Americanski University of Central Asia

Last week Farrell and I were invited to a lunch with other international students studying at AUCA. We nibbled on mini burgers and samsa, a Kyrgyz hot-pocket, (aww, what a nice symbol of globalization) and talked about what inspired us to come to AUCA. We all had our own reasons for choosing to move to Central Asia or Kyrgyzstan, but the reason for specifically coming to AUCA was the same across the board: it’s the only English-speaking university in the region.

And for the most part, that’s true. The majority of the classes are offered in English and all students are required to pass English proficiency tests before admission.

In practice… eh, let’s say that English and Russian are no longer two separate languages, but one spectrum.

Observe Figure A. That’s me, all the way at the end of the English side. “Я не гаварю по Русский,” I don’t speak Russian (but I’m learning!).

Teachers are the next dash to the right. Their English is clear and mostly understandable to me, but it’s a bit stilted at times and I’m sometimes looked at for approval after the explanation of a difficult concept or the pronunciation of a new term like “nonspuriousness”. This is based solely on my experience with only two of my three teachers; obviously my Russian teacher uses a lot of Russian in class so she doesn’t count. So far though, my teachers have stuck to using all English in class.

Students are the next dash. Outside of class they will speak in Russian. In class they will speak a combination of the two. Some of them make noticeable efforts to use only English, only mentioning a word or phrase in Russian to get the English equivalent. Others will fully revert to Russian with the (condescending) notion that everybody in class can understand Russian and prefers their use of it.

Uh, wrong. The three non-native Russian speakers in my Anthropology class were quick to point out to today’s student presenter that no, in fact, the entire class does not understand Russian, and it sort of makes you look like a jerk to fall back on that excuse when I’m sure you just didn’t feel like figuring out how to explain the modernization theory in English, like it was required of you to do for the class.

In another class, the professor divided the class into groups to discuss research methods. Immediately everybody in my group launched into Russian and it wasn’t until I started speaking over them in English that one turned to ask, “Do you speak any Russian?”

Нет, no. Not yet at least.

Most of the group instantly switched to English and we had a pleasant, collaborative discussion. A few kids insisted on still using Russian, but they were the same students who would get up and leave the room for more than half of class.

Maybe some aren’t comfortable with their English, but most of those kids just act like they’re too cool for it. Well, why go to the American university? There are plenty of Russian-language schools in Bishkek and elsewhere and there’s even a Turkish school in Bishkek if it’s a specific grudge against English.

And that brings us to the last dash: administrators. The AUCA administrators, for the most part, don’t know any English and work there under the assumption that everybody speaks Russian. Upon contact with the few flaws to their plan (me and the other international students), these ladies will run into the hallway, grab a student who (presumably) speaks English and make them translate.

Outside of AUCA, the average person I’ve run into knows about as much (or less) English as I know Russian. The strangest thing I’ve encountered about this fact is that even after throwing down my one solid Russian phrase, “Я не гаварю по Русский, I don’t speak Russian,” they continue to speak. Rambling on as if I had said, “I don’t speak Russian, but perhaps if you use some meaningless hand gestures while you continue speaking, the meanings of your words will somehow materialize in my mind.” It boggles my mind that this scenario keeps occurring.

Maybe they just can’t imagine that somebody would be silly enough to live in Bishkek without knowing Russian.

Geez, right?