Tuesday, September 23, 2008



Commonly referred to as Russish, Russian English has developed into it’s own unique version of English. This brand of English is generally not limited to just Russia, but to most of the former Soviet Union, and finds its roots in the Soviet time. I have coined the term Bleenglish from the words blin (pronounded as bleen), the beloved Russian pancake, (translated by Russians as pancake but rather actually a crape) and English. Blin is also a very light curse in Russian, sort of like shucks or darn in English, that people commonly say in frustration, so the word Bleenglish also reflects the frustration that Russians commonly express in communicating in English, or listening to English.
The existence of one’s own brand of English in and of itself is not a bad thing; English has many distinct versions all over the world as both a first language and second language. Speakers of English are used to hearing many different versions of English, even in their own country. However the goal of studying English is to be as understandable as possible, so it is necessary to shake some of the old habits of Bleenglish in the further study of English for Russians.
The evolution of Bleenglish can be found in the isolation of the Soviet Union, especially during the period known as the Cold War. I will identify four causes for this:
  1. During this time of isolation foreigners were discouraged from visiting Russia and Russians were discouraged from visiting abroad. So Russians practiced speaking English with Russians, and often repeated or learnt each other's mistakes.
  1. To prevent propaganda, or other unofficial information in this period, all text books were to be written by Russians, even those about speaking English. As well, in the Soviet time there was standardization of textbooks, meaning everyone all over the Soviet Union learned from the same textbook. This made it so only a few people were the English experts for a nation, and often they would pass their unique version, as well as mistakes, on to the entire nation. It's a simple case of "grapevine", or "telephone line" as the Russians call it, one person tells someone who tells someone who tells someone, and soon the message is completely different.
  1. Russian is essentially a phonetic language. It is largely written and spoken the same. Of course there are exceptions, but they are in comparison with other languages few. English is written and spoken in very different ways, with sound a-likes that are spelled different, look a-likes that are pronounced different, and many other complications that are conceptually unusual for Russians to handle. Russians tend to read English with an often too phonetic approach, or some learn to read well, but can’t pronounce the words properly.
For this and many more reasons the Russian English has developed. As I mentioned above simply having your own take on English is not necessarily wrong, as long as it doesn't interfere with communication. In recent years it has become common for foreign textbooks to be used and there are more native speaker teachers in Russia and Eastern Europe than ever. Why is this important? Firstly with globalization English has increasingly become the language of business, and secondly because English has become the unofficial language of the internet, and with that, the passing of information. The need for English in people's work, and daily life is increasing, and all signs point to that trend increasing.
Other then lexical and pronunciation shortcomings in Bleenglish, there is another effect that is the most difficult to deal with: A language gap or barrier that Russians feel when they converse in English. This has also lead to a lack of confidence and a shyness to speak on the part of Russians who speak English. The use of the Grammar-Translation method in education, along with an emphasis on memorization has left Russia with a huge number of people who know some English but can't converse.
This may sound daunting for Russians learning English; however the news is not all bad. Luckily for Russians their years of isolation have lead to a love of all things foreign, including foreign languages. Russians have become concerned with learning English and even re-learning English in order to improve the opportunities in their lives. Also a positive remnant of the Soviet educational system has left an emphasis on the study of humanities, whereas in North America and Western Europe the emphasis is changing to specialty education. This emphasis will expose more Russians to the study of English and benefit in the improvement of Russian English.