Learn English! It will lead to better employment opportunities! It will aid you on your travels! It will help you appreciate works of art and countless internet memes! It will make your teeth straighter and your butt firmer!
...Well, I’m not actually quite so sure about that last bit - but the Russian advertising community has certainly gone a long way towards associating the study of a foreign language, English in particular, with youth and attractiveness. And this goes for both language schools and language software.
Occasionally, English will also be associated with superhuman strength - a means of getting way ahead of the competition. In recent months, for example, I was particularly impressed with a billboard advertising campaign for a language school that featured two guys arm-wrestling. The guy who had the English skills was clearly set to win - because he had a hairy gorilla arm seamlessly attached to his body via the magic of Photoshop.
In a country with a Soviet past, such tactics make perfect sense - it’s important for advertisers to insist to their clients that learning English will make them truly special. And what does “special” mean for most Russians? It means leading a radically different lifestyle than grandpa and grandma.
Grandpa and grandma were likely cut off from the global community - heck, they probably were highly suspicious of the entire concept of “global community,” and with good reason. They can recall major nuclear stand-offs, for one thing.
Yet even as English has been “branded” as the language of the young and globally aware, people will still react with surprise and even annoyance if they overhear you chattering away in English in public. It’s especially true if you happen to be a young mother, like me, and are busy talking to a small child.
I try to talk to my infant son, Lev, as much as possible when we’re out and about together. It helps to keep him entertained and prevent a possible crying fit. But while Lev’s Russian father obviously speaks to Lev in Russian, I speak to him in English. A lot of my childhood friends were products of multilingual households - and I know for a fact that it has aided them a lot in life, both in terms of the kind of work they are able to do, and in terms of their overall development.
This isn’t something I like to explain to strangers in public - and yet I frequently find myself on the defensive.
“He’ll grow up confused!” one woman at the supermarket told me. “He won’t speak either English or Russian properly!” When I told her that numerous studies - not to mention my personal experience - have shown that this isn’t actually the case, she refused to believe me.
“But you’re his mother!” a man at the pharmacy recently protested. “A mother must help him learn his mother tongue! And around here, that’s Russian - not stupid English!” When I told him that in our household, the mother tongue is daddy’s responsibility, he rolled his eyes as if he were speaking to an idiot.
Loudly commenting on other people’s parenting skills was not invented by the Russians. Anywhere you go in the world, people will be perfectly willing to call you a horrible parent because you don’t feed your child vegan puree, or because his onesie isn’t fashionable enough, or because his mittens aren’t made of organic cotton, or whatever. I’ve made my peace with that.
But I do find it interesting that while most Russians would agree that formal learning of a foreign language is necessary for today’s children, many have resistance to the intimate knowledge of English as transferred by a parent as opposed to a teacher in a school.
English may be cool, it may be fashionable - but it should still be kept at an arm’s length. It’s for business, or for ordering a drink in a foreign country, not for personal conversation between mother and child.
There is something still odd about the notion of a kid who easily switches between two languages, as if a child should be “loyal” to only one language or culture.
Yet I predict that this is going to change. Financial crisis or no, diplomatic rows or no, Russia is swiftly becoming a more globally connected country with growing internet penetration. And for a Russian having dual citizenship, for example, is not weird at all. As such, I see a future with more little Levs in it, and don’t think that’s a bad thing.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.