.

Let us be humane to our students! (Humane is defined as “showing kindness, care and sympathy” – Oxford English Dictionary.) This is the best way to break down the psychological barrier.

For a number of years I used to boast of “my formula of teaching methods”: “It is love, or rather two loves: love for the subject you teach and love for the students you teach”. I even published a couple of articles having included “my formula”.

However, one day I got a letter from Svetlana Shevchenko, a listener to my online course on Language, Culture, and Intercultural Communication. She wrote to me that Leo Tolstoy said the same thing long before me and she sent the quotation to me. It said: “If a teacher only loves his/her business, he/she will be a good teacher. If a teacher loves his/her student, he/she will be better than a teacher who has read all the books on the subject but does not love either his/her business or his/her students. If a teacher combines his/her love for the business and for the students, he/she is a perfect teacher.”

With this support from the Genius I feel it may be right.

Image | Casey Horner, Unsplash

Svetlana Ter-Minasova first presented this research at The European Conference on Education 2017 in Brighton, UK.


Pravshina, I. M. (2010). Russkie deti v Amerikanskoi shkole. Akademicheskoe obshchenie. Kommunikativnoe povedenie. Vypusk 32. Voronezh.

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova (Moscow State University, Russia). Photography by Thaddeus Pope

About Svetlana Ter-Minasova

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova is President of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia, and Professor Emeritus in the University. She is President of the National Association for Applied Linguistics (NAAL), Chair of the Russian Ministry of Education’s Foreign Language Research and Methodology Council, and President and founder of both the National Society for English Language Teachers in Russia, and the National Association of Applied Linguistics. She holds the Lomonosov Award for teaching achievements, Fulbright’s 50th Anniversary Award, and was named Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Birmingham in the UK, the State University of New York (SUNY) in the USA, and the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University, in Armenia.


Education, Europe, Featured, IAFOR Keynotes, Language Learning, Subject Area, World


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