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"We need to take care of our immigrants from the CIS" – Interview with Elizaveta Khamraeva

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"We need to take care of our immigrants from the CIS" – Interview with Elizaveta Khamraeva


Elizaveta Khamraeva is Doctor of Education and Professor of Slavic Languages at Moscow State Pedagogical University, managing editor at the Drofa publishing house and author of numerous teaching guides for Russian language studies (including a new Russian language textbook for bilingual children that was developed with financial support from the Russkiy Mir Foundation). We sat down and spoke with her about the extent to which the adaptation of immigrant children in Russian schools is a major issue, the difficulties that exist in this area, and more effective methods of teaching Russian in bilingual environments.

–  Dr. Khamraeva, your specialty is the development of textbooks designed to teach Russian to those living in bilingual environments. In your view, where might these textbooks be in the most demand?

– In fact, the methods of teaching those who are bilingual have acquired special significance. Previously, we didn’t work with bilinguals specially and separate them in terms of methodology. More and more psychologists and psycholinguists have become interested in this problem. For teachers of Russian, the problem of teaching bilinguals is acquiring great relevance outside Russia – in terms of teaching Russian to Russian-speaking children in a foreign language environment. No less important, though, is teaching it in Russia as well. Here I would single out two layers of the problem. One is more traditional and involves teaching Russian in national regions, and another, newer one is the problem of educating immigrant children.

– How acute, in your view, is the issue of teaching children from immigrant families?

– Each year Russia loses nearly 700,000 people. At the same time, the birthrate outstrips the death rate only in a few Northern Caucasus republics and some years in the republics of Siberia, for example, in Buryatia. Therefore, the need for training in Russia for children who are bilingual and know Russian but for whom it is not their native language becomes more relevant than ever. This applies to immigrant children and children in the national regions. We often talk about the importance of preserving the Russian language outside Russia, and it seems as if this problem is understood. It’s being solved by specially designed courses and teaching aids for children of our compatriots abroad. The situation in Russia’s regions, however, has not been given special attention for a long time. It’s only been in recent years that the problems concerning immigrant families have been recognized. This problem in the national regions is one that can be solved, though, and it is gradually being solved. Still, there is a standard Russian school, albeit with its own native language of instruction. Books are being developed for it, and they all go through the necessary verification. Here we can only talk about the need to create more advanced courses and training materials. This is also being done, including at our publishing house. In general, we’ve been working on this problem for many decades, even during the Soviet era.

– Are these Soviet developments relevant today?

– Theoretically, yes. During the Soviet era a lot of work was done on developing methods for teaching Russian to speakers from different language groups – Turkic, Abkhazo-Adyghean, Finno-Urgic, etc. In the years since, however, new problems have appeared – like new types of schools, for example, schools that teach in both Russian and the national language. There weren’t those kinds of schools in the Soviet era. Then they assumed that if you went to a national school, you’d continue in your native language until you received your diploma. Right now there are five types of national schools that provide for gradual transition from the native language to Russian. Some of them start in the fifth grade, some from the second, some after the ninth. All of them need special teaching materials to be developed. These types of schools rarely come into the view of those who study issues concerning bilinguals, although from my point of view, Russia’s national school are one example of how the problem of adaptation and introducing a child to a multicultural environment can be solved. This is a model of instructing children that preserves the native language, which the child speaks well. At the same time, the child knows Russian well and will, in the end, pass the state exam in Russian. By the way, this is only one aspect of the problems faced by bilinguals in Russia. Perhaps it’s not the most pressing.

– The problem of immigrants’ children is more pressing?

– Absolutely. It literally fell onto Russia in recent years, and almost nothing is being done to solve it. We turned out to be ill-prepared for such a growth in the number of children who speak Russian poorly in Russian cities. But there’s not a single large Russian city today that could survive without immigrants. If an immigrant settles in, finds work, obtains permanent registration, then he will send his children to a Russian school. The parents are decidedly certain of their adaptation in Russia, and in no circumstance do they want their children to be in any kind of separate course. This problem will get bigger. Already five years ago I heard the Russian teachers at a school in Stavropol saying that they didn’t know what to do with twenty students out of a class of twenty-eight not speaking Russian. This is an ordinary Russian school in a Russian region. You can hear teachers in Moscow saying the same thing, even though the numbers are different. Instead of twenty, there will be perhaps eight out of twenty-eight students whose Russian will be bad. We’re getting to the point where Russian teachers need to know methods of teaching Russian both as a native and as a foreign language. But we hardly have any such specialists like that. Such specialists are custom-made goods! Even new approaches to this problem are only beginning to be seen. For example, at the Moscow Institute of Open Education, there was a really good program developed for teaching Russian to children whose native language is not Russian. They really need to be gradually included in the general educational program, having studied the language in advance. We really do have such kids, but they are few in number! In large part, children are going to school who have lived a long time in Russia and who speak Russian at the elementary level and don’t have any interest in studying separately. These children should be inside a Russian-language environment and accept Russian as their own.

– Won’t the interests of children whose native language is Russian suffer?

– As of yet, I honestly don’t know how to solve this problem. On the one hand, I believe isolating these children and teaching them that way is profoundly wrong. But on the other hand, imagine the burden being placed on a teacher now. It’s possible that Russian lessons shouldn’t be given for the entire class, but that classes should be divided into groups depending on ability, the way it’s done with foreign languages. But again, there’s no single solution that will work here, as this problem has its own uniqueness in every school to a greater or lesser degree. Some schools are already trying to solve the problem, although I’m not convinced that they’re choosing the right solutions. For example, for students with a poor knowledge of Russian, sometimes they are given an extra two hours of lessons per week with a special teacher. While they get, say, six hours a week instead of four, the other four are wasted with little taken in.

I think that now it’s necessary to develop a special status for multiethnic schools or classes and develop special instructional plans for them. While in Moscow and Russia’s other large cities the problem is only now beginning to appear, in the south it’s been “hot” for quite a while. We need to take measures right now.

– Let’s suppose they do divide classes into groups for language study. According to what principle should this be done? Do we take into account the level of language fluency? Or do we look at what language families the students’ native languages belong to? Are there other factors we should be paying attention to?

– First of all, it should take place according to levels of difficulty. There’s a method call “Russian through Russian.” Of course, we also have special textbooks for different language groups for whom Russian is not native. These books are not designed to be received in any particular way. I think that that these are the instructional methods that we need to adopt with immigrant children. We need to understand how to develop the language of bilingual children. We all have a certain language-learning matrix that is filled in from childhood, drawing up a certain logical picture. At a certain moment, when we begin to study a second language, we place this formed system on the language that we’re learning. We look for parallels and certain similarities. But all languages are different, and a new system might not fit onto an old one. Therefore, we can always imagine which elements in Russian grammar might prove difficult for non-native speakers. These are the categories of gender and case, as well as perfective and imperfective verbs. For those coming from certain language groups, some elements might present a great difficulty, for others, less so, but this is something that needs to be specifically ascertained. If you use a textbook designed for monolinguals to teach bilinguals, of course the latter might learn the language, but the question becomes how well. Practice has shown that with such instruction children can learn grammatical rules, correctly arrange cases and conjugate verbs, but they’ll have a terrible time when it comes to forming complex sentences. So we need to have a special approach to working with such children. The majority of our teachers have never developed such skills but now they need to do so because they have children in their classes with such vastly different levels of Russian language fluency. These teachers need advanced training, and they need to prove their performance and show that their students are achieving success. But what can we do in such a situation, with such poor financing of schools?

– How does this take place in other lessons? How is it for teachers who teach geography and biology in Russian?

– These teachers have it even worse. They don’t have philological training, so they’re not able to explain terminology to students who don’t understand the language well. Whereas a Russianist might be able to make use of linguistic approaches that he knows, someone teaching geography won’t know how to do this. For these children, Russian is the main path toward social adaptation. Until they develop their language, they won’t be able to advance in other subjects. The children understand this perfectly well. Immigrant children, as far as I know, pay quite a bit of attention to their Russian and do their Russian homework more diligently than that of other subjects. It turns out that the Russianists have a great responsibility in terms of these children’s successful education and social adaptation. This is a problem that must be solved. Right now we’re paying attention to the problem of labor migrants - those who know Russian and have some concept of Russian culture and who intend to adapt socially. But look at what’s going on in Siberia. I frequently visit the Urals. Right now there’s already a fairly sizable Chinese population, but we don’t even know how many children they have. They don’t take them to school. They don’t intend to adapt to Russian culture. This is a problem that is completely different in nature. If most of our immigrants are coming from Southeast Asia, then I fear that we risk losing the Russian language in certain regions in Russia. I’m going to say something that’s not always very popular: we need to take care of our immigrants from the CIS, for they are “with us.” Immigration is something that’s going to continue regardless. The entire world is migrating.


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