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Last Updated: Friday, 5 January 2007, 13:21 GMT
Poles return to Russian language
By Jan Repa
BBC News

Students at a library
Students see Russian as an asset in the world of business
The Russian language - once widely despised in Eastern Europe, when it was compulsory under communism - is making a comeback in Poland, a Polish newspaper reports.

The daily Rzeczpospolita says the incentive seems to be that many Western companies are stipulating a knowledge of Russian as a job requirement.

Estimates vary, but there are reckoned to be about 145 million people worldwide for whom Russian is their first language. About 120 million others have enough knowledge of Russian to conduct a conversation.

However, the break-up of the Soviet bloc was a major blow to the status of the Russian language - identified until then with one of the two acknowledged Cold War superpowers.

In former satellite countries like Hungary or Poland, knowledge of Russian dwindled rapidly - to be replaced by English and German.

Business incentive

In the former Soviet republics the picture is more mixed. Some 60% of Ukrainians, according to a recent opinion poll, agreed with the proposition that Russian should once again be given official status.

Rzeczpospolita cites what it says are a few telling figures.

At the University of Poznan in western Poland there were two candidates for every place on its Russian language course back in 1990. Lately the figure has been five or more.

The Russian Cultural Centre in Warsaw says there has been a 35% increase in the number of people enrolling for Russian language classes over the past year.

The paper quotes one academic as saying that young Polish people looking for good jobs with international companies expect to be asked about business studies diplomas and the like.

What comes as a surprise to them is to be told that they have a year to provide proof of competence in the Russian language.

Official support

President Vladimir Putin has declared 2007 to be the "Year of the Russian Language".

Estimates suggesting that the number of Russian speakers could shrink by almost a half over the next couple of decades appear to have given a new impetus to such efforts.

In fact, as the Polish case appears to suggest, the recent strong growth of the Russian economy is providing new incentives to learn a language once tainted by its association with foreign domination.

During the Soviet era, there seemed to be a common assumption - among many Russians at least - that Russian was destined to become the language of choice for the nations of the expanding "socialist camp".

Other languages would gradually decline - eventually becoming extinct or degraded to the status of local patois.

In most cases - though with some notable exceptions like Belarus - this proved to be an illusion.

Equally, the extent of the Russian language revival - at least where Poland is concerned - should not be exaggerated.

According to Rzeczpospolita, around 6% of secondary school students in Poland now matriculate in Russian - six times more than in French, but some way behind English and German.


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