Language for Missionaries:
The Russian Context Is Best
For intensive, year-round study and acquisition of Russian language and culture, how can there be a better place than Russia? How could a program in the West be a better substitute for missionaries than being immersed in Russian culture and language daily? In Russia the missionary hears the language by walking the streets, riding public transport, going to the market, and listening to people on the elevator. By simply listening, the language student begins to pick up the tone, rhythm, and intonation of the language--as natives speak it. A language lesson is as close as the radio or television or any newspaper or magazine on the street. As a famous American linguist, Leonard Bloomfield, said, "All of the environment teaches."
Studying Russian in Russia by necessity includes practice on the streets, with conversation in context by native speakers. Students who cannot run from the language, but must hold it in their heads, learn faster. But when students study the Russian language in the West they do not develop the habit of thinking in the language because they are not forced to. However, fluency will come only as students are able to think in the language.
Missionaries need to be able to use the language, not simply know it. They must develop the skills of understanding other people and accurately get their message across. The best way to learn that is in conversations and in relationships with native speakers. A minority of missionaries have enrolled their children in Russian public schools or have hired tutors to teach their children Russian language, literature, and culture. Such an approach can enrich missionary children and the ministry of their parents.
Missionaries who have come to Russia after studying the language in the West report difficulties. One young American said, "I studied Russian in my university for two years, but when I got here I couldn't understand Russians and they couldn't understand me." Other missionaries who arrived after having studied in an intensive program for missionaries in the West felt that the experience had ruined them for learning the language.
Several Russian-language programs in the former Soviet Union have many decades of experience teaching individuals from every part of the world who have no knowledge of Russian. Because of well-trained and experienced professional teachers, these students begin reading, writing, understanding, and speaking Russian after a few months.
I came to Russia knowing almost nothing of the language. As much as possible, I immersed myself in the culture, living almost exclusively in the Russian community. I forbade my language teachers and almost everyone else to speak to me in English. My first formal language study was in a nontraditional intensive language program at the former Higher Komsomol School in Moscow. During the Communist period, since the Komsomol School trained young Communist leaders from all over the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries, the main textbook had its share of Communist ideology and propaganda, which has given me insights into a worldview that continues to shape the thinking of ordinary Russians.
I then studied in a more traditional ten-month intensive program at Moscow State University's Center for International Education, which has over four decades of experience in teaching Russian as a second language. I received a rich spectrum of Russian language, history, and literature from the hearts of highly educated Russians. Native speakers who know, love, and live their culture firsthand teach with a great depth of knowledge and feeling.
A word of caution though: sometimes the system is difficult for Americans. For example, in Russia the first day of teaching often begins using only Russian. This approach challenges the student more intensely to think in the new language. Learning in America typically involves materials and an approach that mix Russian and English. Americans sometimes rebel against the all-Russian approach and demand a teacher willing to "explain it in English." This is just one example of how Russians don't necessarily see or do things the way Americans do.
I made the decision that it would be better in terms of long-term ministry to yield myself to this approach. It forced some changes in me, but maybe the experience made me more understanding of the Russians around me. Unfortunately, there were times when I also resisted. Looking back, I wish I had been more pliable and had taken what my teachers said a little more seriously. My life in Russia and my ministry would have been much richer. Americans tend to expect teachers to perform in a way that is familiar to them. Might it help in cultural adaptation if missionary students tried to adapt somewhat to the style of the Russian teacher? To be sure, it is harder and more time-consuming just to live in Russia. But an astute student takes hold of the normal routine and events of life and turns them into cultural and language acquisition lessons. "Real life" does not get in the way of learning; it enhances learning.
Beverly Nickles is a missionary journalist with Conservative Baptists International based in Moscow.
Russian Language for Christian Workers
The Center for International Education of Moscow State University now offers language courses specially designed to meet the needs of foreign Christian workers in Russian-speaking countries. Courses are designed to teach basic, practical Russian language skills of speaking, reading, and writing, while at the same time introducing students to language useful in Christian ministry. Contact: Professor Vera A. Stepanenko, Public Relations Office, Moscow State University, Center for International Education, 18 Krzhizhanovskogo ul., Bldg. 1, 117259 Moscow, Russia; tel: 7095-124-7144; -3115; -8011; fax: 7095-125-4461.
Marc T. Canner
Where can missionaries study Russian language and culture intensively year-round to be equipped to effectively disciple Russian speakers? Missionary candidates who have studied at the summer Russian Language Institute held at Columbia International University, Columbia, South Carolina, make tremendous progress speaking and understanding Russian in a very short period of time. Since 1993 Russian Language Ministries (RLM) has been conducting a summer intensive program for Columbia International University. RLM provides the instructors, the methodology, and the curricula for these courses.
This same intensive program is also available year-round. For the past four years RLM has conducted intensive Russian language courses in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, area. As with the summer programs, those who have trained in these courses have made great strides toward effective ministry in Russia. Taking an intensive course stateside has tremendous benefits for future ministry, benefits which are not available to missionaries who enter the former Soviet Union without the training, or who train intensively in Russia while living there.
This at first sounds incredible. After all, one would think that with the cultural and linguistic exposure, learning in Russia would be faster. But it turns out not to be the case when comparing proficiency acquired by those studying intensively in the West versus those studying in the former Soviet Union. In most cases we have found that intensive study in the United States prior to entering Russian-speaking lands can enable the missionary to begin ministry in Russian much earlier.
How is this possible?
1. The cross-cultural factor. Language training should be done in a culturally appropriate way which is conducive to the student's learning style. Russian natives have difficulty teaching Americans in ways suitable to American culture and thinking. This is especially true for basic students who need much encouragement.
2. Teaching methodology in the former Soviet Union usually is archaic and ineffective. The classroom environment in Russia usually is intimidating. Students in this system receive so much language input all at once that the mind simply cannot process it. Errors are corrected abruptly and harshly, and natives normally cannot or do not explain grammar. Though grammar should never dictate a course, the student does need to know how things are done in order to apply what has been learned to other situations.
3. Missionaries usually have very little time to study Russian in Russia because of the nature of life there. Even when not involved in ministry, one can often spend half a day just traveling across town shopping for basic necessities. If one adds ministry demands to this already grueling schedule, any language learning will come slowly at best.
In the West training is much more effective because the focus is almost exclusively on language learning. With proper methodology (conversational/whole language) and time on task, missionaries can soon become conversant in Russian and even be ready to begin ministering in the language soon after they arrive in the former Soviet Union.
RLM courses provide an atmosphere which promotes accelerated learning along with the encouragement needed to thrive in the language. Students study with gifted and well-trained American and Russian native instructors and are immersed in the language at an appropriate time. The other great advantage of intensive study with RLM is that all courses are specifically designed for the missionary. RLM is a ministry. Our goal is to enable missionaries to become effective workers in the Russian context, workers who are able to minister in Russian, and in ways which are culturally appropriate. Courses stress biblical and theological vocabulary and enable missionaries to teach Bible studies in Russian. All courses stress speaking and listening.
Marc T. Canner is director of Russian Language Ministries, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
RLM also is the producer and distributor of a text and tape course, "Russian for Missionaries," for $98.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies