Russian vs. English, the battle for the hearts and minds of Armenians

This blog post could likely be a full-blown article, and with my ignorance I can only scratch the surface. But, the battle between Russian and English as the de facto “second language” of Yerevan demonstrates yet another front in the war between cultures.

Historically, Armenia was a socialist state that took commands from Moscow. The cultural alignment was very strong with Russian being a requirement for schoolchildren [Edit: actually, it still is a requirement]. It’s completely unsurprising that a huge swath of Armenian culture is Russian. The influence continues to this day as Russia is one of Armenia’s largest trading partners, is geographically nearby, and still stations troops along Armenian’s border with Turkey.

This influence shows itself through signs with Russian letters, Armenians that can only speak Russian and Armenian, and my host family making me borscht for dinner. During the soviet era, Russian place names based on Russian culture were common, but after independence, the Government of Armenia changed many of the names to represent Armenian culture (e.g. Lenin Square became Republic Square).

On the other side is English, the language of America, household items, and international business. Armenia, like many smaller countries, covets imports from the sexy countries they see in (mostly western) mass media. When you see product placement for Pepsi in some popular television show, don’t think that the Coke v. Pepsi battle is limited to the shores of the United States. When I bought soap, there were the western branded soaps selling for twice as much as the Ukrainian brand. The trendiest bars popular to the youth seem to focus around English, including the weird “Fans of Facebook” that has a surprisingly well-done tile facade of Mark Zuckerburg on the outside.

While English is clearly making inroads, the influence almost completely ends at the Yerevan city limits. Once you’re outside of Yerevan, English becomes much much rarer. In more rural areas, certain  facilities build in the soviet era, such as gas stations, haven’t even bothered to put up Armenian signs next to the original Russian names.

It’s clear that Russian is still the dominant second language of Armenia, but it’s less clear for Yerevan. The Armenian desire for more jobs and opportunities for the youth increases the need for more international connections. While Moscow is a popular destination for the exodus of young Armenians seeking employment, many dream of New York or Western Europe. Whether that influence will radiate out from Yerevan to the rest of Armenia or whether Russian culture is too entrenched or even growing as trade with Russia increases is an open question.



Filed under Social / Culture

5 responses to “Russian vs. English, the battle for the hearts and minds of Armenians

  1. Rapsy

    Very interesting! When you have a chance to write about how International Workers’ Day was acknowledged, I’d love to read about it.

    Clearly, many of the experiences you’re having will be with you for a lifetime:-)

  2. Gabe Armas-Cardona

    I didn’t make a post about it because nothing happened! To quote a local paper:
    “In many countries, the working classes sought to make May Day an official holiday, and their efforts largely succeeded. May Day has long been a focal point for demonstrations by various socialist, communist and anarchist groups.

    After the collapse of the USSR, this holiday has become secondary for Armenia engaged in war and social problems. During the recent years, though, it is being marked again. May 1 is a day-off but without any ‘unnecessary’ enthusiasm and parades.”

    The Communist Party (which gets about 1.5% of the votes in Armenia) did hold its annual parade.

    Besides that one parade (and I believe an unrelated concert) there was absolutely nothing.

  3. As a Peace Corps Volunteer living in a rural village whose main job is to teach English at a secondary school, this “Russian vs. English” debate is one that makes me want to bang my head against a wall daily.

  4. Gabe Armas-Cardona

    Hey Kelsey, I’m curious what are the issues you face with the children with learning english? I’d imagine to most of the village kids learning english is mostly useful in order to properly sing along to their favorite music.

  5. Josep

    When picking two things, I usually let both stand on their own merits and weigh the pros and cons of each one. If I were an Armenian and I had the choice between Russian and English as my second language, I’d pick Russian.

    1. the lowercase Russian letters and their capital counterparts are identical (if not exactly alike), with the only difference being their size.

    2. Unlike Russian and Armenian, English makes use of so many inconsistent spelling rules, which results in each vowel sound having more than one different but unrelated pronunciation (e.g. the “long A” in “game” has no “ah” sound in it).
    One example I can think of is ough which alternates between a digraph and a diphthong; there are words like plough, through, though, tough, and cough.
    Thanks to that, some words borrowed from other languages often get mispronounced by native English speakers at first glance (e.g. Japanese “sake” is pronounced “sah-kay”, not as “sake” like in English). This also makes it difficult for native English speakers to pronounce phonetic languages such as Spanish.

    Sure, I will admit that Russia (where Russian is spoken) is not as prosperous as the Anglosphere (in fact, my mother in America works at an ESL school and teaches English to émigrés from Russia and many other less-wealthy countries), but it puzzles me to see a language as cumbersome and inconsistent as English become a global one. And for some reason they see little problem with this. But then again, what else could they use?

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