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City Beat

The Gift of the Gab
The World recession may halve the number of English classes in Moscow but students are being increasingly resourceful in keeping their language abilities up to speed out of school. For expats in the capital, it’s never been a better time to socialize with its citizens.
Text Peter Mellis

alk is no longer cheap. The number of Muscovites studying English could be slashed as a result of the economic crisis. So suggests Michael Bondarev, Director of BKC International House, the largest language school in Moscow. “The market for English language courses in the city could go down by thirty to fifty percent,” he said.

“Unfortunately, for students and their teachers there’s going to be some pain. But we have an expression in Russia: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Bondarev’s school survived the economic crisis of the 1990s but he fears that, like then, smaller establishments may go bust.

Yet language learning remains a priority for many Muscovites. “In the economic crisis, people first stop spending on luxuries – holidays and meals in restaurants – but English lessons are one of the last to go,” Bondarev says. “In a competitive market, proficiency in English gives people an advantage when applying for, and keeping a job.”

The city is being imaginative in keeping language skills sharp out of the classroom; it’s a rich mix of lectures, reading, debate, discussion, oratory and song. For expats they offer interesting and fun opportunities to get to know and understand Moscow’s citizens.

“Students in Moscow are much more aware how important English is, in contrast to areas of Russia away from the capital,” says Amara Telleen, Director of the American Center. “They understand the necessity of the language in the global economy and they value the opportunity to practice their English with native speakers.”

The center, on Nickoloyamskaya Naberezhnaya, organizes a busy schedule of talks, debates and cultural events, none of which costs its patrons a kopeck. Recent lectures have included an insider’s view of the FBI, an appreciation of the Russian community in the States and a look at the new Obama administration from the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy.

Regular events include film nights, English workshops and a “Writers on America” literature group. Its library is also popular. “You can find books about philosophy and politics which would be difficult to find in the shops,” says Inna Gulyazhinova, a 22-year-old translator who regularly uses the Center. “It’s fascinating to see how people relate to each other in different Countries.”

One-to-one sessions are available with American diplomats and native speaker volunteers, where you can simply chew the cud or thrash out the best way to approach a vital job application. Given gratis, they are understandably popular and there’s a waiting list but for the enterprising, another route to free speech is language exchange.

The web site expat. ru0 has many postings offering Russian lessons for English (as well as a host of other languages). “When you start to communicate with native speakers you realize that intonation and skills to stress necessary words are very important,” says 25-year-old surveyor Elena Markina. “And that’s something you can’t get from books.” Reactions amongst the expats on the site’s forum are favorable, though most of the chat concentrates on the rights and wrongs of using the scheme as a surrogate dating agency.

“Toastmasters” is a particularly American import. Successful around the globe, it’s a popular way for business people and those interested in public speaking to fine-tune their skills before a wedding speech or that critical sales presentation. The Moscow Free Speakers Club (International Branch #6386) gives the opportunity to deliver prepared speeches or give impromptu orations on a plethora of subjects, be it your worries for the future or how much you love your wife.

The silver tongued are encouraged to go for gold. Prizes are given for the best speech and the best speech evaluation. There is a clear achievement structure and participants can graduate from being a “competent communicator” through “Advanced Communicator Bronze” and “Advanced Communicator Gold” to the pinnacle, becoming a “Distinguished Toastmaster.” Meetings and competitions are also held internationally, for the real high flyers.

If words do fail you, you can always express yourself in song. “Mr. English Stage Stars” welcomes children and adults, learners and native speakers to take part in professionally directed musicals. Appropriately, considering the economic crisis, their latest show, Share and Share Alike, is a musical comedy about a near bankrupt school whose fortunes are reversed by a group of teenagers turning their classroom study of the stock market into success in the real world. “It motivates and inspires. What better way to learn a foreign language?” one reviewer enthused.

Those with the gift of the gab can garner quite a gathering. Californian author, editor and “independent scholar” Stephen Lapeyrouse launched the first of his “English Language Evenings” eleven years ago. “I wanted to provide intelligent, intellectual evenings in English centered on lectures given by members of Moscow’s expat community,” he says. Local journalists, diplomats, intellectuals and some celebrities have been drawing the crowds ever since. “One particularly popular evening,” Lapeyrouse recalls, “was a talk on the history of the USA based on Country Music. The dominantly Russians audience knew the songs, they could relate easily to it.”

The idea’s caught on. The number of organized talking shops has mushroomed in Moscow and they are particularly popular now. Take the English Speaking Club. Its meetings every Wednesday and Sunday are packed into a series of rooms by the Chekhov Library. Entrance is a snip at 120 rubles, while native speakers get in for free. The Club also organizes talks and debates, day trips in and around Moscow and runs evenings in a disco, so combining discussion with dance.

The majority of those attending are young, in their twenties and thirties, but the atmosphere is like from another age. In one room tea, topped up with water from a samovar, is accompanied by biscuits and cakes, in another someone tinkles at the piano. Newcomers may be greeted by Irina Mikhailovna or Tamara Rasnikova, elegant ladies in their 60s and 80s. The aristocratic social salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries must have been something like this.

“I work for a bank, so good English helps in communicating with colleagues all over Europe,” says Tatiana Suvorina, 31, a regular at the Club. “It’s a simple language with lots of short words and I find it melodic.” Another club member, Oxana Baroskaya, a 28-year-old food industry manager, agrees that the language is important: “it helps us keep on top of the waves in our lives, it’s at the cutting edge; you need English to keep pace with modern life.” Language learning isn’t the only thing on the agenda. “I want to maintain an atmosphere that helps people not to be alone,” says Elena Abramova, the Club’s Director. “It’s difficult to make friends in a big city like Moscow. I try to be friendly and help people getting together.” She claims some success: “there are couples who have met here. One American girl married a Russian boy and they now live in the US. Some people who have met here still come along as a couple.”

The talk is intense: sometimes serious, sometimes silly, it’s superbly stimulating. There’s the timely, like the economic crisis, and then there’s the timeless: what films to see and how to get a girlfriend. It’s the stuff of life – good conversation – and that’s priceless in any language whether times are good, or bad.

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