History and Reasons for Immigration
The history of immigration from the Russian Empire is very complex. The vast country has suffered from overpopulation, famines, war, and political unrest.
From my interviews, Aleksei and Marina immigrated to the US, primarily for Aleksei’s “dream” to live in California. In addition, when I asked Irina this question, she responded that Russians immigrate to the US because of the weather, more job and education opportunities, and to have an easier lifestyle.
Russian American Demographics
According to the 2000 Census, the Russian American population is estimated at approximately 2.9 million people. Russians are the second largest ethnic market representing 10.3% (2.9 Million people) of the total foreign-born population of 28.4 million. The leading ethnic group is Mexicans that represent 28% or 7.8 million of all US foreign-born population. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Detroit are cities with the highest Russian American population. California represents 16% of the percentage distribution. There are an estimated 600,000 Russian-speaking people in Southern California. There are an estimated 5.5 million Russian-speaking people in the United States. Most Russian-speakers are bilingual but generally prefer to speak their native language at home.
Consistent in both my interviews is that students only go to one school for elementary, middle, and high school (approx. 6 or 7-17 years old). Then, if they go to university, they study for 5 years. Russians greatly value education. However, both my interviewees studied German as a foreign language; and if they studied English in Russia, the emphasis is on grammar and translation, not speaking. To practice speaking English in Russia, they must go to a special language school, rather than study English in regular school.
Russian is part of the Slavonic branch of the Indo-European language family and closely related to other Slav languages such as Polish, Czech and Serbo-Croatian. Russian is spoken as a native language by approx. 150 million people in Russia and the former republics of the USSR. The Russian language is very different from English in many ways; and Russians often find learning English to be challenging.
First, Russian learners may experience difficulties writing in English because Russian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet, which has letters similar to letters in the Latin alphabet used by English. However, Russians become more exposed to English in their everyday lives, so these problems should start to decline.
English has a fairly fixed word order and meaning is expressed through the addition of words, such as auxiliaries, and movement of words within limited boundaries. However, Russian word order is very fluid and meaning is conveyed through changes in the composition of words, such as by the addition of prefixes and suffixes.
Due to differences in phonology, it is difficult for Russians to acquire native accent standards of pronunciation and intonation in English. Russian consists of 5 vowel sounds, with no difference between short and long vowels, plus 8 diphthongs. The /θ/ and /ð/ sounds do not exist in Russian, so words such as thin, then and clothes are predictably difficult. In addition, the /w/ and /v/ sounds are also challenging, west being pronounced vest. The ng sound at the end of words like sing or thinking is difficult for Russian learners to produce accurately, where they often end up as sin or thinkin. Russian learners may also ask questions with falling instead of rising intonation, which might not sound polite to English native speakers.
Also, Russian is a largely phonetic language, where a word’s pronunciation can be predicted from its spelling and its spelling from its pronunciation. However, this is not the case in English, which usually causes Russian learners serious difficulty. There are also aspects of the Russian language which, if directly transferred into English conversation, may sound abrupt or impolite to English native speakers. For example, when Marina and I were coordinating when to meet for our interview, she said, “We are ready to receive you.” And, throughout our visit, she would say, “No, you eat.”
Some other grammatical differences are that Russian doesn’t have any articles and few auxiliary verbs, and the present simple is commonly used where the progressive or perfect form is needed.
Implications in the Classroom
Since Russians tend to be more reserved and schools in Russia don’t focus on speaking and pronunciation, they might not be as open to participating in communication activities in the classroom. However, this makes speaking and pronunciation activities even more important and it might just take some time for them to participate.
Values and Beliefs
Russians greatly value education and work. They are more community oriented and value the good of the community of people over personal interests. They value their families, taking care of their aging relatives, and they don’t usually move away from family very often. According to my interviews, Russians don’t really take to “small talk,” but are more interested in deeper conversations and relationships, rather than ones on the surface level. It might take longer to get to know Russians on a personal level, but they are warm and welcoming people once you establish a friendship with them. Men may greet with a handshake and women with a kiss on the cheek. Rich have a rich arts culture, including literature, theater, ballet, opera, and film.
American media tends to depict Russians as being angry, distant/cold, and tough due to their hardships and also because they tend to smile less. They also depict them as being “bad” because of these characteristics, but even though they might have more of a “hard outer shell,” on the inside they are really warm and welcoming and just take time to get to know them or show their emotions to close friends and family. Also, they are honest and direct, which can sound rude, but they are just blunt and respect straightforwardness and genuineness.
Video: “What Americans Get Wrong About Russia” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw5LoYj014E)
Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-faith nation. Orthodox Christianity is Russia’s largest religion with 75% of the population belonging to the Orthodox Christian denomination. Islam is professed by 5% of the population. Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Buddhism are professed by 1% of the population each. Other religious denominations represent 1% of the population, while 8% consider themselves atheists. Note: data is based on 2010 VCIOM survey results.
http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/russian.htm (Frankfurt International School)