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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Language Education for a Lucky Few




A large, sweaty crowd was trying to push through the narrow front door of the yellow, classical building. The Moscow State Linguistic University held an open day last Saturday for would-be students and their parents. The visitors were full of hope and anxiety. Whether they were conscious of it nor not, the door was a symbol. Only a lucky few will be chosen to pass through the golden gate to higher education.


Once inside the building, the crowd fanned out to different classrooms to receive information about the various courses on offer. In a small auditorium, Professor Rodmonga Potapova was advertising her course in "applied linguistics" that involved not only the study of languages but also of mathematics and computers. In the modern world, it was not enough merely to translate; one had to know information technology, she said. The visitors sighed when she came to the crunch question. Competition was hot for the 20 places on her course: eight candidates for every place.


The stress in the air of the small hall was nothing, however, compared to the barely suppressed panic in the gym, where hundreds had gathered to learn the conditions for joining the translators' course. Parents passed written questions up to the front, where a senior lecturer was struggling with a crackling microphone. There were 100 state-sponsored places, 75 for boys, 25 for girls, he was saying. Those who failed to gain top marks could still come to the university "on a commercial basis."


"What's he saying? Can't hear a thing he's saying," complained one parent at the back. "I think he said that if you're prepared to pay, the price is $4,500 per year," whispered another. "Surely not that much?" But, yes, the figure was correct.


After the speech, the parents crowded round the lecturer, all trying to put their individual questions. "Will you teach Swedish next year?" "Do you have a hostel?"


"Oh, how can I get to speak to him?" cried a woman called Tamara, who was built like a tank but who was too shy or too well-mannered to use her elbows. "My boy Anton has been dreaming of studying languages since he was eight. If only I could speak to the lecturer, I'm sure he would take him."


The hopeful students stood to one side, pretending they did not know their embarrassing parents. The girls complained of the state bias in favor of boys. A young man called Dmitry, from Bryansk, opined that "Muscovites have all the money; candidates from the provinces have all the brains." The boys felt under pressure because they knew that if they did not go to college, the army would recruit them.


In the relative quiet of the coffee bar later, Alexei Nikolsky, the courteous teacher of French as a second language, told me the history of the 5,000-student university. Before the revolution, a polyglot named Zinaida Stepanova set up a private language school. After 1917, her courses were nationalized, and in Soviet times the prestigious institute bore the name of the French coal miner and Communist leader, Maurice Thorez. Stalin closed the translators' department and sent the institute director to her death in a labor camp, only to rediscover the need for linguists when he needed to communicate with his allies and the enemy during the war. After the war, graduates of the institute translated at the Nuremberg trials.


Nikolsky spoke delicious French, despite the fact that in Communist times he had limited travel opportunities and had to rely on recordings and "Madam Method." Today's students benefit from free exchanges with other countries, but, unless they are among the very brightest, may find poverty a barrier to education.


"So many wish to study, they are so full of youthful enthusiasm," said the French teacher wistfully. "It is terrible pity we do not have places for them all."