We spent 11 days in Russia and met a number of Russians at Formacion. I had been eager to visit Russia since I was first in Ukraine 10 years ago. We very much enjoyed meeting many people, and as we have written we were hosted very well in Novosibirsk and Moscow. But I did notice one thing: at our time in Formacion, the Russian students were among those whose English was the poorest, so we didn’t really get to know any of them, almost uniquely so among all the countries represented at the conference.
Famously, Americans are bad at languages: even those who study a little in high school or college often cannot adequately respond when an opportunity arises (through travel or local encounter) to use their language. Lisa is quite bold to use her Spanish capability, and is pretty good, but I am more hesitant, at least when I am not in Central America.
Russians are like Americans: in their part of the world, they speak the lingua franca. They don’t need to learn second languages the way everyone else in the former Soviet Union needed to learn Russian, because in their part of the world, people learn Russian. In Russia, we met some key folks who did know some English (or our visit wouldn’t have been at all fruitful), but many did not. At first this was surprising, since we found many students in the Central Asian republic we had been in who in fact could engage us in English. But then we realized that Russians were a lot like Americans—they are just more used to expecting that people will cross the cultural/linguistic bridge to meet them, indeed as we have been this entire trip, since we know essentially none of the many native languages used in the countries we will be visiting.
It also gave me a look into the future: As Chinese vies with and perhaps comes to replace English as a global lingua franca, expect Americans to be among the last to embrace the change and learn it, to our great cost.