The St. Petersburg Times (Tuesday, February 26, 2008)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Education Special
Language Learning Popular as Ever
By Ali Nassor
Special to The St. Petersburg Times

When Russia opened its doors to the market economy about one and half decades ago, it took people off-guard and ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a culturally and technologically diversified world. It was a puzzle to the outgoing Iron Curtain generation whose commercial lexicon went no further than that of a centralized planned economy based on the communist ideological doctrine.

But since communism was no more and the former Soviet satellite states had shunned Russian as their medium of communication, it marked the dawn of a new era and the birth of a new breed of Russians who would adapt themselves to the changing business environment. They needed a new language to win the confidence of the outside business world where Russian was no more than the language of a die-hard communist.

Now, 16 years later, «a job seeker’s resume in the business sector faces a high risk of being dumped in the dustbin if it lacks a foreign language,» says Christina Shklyar, director of the St. Petersburg-based Best Teach Language Center. «In the eyes of an employer, a job seeker who speaks at least one foreign language, especially English, is better than two who speak none,» says Shklyar, whose school has an average of 2,000 students learning English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Finnish.

«Though we don’t look down upon other disciplines, English remains a priority, as about 90 percent of our trainees specialize in the language,» she says. Hers is one among more than a thousand privately owned language schools that mushroomed following Russia’s entry into the market economy.

Best Teach, currently one of the city’s largest language centers, boasting 30 classrooms in its three branches and a wide network of off-house training has survived hundreds of others «that weathered away, mainly due to wrong strategies» according to Shklyar.

«As an example of the right strategy, you may look at our location… doesn’t it make our clientele immune to bad weather and from the troubles of parking their cars?» she asks, referring to the school’s main campus on the fourth-floor of the city’s largest department store, Gostiny Dvor, where it can be reached by metro commuters without having to go outside. There is also a large free parking lot in the store’s courtyard. «The school’s other two premises are just a stone’s throw from metro stations in the city center,» Shklyar adds.

«We noted the multinational diversity of foreign companies operating in the city about 10 years ago, and extended our curriculum to include languages other than English,» says Shklyar, explaining the tactic behind attracting corporate students, who account for 70 percent of the center’s clientele.

Shklyar also believes that the schools that did not last for long were unsuccessful because they wanted to get rich quickly, saying they charged unaffordable prices for services they could not offer at a time when the general public could hardly afford their daily bread.

«Even now, when both living standards and operational costs are higher than ever before, I think the 15,000 rubles we charge for a three-and-a-half month term of 102 academic hours are among the lowest in the city,» she says of group tuition fees, which are slightly lower than corporate prices.

A graduate of the State Pedagogical University in Penza who majored in English and German, Shklyar knows how to equip her family business with appropriate staff, which consists of 90 professional teachers, including 20 native speakers of English.

But the institution she runs is also a project for life, as she puts it. She says it was a bitter experience for her having to deal with more than a dozen cases where elderly women were ready to pay a fortune for beginners’ English classes so that they could serve as baby sitters during their grandchildren’s holidays abroad.

A sign of the times we live in, she says.

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