Join 3,362 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Is it common for US Americans to incorrectly assume that Russian is only spoken in Russia
October 18, 2006 2:37 AM   Subscribe

Is it common for Americans to incorrectly assume that Russian is only spoken in Russia but forget that it is also a common language in the former Soviet states?

My question is prompted by a recent conversation with a friend from Latin America. He told me that he didn't trust in a Kirgizi young woman's ability to speak correct Russian because she was not from Russia. He thought she must have learned Russian as a second language, although she has spoken it as a first language.

I was kind of shocked by lack of my friend's awareness of how many people from post-Soviet states spoke Russian as a first language.

My question is: Do US Americans often tend to mistake this mistake as well? My friend was from Latin America, but I wonder whether a person from the US is also likely to be unaware that Russian is commonly spoken in the former Soviet Republics outside of Russia, (especially Central Asia)

P.S (I am only concerned about US-Americans knowledge in this question, even though this question was prompted by a conversation with someone from Latin America.)
posted by gregb1007 to Writing & Language (37 answers total)
 
It's certainly a common perception in Canada and the UK.
posted by Marquis at 2:47 AM on October 18, 2006


I hate to sound cynical but I'd be surprised if the average American could even name a former Soviet Republic, let alone know that natives of that country speak Russian as a primary language. Extensive knowledge of foreign cultures (and by "extensive" I really mean "any") is not something that I would expect to find in the typical American on the street.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:19 AM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'm fairly interested in language/world history/the like, and I hadn't realized how prevalent it was.

I mean, I think I had more awareness than the guy in question, but I couldn't tell you exactly where, geographically speaking. I was under the impression that many of them, like colonized Korea, were forced to speak Russian and shed the language once they became independent again.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 3:34 AM on October 18, 2006


I agree with Rhomboid. I think that in a lot of the US, the term "Soviet state" would induce a very blank stare.
posted by meerkatty at 3:41 AM on October 18, 2006


FWIW: I just assumed that most of the former Soviet states continued to speak Russian. After having been taught by, and integrated with, Russians for so many decades, it would be pretty hard to reverse the language in such short order.
posted by davidmsc at 4:08 AM on October 18, 2006


forget that it is also a common language in the former Soviet states?

Well your friend isn't as off the mark as you might think. Was this Kirghizi woman ethnic Russian or ethnic Kirghiz? He might have assumed the latter and if she wasn't ethnic Russian then it is indeed surprising that she speaks Russian as her first language. And if she is a young ethnic Kirghiz, then her facility with Russian *is* surprising.

More knowledgeable people may want to correct me, but the sitation where Russian is the spoken language depends really on the ethnicity of the speaker. In the Baltic states, everyone who went to school before the Soviet Union break up probably speaks Russian, but only the ethnic Russians would speak it as their mother tongue. Considerable controversy in Estonia about citizenship to those ethnic Russians, BTW. Probably in the other republics as well.

I think Ukraine and Kazakhstan are the two former republics with the greatest proportion of native Russian speakers.

Whether US'ians are more stupid about other countries or just more insulated is well a sore point, generally I think yes we rae more ignorant and isolated, but just when I think everyone in my country except me is an ignorant yahoo, I meet a European so colossally stupid as to make me feel so much better.
posted by xetere at 4:22 AM on October 18, 2006


I think it safe to say that most people in America are entirely unaware of how many people from post-Soviet states speak Russian as a first language. I'm largely unaware of it myself. But assuming that someone not from Russia couldn't possibly speak Russian as a first language strikes me as very odd. After all, we're typically aware that Spanish isn't spoken only in Spain, or English in England. Total ignorance is normal, but that particular wrong assumption is not.

So it does seem possible that you might have misinterpreted, like xetere suggests.
posted by sfenders at 4:40 AM on October 18, 2006


And if she is a young ethnic Kirghiz, then her facility with Russian *is* surprising.

Absolutely incorrect. Native Kyrgyz who are from the elite / upper class, especially if educated at university level or from Bishkek, will most likely speak Russian as their language of education and business, and it will usually be the language of the household, television, etc.

As to your question, I am impressed when an American knows that they speak Dutch in the Netherlands or German in Austria - Kyrgyzstan might as well be on Alpha Centauri.

Just by the way, I don't know where you guys are digging up this Kirgiz / Kirgizstani thing - ethnic Russians from Kyrgyzstan will call themselves Russian, Kyrgyz call themselves Kyrgyz. There is not an easy way to describe "someone, not Kyrgyz, with Kyrgyz citizenship" in the local languages - but it certainly isn't "Kirgizstani".
posted by Meatbomb at 5:31 AM on October 18, 2006


To show the other side of this coin. Having visited Russia and Ukraine in 1996, one of the things that annoys me is that US Americans hear an Eastern European language being spoken (or see it written) and automatically assume that it's Russian, even if the speaker or writer is first identified to them as Polish or Ukrainian or Georgian. Though all three of these countries have a great many Russian speakers, they also have speakers of other languages, and I find that my peers are unable to take that possibility into account, and are often disbelieving when they are told, "That's not Russian."

But, I have a friend who is teaching in China right now and every white person his students meet is faced first with the question: Are you American. If they are not, their status drops noticeably. So I don't think this is only a problem in America.
posted by bilabial at 5:36 AM on October 18, 2006


If people in general aren't familiar with the satellite republics, I seriously doubt they'd know, or guess, the existence of the Tajik, Uzbek, or Kyrgyz (etc) languagues - and would therfore imagine Russian to be the language spoken in these states.

I also think most people in America who were at least 12 in 1991 have at least some rudimentary understanding of what is meant by 'former-Soviet state'.
posted by unmake at 5:49 AM on October 18, 2006


I think it is starting to change more as time passes on the CCCP. Lithuanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian are somewhat similar to Russian but are different enough. Their respective countries are using them more and more instead of Russian nowadays.
posted by JJ86 at 5:57 AM on October 18, 2006


Personally, anecdotally, as a Californian (...a US American...), yes I knew other people besides Russians spoke Russian. Example: Ukrainians.

Can I speak for my friends or fellow Americans? No of course not.

But if I were to ask your question in this way: “Is it common for Romanians to incorrectly assume that Spanish is only spoken in Latin America but forget that it is also a common language in the United States?”

Would that really be a valid question to ask Romanians? Would Romanians necessarily find such information useful? Would such knowledge be important in the day-to-day lives of Romanians?

I wouldn't think so. On preview, what sfenders said.

But to answer your question:

No, most Americans would not know Russian is a prominent and important language outside of Russia, or that Russian is still spoken by a majority of people in former Soviet states.

bilabial : "But, I have a friend who is teaching in China right now and every white person his students meet is faced first with the question: Are you American. If they are not, their status drops noticeably."

As an American, I would've assumed the reverse:
“Are you American?”
“No.”
“Awesome!”
posted by Colloquial Collision at 5:58 AM on October 18, 2006


I think Ukraine and Kazakhstan are the two former republics with the greatest proportion of native Russian speakers.

Also Latvia.
posted by mcwetboy at 5:59 AM on October 18, 2006


On the contrary, I think that most Americans consider the former Soviet Union to have been 'Russia' and the post-Soviet states to be 'parts of Russia.' The assumption would therefore follow that everyone in those states speaks Russian.

That said, I think that part of the controversy here is over your use of the phrase 'first language.' A good friend of mine, now in his mid-30s, grew up in Estonia (and is an ethnic Estonian). Like everyone else who grew up under Soviet rule, he speaks Russian fluently, but he also speaks Estonian fluently. And, like many of his countrymen, he harbors a deep resentment against the Soviets who occupied his country for so long. The Russian influence was tolerated, it was not embraced. So he grew up learning Russian and Estonian at the same time, but if one of them is his 'first language,' it's Estonian. An argument might be made that Russian and Estonian are both his first language. But it's ridiculous to argue that Russian is his first language. And now that the Soviets are gone, the Estonians have enthusiastically returned to Estonian as their official language of doing business.
posted by bingo at 6:03 AM on October 18, 2006


It may depend on the age of the person. Those of us who grew up when the Soviet Union existed are likely to take for granted that the Russian language extends far beyond present-day Russia. Those who did not, might not.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:15 AM on October 18, 2006


I'm Canadian, 25 years old, and I didn't know this until I started taking Linguistics classes with Ukranians, Latvians, etc. It makes sense, of course, but I never really would have thought about it otherwise.
posted by heatherann at 6:37 AM on October 18, 2006


I learned about this when I was in my 20's and lived in Romania. Most people there who spoke a second language -- anyone over about 30 -- spoke Russian but many of them would also claim they didn't (see bingo's "deep resentment" argument). I think since I'm also in the age range of people who grew up with the USSR, I'd assume any former Soviet bloc country would have Russian speakers.
posted by jessamyn at 6:37 AM on October 18, 2006


Do US Americans often tend to mistake this mistake as well?

As a USAian who has traveled abroad and met with many Northern and Eastern Europeans through tourism and academics, I would never presume to assume what languages someone was fluent in. Perhaps Latin America is like the US, where second/third/fourth languages are not common, but in my experience this is not the case for other Western countries.
posted by muddgirl at 6:41 AM on October 18, 2006


More knowledgeable people may want to correct me

Yeah, you're wrong, as Meatbomb says, and frankly you should have realized from the post that the poster is more knowledgeable than you. Lots of people who aren't ethnically Russian speak Russian natively, just as lots of people who aren't ethnically Anglo speak English natively.

And to answer the question, yes, it's extremely common, to the extent that people are even aware of the ex-Soviet republics. The depth of American ignorance of foreign countries and languages is hard to overstate.
posted by languagehat at 7:03 AM on October 18, 2006


jessamyn: Your experience isn't really to the point, because those Romanians spoke it as a second language, which is what greg's friend thought about the Kyrgyz woman. It's a natural assumption to make about a Romanian, but not about a Central Asian.
posted by languagehat at 7:05 AM on October 18, 2006


Well, I've never been to Russia or any former Soviet state, but I was aware that Russian is widely spoken in many former Soviet states. My understanding is that it's the native language in some areas, and one of several national languages in a number of countries. My understanding also is that this can be a cause of political strife. I'm not verifying this, because if I'm wrong you can use that to gage how wrong most of my American peers are likely to be. I'm an avid newspaper reader and news radio listener.

I think most Americans never, ever, ever think about the former Soviet union except "it's gone" and don't really think about Russia or the language that's spoken their, either.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:15 AM on October 18, 2006


One of the crucial factors that have to be taken into account is that many of the post-soviet languages (eg, Belorussian) are actually just political constructs created to differentiate the new state from its "mother country." Mostly, they never had any independent existence and were certainly not spoken as a primary language.
posted by nasreddin at 7:20 AM on October 18, 2006


In my experience, when Americans hear that someone was born in Ukraine or Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, they call them Ukrainians or Uzbeks or Kazakhs. This may mean they think they belong to those ethnic groups, or are not native Russian speakers. But it's hard to know for sure.
posted by gubo at 7:45 AM on October 18, 2006


I majored in Russian Language and Literature around the time of the Soviet breakup (jesus...i'm old). Based on that experience I do not let myself assume that anyone from any of the post-Soviet states or Baltic states speaks Russian. In my mind I generally assign the odds that they do as way above average, however I feel that there is a lot of sensitivity around former association with the Soviet Empire or a lot of bad blood around things that association forced upon a culture, such as being required to speak Russian. Hence, I figure many would be either insulted by the assumption or actively trying to bury that past. Of course, that has no bearing on how many people actually DO know Russian, but it speaks to what I as an American let myself assume about the area.
posted by spicynuts at 8:03 AM on October 18, 2006


It seems silly to ask for a statement about the typical knowledge of a huge and diverse group of people such as the >300,000,000 people in the United States. In some pockets/segments of that society, this mistake will be common; in others, it will be unheard of.
posted by waterfall at 8:17 AM on October 18, 2006


I hate to sound cynical but I'd be surprised if the average American could even name a former Soviet Republic, let alone know that natives of that country speak Russian as a primary language. Extensive knowledge of foreign cultures (and by "extensive" I really mean "any") is not something that I would expect to find in the typical American on the street. - Rhomboid

Yes. But as waterfall points out, there are plenty of exceptions to this. There are many Americans that have aducated themselves about other parts of the world, and many that have not. And while one person might know a lot about the former Soviet Union, another might know a lot about South Eastern Asia.

I think you can take "Borat's" forays into the US as anecdotal evidence of some US Americans' ignorance w/r/t to countries in that region.

You can take Rick Mercer's "Talking to Americans" as anecdotal evidence of some (even educated & political) US Americans' ignorance w/r/t a country a lot closer to home - Canada.

Thing is, anecdotal evidence is not very reliable at accurately representing a larger picture.
posted by raedyn at 8:52 AM on October 18, 2006


Gross generalizations follow:

To be honest, I doubt most Americans (as in from the US) have ever even thought about what language is spoken in the former Soviet states. Yes, we know that there used to be a USSR, and that now there is Russia and a bunch of other countries instead. We wouldn't be able to name very many of them.

There may be some confusion, as bingo mentions, about whether some parts are now parts of Russia or not. This may be because back on the old maps, the USSR looked freaking huge. And now, on the new maps, Russia looks similarly gigantic. Surprisingly so.

But, as others have pointed out, there's no real answer other than no, it's probably not common, but not for any one reason. There's just too many of us.
posted by lampoil at 9:04 AM on October 18, 2006


One of the crucial factors that have to be taken into account is that many of the post-soviet languages (eg, Belorussian) are actually just political constructs created to differentiate the new state from its "mother country." Mostly, they never had any independent existence and were certainly not spoken as a primary language.

That's a completely ignorant and incorrect statement. All those languages, including Belorussian (which is quite close to Russian, as Dutch is quite close to German), are separate from Russian, have been for centuries, and are so acknowledged by everyone except the more idiotic Russian nationalists. It's like the Turks claiming the Kurds are just "Mountain Turks" or the Greeks claiming that the Slavic inhabitants of Greece are just Greeks who happen to speak a particularly rural dialect.

Of course, that has no bearing on how many people actually DO know Russian, but it speaks to what I as an American let myself assume about the area.

Your sensitivity is admirable, but it seems very odd to me to refuse to allow oneself to acknowledge reality out of respect for the sensitivities of people on the other side of the world who will never know what you're assuming.
posted by languagehat at 9:40 AM on October 18, 2006


languagehat is correct when saying that someone from Central Asia would speak Russian natively but not so with someone from the Balkans, or the Baltics for that matter. Also, to restate what meatbomb said, Russian is used natively by the educated in Central Asia but most people speak it.

I just spent the past 5 years living in Central Asia and the Caucasus and the situation is changing rapidly as education in native languages is dominating national policies, materials and methodologies are getting better, and as English is pushing Russian out as the preferred second language.

The dominance of Russian greatly varies by country, but most Americans that I have talked to have never heard of these countries, much less understand each of their linguistic subtleties.
posted by borjomi at 10:01 AM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


Embarassing Data point:

I actually assumed *everyone* "over there" spoke Russian, until some years ago I briefly dated a girl with Ukranian roots. The first time I realized there was some sort of beef between Ukranians and Russians was when I went to a party and this girl was totally snubbed by another girl of Russian origin.

Yeah, I probably should've realized this earlier (in my defense, I knew in general there was some kind of shit going down, but I was largely ignorant to the specifics) but the Sacramento Bee/Sf Chron have pretty small World news sections.

And I, clearly, did not read them.

Actually, I'm having trouble thinking about anything I've read about Russian/Post-Soviet States that weren't either about major disasters or which were emailed to me by Russo-philes.
posted by fishfucker at 10:04 AM on October 18, 2006


Your sensitivity is admirable, but it seems very odd to me to refuse to allow oneself to acknowledge reality out of respect for the sensitivities of people on the other side of the world who will never know what you're assuming.


I interact with people from ex-Soviet states on a daily basis at my job and in my personal life. That sensibility is important to that interaction. Refusing to assume that someone I am working with who is from Belorus automatically knows or even cares to speak Russian is how I operate.
posted by spicynuts at 10:48 AM on October 18, 2006


The thought never crossed my mind before but I would have assumed that people living in the former USSR would speak Russian. For what it's worth, my Ukrainian sister-in-law speaks Russian.

I would not assume that everyone in Latin America spoke Spanish. I know that there are groups indigenous people who speak their own languages and may or may not speak Spanish.
posted by deborah at 12:47 PM on October 18, 2006


I interact with people from ex-Soviet states on a daily basis at my job and in my personal life. That sensibility is important to that interaction.

Ah, well that makes a difference, and I certainly agree that you wouldn't want to say anything to offend them. I guess what got me was the idea that you were censoring your own thoughts.
posted by languagehat at 2:25 PM on October 18, 2006


I guess I wouldn't assume that they would necessarily be bad at Russian because of not being Russian, but I think on average I'd expect an actual Russian of the same economic/education level to be as good or better at it.

Especially if this holds:
Native Kyrgyz who are from the elite / upper class, especially if educated at university level or from Bishkek, will most likely speak Russian as their language of education and business, and it will usually be the language of the household, television, etc.

Then it doesn't sound like I would be far off the mark. Upper class constitutes a minority in any society, so if we suppose complete fluency for them, then the average should shake out to something less than complete fluency.
posted by juv3nal at 6:39 PM on October 18, 2006


Maybe I overstated a bit - there are scores of universities in Bishkek, the bulk of them operating in Russian. The "default" language there is Russian, unless the two speakers are obviously Kyrgyz, and even then they will tend to first, in Russian, say "shall we speak Kyrgyz, brother / sister?", unless it is very clear from the context that they are both fluent.

One of my trainee teachers, for example, is ethnic Kyrgyz but at a pre-intermediate level in her spoken Kyrgyz. It's often a point of embarrassment for her when she's in a position that she has to speak Russian, even when other ethnic Kyrgyz are trying to engage her in Kyrgyz.

The situation is very different out in the countryside - there, if a village is purely ethnic Kyrgyz, that will be the default language. And as the brain drain continues, with ethnic Russians "going home" (often never having lived there before) and the best and brightest fleeing the sinking ship, the nation is being "countrified" and I'm sure that given a generation or two Russian will become less prevalent, Kyrgyz and English moreso.

Also keep in mind, though, that someone who is in an international context (applying for a job overseas, attending a conference, etc.) will almost definitely be coming from the "elite" to which I refer.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:34 PM on October 18, 2006


I think Meatbomb for providing a very detailed background to the question at hand, which has given us all a context that we have lacked in order.

Very informative and certainly Best of Metafilter, in my opinion.
posted by gregb1007 at 7:21 PM on October 19, 2006


true facts: Nursultan Nazarbaev's (ex Party Secretary of Kazakhstan, current President, ethnic Kazakh) spoken Kazakh is pretty bad... at last week's meeting between the leaders of post-Soviet states (attended by most Central Asian republics, Aliyev from Azerbaijan and, of course, Lukashenko) in Minsk (Belarus) the quorum's operating language was Russian, without translation... my former co-worker was ethnic Turkmen, both her and her daughter's (born in late '60s, early '90s, respectively) first language was Russian and both admitted difficulty in expressing themselves as fluently/comfortably in Turkmen than in Russian... contemp. Russian comedy ('Наша Russia', 'Комеди Клуб', both televised on the TнT network and extremely popular) makes extensive use of national stereotypes about the ability of non-Russian Federation citizens to speak Russian (they studied it but are considered sub-standard speakers who pepper their speech with expressions from their native language) as fodder for mildly-xenophobic comedy.

Also, the Baltic languages (Estonian, Finnish, Karelian Finnish, Veps, Izhorian etc.) are Finno-Ugric and not Slavic - they share little in common with Slavic. Lithuanian is an ancient Indo-European language, but not Slavic.

And, yes, Meatbomb, nearly all higher education (non-technical ВУЗы) in former USSR republics - excepting the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine - is conducted in Russian.

Final thought: the word 'mammoth' (Russian = мамонт) is not used by Belarussians... instead, the descriptive phrase 'shaggy/woolly elephant' (Belarussian = вoлoсатый слон [Russian spelling]) is used. I remember watching an event that was being simul. translated into Belarussian and my Russian friends pissed themselves laughing when they heard this, they had, of course, expected it to be the same in both languages.
posted by cottoncandyhammer at 8:44 PM on December 11, 2006


« Older Umm how do I put this? When I ...   |  Where can I find copyright/roy... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.