For the last four years, I have been unofficial “Mom” to two university students in Kyiv. One girl is from Sambir, the other from Chernivtsi. Both my kids are “vidminnytsi,” that is, A-students, and neither of them cheats or pays bribes. They burn the midnight oil the way good students have done since time immemorial. And, like the typical Mom, I’m always after them to take a break, to go for a breath of fresh air, not to overdo it.
Yet with each passing year, I have watched as their enthusiasm for their chosen field, translation and interpretation, wanes and their innundation with idiotic theoretical information, usually presented in the most garbled, unnatural English, increases. Meanwhile, the most real-world practice they actually get is from assignments that I pass along, or through various international conferences that they have managed to get connected to. Their university, Kyiv’s National Linguistic University, offers them nothing of the kind.
Even their fourth-year practicum they had to find on their own. Traditionally, NLU packs students off to a local electronics factory where “interns” “translate” the same technical texts that have been given out to every student for the last decade, indeed possibly even from the times when NLU was known as “InYaz” or the Institute of Foreign Languages. Even in the other practica, such as at a political party, the students’ texts were never reviewed. Those students who enrolled themselves with a translation service were told, after handing in their translated articles, “Don’t bother coming back. We don’t need translations like these.”
These problems with higher education seem to be intrinsic to communist systems. For instance, China is starting to take some outsourcing overflow from India. But its future is not all that bright, according to an article in The Economist (Vol. 379 #8476, May 6, 2006). “China is still five to ten years behind India,” writes the author. “It has two big disadvantages. First, although many Chinese can read English, they speak and write it badly…”
That this is a problem equally in Ukraine at an institution that specializes in languages, I can attest to. My kids have pretty good English. For one thing, they both babysit for foreigners to make some money, and all these foreigners are English speakers. For another, I speak English with them on a regular basis. For a third, the father of one of the girls was a military interpreter and privately tutored his daughter when she was still in high school, so she had a head start and a pretty decent North American accent when I first met her.
Yet I remember the two of them coming home in tears at one point in their second year. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Our phonetics teacher is downgrading our marks,” they wailed.
“She says we don’t pronounce English right.”
“Really?” I thought the girls’ accents were pretty passable even if one had a slight tendency to pronounce Vs as Ws. “What’s her English like?”
“AWful,” they answered in unison.
“Give me an example. What does she typically say?”
“Khieloh, gyorrrls. Kheu arrrr yooo toodei?”
I laughed. “You’re kidding! That’s a typical Russian immigrant accent. She’s your phonetics teacher?!?”
“Yeah!” they said, on the verge of tears again. “And she tells us that we don’t say things right at all.”
There was only one thing to do. I spent the rest of the evening talking like a Russian immigrant to the loud giggles of my “daughters.” When it was time to pack it in for the night, I sat down beside them and said: “Now you go ahead and imitate this stupid woman in her classes, and then just forget it the minute you walk out the door. You both have much better English accents than she does.”
Alas, this was but one pitiful example of the quality of instruction they were getting. And it got worse with every passing year, as they had fewer “optional” subjects and more theoretical and specialized ones.
It’s coming on exam time again, the end of their fourth year—the system here is a wretched five years long—, and the girls are preparing for their “stylistics” exam. I’ve known for a long time that the soviet system involved giving students long lists of topics that they had to study, each and every one. These topics were based on what their teacher had—and too often had not—taught at some point during their occasionally interesting but mostly tedious lectures and interminable rote-based seminars. On the day of the exam, the student pulled a “random” ticket with one of the topics on it and was expected to expound on that topic to their teacher, while four other students awaited their turn.
This amazed me the first time I was told about it. “Oral exams?” I said. “Wow. We only have that as a part of language courses or at the doctoral level, for the most part. There’s no such thing as an oral exam in Canada for a regular subject in the humanities or sciences.”
Hah! That was nothing compared to the actual topics on those lists. This particular course, stylistics, offered such delightful gems as:
1. Subject-matter of stylistics. Stylistics among other linguistic disciplines.
2. Stylistics, communication and information theory. Stylistics and translation.
3. Types of stylistics, their approach towards language study.
5. Language-as-a-system and language-in-use. Functional approach towards language study.
24. Types of sound-instrumenting.
26. Types and functions of graphon.
32. General characteristics of figures of substitution as expressive means of semasiology.
“Sound-instrumenting” was a term I had never heard in relation to the use of alliteration, rhyme and other musical features of language. A “graphon” sounded like a close relative of the gryphon and did not appear in my Random House dictionary. “Semasiology” was a term I had never run across, despite having myself studied linguistics at the undergraduate level; it turned out to be an obscure synonym for “semantics.” Talk about obfuscation! But the list went on, and on, and on:
40. Figures of inequality: climax, anti-climax, pun, zeugma; their structural, semantic and functional characteristics.
44. Fictitious [sic] time and space.
51. Character’s speech: dialogue/direct speech; inner/interior speech of characters…
…all the way to 53. I could pick the list apart on any number of levels, of course. Yet the most telling was not its dullness, its dubious English formulations, or its “arcanity”—but its incredible generality. A professional linguist would be hard-pressed to formulate a doctoral thesis around any of these “topics,” let alone answer them in any adequate way in the space of a five-minute oral presentation.
There was a sense for me, in reading such lists, that the teachers were weaseling out of proper teaching. That they were essentially forcing their beleaguered students to learn course materials on their own, mostly during a 4 or 5-day marathon at home or in the library prior to the exam. Yet even this was not the ultimate folly.
The ultimate folly is what happens with a student after five years of this kind of insane “teaching.” The same article in The Economist makes this point about Chinese education: “[F]ew Chinese engineering and computer graduates are as good as their qualifications suggest. While they often have a more solid grasp of theory than their European counterparts, few leave university able to apply it to real-life problems, such as developing software.”
There is NOTHING on this list, or on any other list that my girls have suffered through over the last four years, that can prepare them to be good translators, interpreters, or teachers of English language and style. Indeed, what I have seen of their university’s program and approach completely explains why there is such a dearth of decent translators in Ukraine and Russia. Why there is a distinct dialect of “Slavic English” or “Slavlish”—graceless in bureaucratic phrasings, thick in its use of abstractions, and frequently ungrammatical in the most elementary ways—, that blankets the region, from Czechia and Slovenia, through Poland and Ukraine, all the way to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
It explains why, in 10 years of running an English-language weekly, I only ever found one translator who could translate an article well enough that it could go to press after only light proofing. It explains why, after three years at a think-tank, I’m still correcting the translator’s use of articles, prepositions and other basic elements of grammar, despite the narrow range of our texts in terms of style and subject matter.
It also explains why, so often, a Russian or Ukrainian who speaks fractured English will start to challenge a native-speaking professional over some nuance of grammar, when they themselves cannot even pronounce the language properly. Not only are “university teachers educated in a rigid, theory-based system…not able to prepare students for the real world,” as The Economist puts it, but such teachers teach their students that what they have learned is absolutely correct and that “one” needn’t ever concern “oneself” about comparisons to native speakers to see if “one” has it right.
This, in turn, explains why some companies are now spending 2-4 years and tens of thousands of dollars bringing Chinese engineers up to snuff, much as I have spent hours and hours of my time over the last few years, correcting my translators in vain. It’s not that people are stupid. It’s that they’re arrogant. The system they came out of not only failed to prepare them adequately for their profession, but it gave them an attitude that is counter to any adjustments, corrections, or improvements that reality might require. It killed their desire to learn.
And that, to my mind, is a crime.