Speaking Russian in Asia
January 31, 2012 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Why are there so many Taiwanese, Japanese, and S. Koreans learning Russian as a foreign language? My American-bred stereotype is that Asians tend to study topics which are industrial and "useful": engineering, English. So is there something I'm missing here if it's for personal pleasure? Or if it is just for business, what are the specific industries, commodities, and companies that make Russian applicable in that region of Asia?

I signed up to take some courses to learn Russian at a major university (Lomonosov) in Moscow, and was surprised to learn from the instructor that the top three most populous students are from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

As an American who has lived and worked in Asia, my general understanding was that English was highly valuable as a foreign language for both personal life and in a business setting. In the United States, the general stereotype is one should learn Spanish for the same reason. Or even in a more naive narrow-minded "American person" generalization, as a whole English, Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese are now highly prized as a 2nd language.

- What does Russian have to do with Taiwan, Japan, and S. Korean?

- How useful/applicable is being able to speak Russian outside of Russia? Where?

- If it's simply for business reasons, what are the specific industries, commodities, and companies that make Russian applicable in that region of Asia?
posted by peachtree to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Apart from the geographical aspect, Russian is traditionally the language of international engineering.
posted by scruss at 7:41 AM on January 31, 2012

posted by k8t at 7:43 AM on January 31, 2012

I don't have any particular insight but I am in South Korea at the moment and have some South Korean friends from University. One spent some time learning Russian in Vladivostok and now Chinese for Samsung. Languages seem to be a way for employees to differentiate themselves from their coworkers. There is a huge emphasis on English but Chinese and Russian are actively pushed. From recent news articles I think the emphasis on Russian is because of Gazprom and the oil pipeline that will be built in the future. I could only hazard that if the arctic continues to melt Russia has an upper hand in controlling the economic output of previously difficult to access resources in the arctic. Particularly oil.
posted by andendau at 7:45 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese folks are all interested in a variety of things, just like their western counterparts, and people in these countries are often motivated by hopes, dreams, and desires, such as going to Russia to learn Russian - a beautiful language with connections to a rich culture.

On a more pragmatic note (I don't think this is exactly why you're seeing so many young folks at your school) Russia neighbours Japan, and is quite close to Korea. Korean companies are active in eastern Siberia, and there is also a large ethnic Korean population in Korea.

But I would say people are studying Russian because they are interested in the language.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:46 AM on January 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

It also might be worth pointing out: Asians who come to the U.S. are here to learn sciences. There are other reasons to go elsewhere.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:46 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that on its Far Eastern side, Russia and China share a border. There aren't exactly booming metropolises there, but they're still neighbors and do plenty of business. Russia also controls a lot of oil pipelines all over Asia, making them a powerful ally. It's not a superpower, but the world still listens when Russia rattles its saber (well, "dims the lights" may be a more apt metaphor.)

There's a lot of cultural overlap between Korea and Russia due to the USSR's influence in central Asia.. One of Russia's biggest rock stars was half-Korean, for instance.
posted by griphus at 7:53 AM on January 31, 2012

BRIC. The areas of economic activity in the coming years will continue to be Brazil, Russia, India, and China.
posted by ellF at 7:57 AM on January 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Russia is also a huge market, ~150m people, and in close proximity to two other huge markets, China and Europe, and it has immense natural resources. What's more, Russia is starting to get serious about freight rail, a cheaper, faster competitor to container ships. Your goods will go through Russia to reach Germany, and vice versa.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:01 AM on January 31, 2012

Natural resources of Russia (mining exports and oil) are important to industry in those countries.

Russia and South Korea share a free trade zone. Russia is also of interest to South Korea and Japan regarding negotiations about North Korea.

Are any of these students missionaries? I've met South Korean and Taiwanese missionaries studying language in other post-communist countries in order to better converse with (and convert) local people. If there is pressure by the government now to curb missionary activity, missionaries may be visiting on student visas in the guise of language students.
posted by scrambles at 8:02 AM on January 31, 2012

I had a job last year translating a report for a Beijing-based EU project that promoted the learning of less-commonly-spoken European languages here in China. One point made by one of the experts quoted was that since English as a second language is so widespread now, students are looking to learn other languages to give themselves a less common skill and thus a bit of an edge in the employment market. Could the same thing be happening here?
posted by Abiezer at 8:07 AM on January 31, 2012

Your stereotype is wrong. Anecdotally, for example, there are a huge number of South Korean students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- I don't know the numbers, but I'd guess they're as much as 20 or 30 percent of the student population. You can't get much farther from "industrial and useful" than art school.

Have you tried asking them? I've taken some language classes out of school and "why are you interested in learning X?" is always one of the first topics, along with job, age, etc. I'm guessing you'd get a lot of different answers.
posted by theodolite at 8:09 AM on January 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

My American-bred stereotype is that Asians tend to study topics which are industrial and "useful": engineering, English.

1) your stereotype is dead wrong (and honestly kind of offensive) because, um, asians are people too and like the same shit other people do. go to ANY top tier fine arts or fashion program in the united states, say, pratt or parsons, and you'll probably find as high a percentage of asians as you would in any top tier engineering program, maybe even more. if someone's interested (in the romantic obsession sense, not just academic) in literature, music, ballet or the history of espionage, learning russian makes sense.

2) russia is a HUGE market and will only get larger in the decades to come. learning russian ahead of everyone else currently learning english and spanish (especially if you already speak one or both) is a fantastic way to put your resume at the top of the list in many consulting fields and start earning $$$$ right out of college.
posted by lia at 11:43 AM on January 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yeah, the assumptions in this question bothered me. I don't think there is really any solution to western assumptions about Asians until western folks have the opportunity to actually meet and interact with Asian folks. Luckily, the OP is in the position to do just that, should he choose to.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:17 PM on January 31, 2012

I would imagine the huge wealth of mineral resources in Siberia is an influencing factor. There could also be, from centuries of conquest and undefined borders, many Asians who have Russian heritage- that alone might spur someone to learn a language.

OT, but as a Russian history nerd, I am SO jealous that you get to attend Lomonosov. How do you like it so far?
posted by oxfordcomma at 2:03 PM on January 31, 2012

Besides Russia proper, there are also the former Soviet countries in Central Asia which do business with China - and if Russian is not the primary language in these countries, it is a near-universal second language.
posted by Gordafarin at 7:33 PM on January 31, 2012

Yes, I've stereotyped the question but for explicit reasons as an Asian American. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan themselves and I've also lived and worked abroad for a major multinational company (as an expat, so not necessarily infused in the local culture) throughout Asia for three years. Russian and the CIS region in general has never been a particular topic that has stood out at all from my experience so it just totally boggles my mind.

My Russian tutor don't necessarily have a strong holding of why it is so popular either, besides the obvious generalizations of oil and close borders.
posted by peachtree at 12:33 AM on February 1, 2012

Is it easy for them to learn? I think the Cyrillic alphabet would be no problem if they are used to a language with characters. Would there be many parallells between Russian grammar and English grammar (assuming they already studied English)?
posted by EatMyHat at 6:34 AM on February 1, 2012

« Older Where can I find long essays?   |   Looking for free vintage film score music. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.