25 Years of Teaching Russian in London

Frank Althaus, RLC's founder, tells the story of the school's first years
The Russian Language Centre taught its first student in April 1992. Russia then was an altogether stranger and more intimidating destination than it is today. A Russian voice on the London Underground was an exotic rarity; our students were pioneers, too, many of them heading off to be their company’s first representatives in the new post-Soviet Russia.

I had come up with the idea of a Russian language school when living in Moscow in 1990 and 1991. It seemed to me that there were plenty of foreigners in the city whose experience would be immeasurably richer if they were able to speak some of the language. There are, of course, all sorts of good reasons to learn a foreign language, but two in particular seemed to me relevant to Russian at the time (and still do today). First, a sense of independence and freedom: the ability to get around by yourself, not to be entirely reliant on, or dictated to, by others; and secondly, a signal to your Russian colleagues and hosts that you are serious about your commitment to their country, and therefore should be taken seriously yourself.

But I also wanted to do something slightly different. I felt then, as I do now, that our job was not just to teach the language, but also to teach people about the country, and to help students overcome any misconceptions they might have about it. So our great selling point was to be that our teachers, as well as being highly qualified, would be ‘real’ Russians, recruited in Russia. At the time there weren’t many qualified native Russian teachers in the UK. Most of those that were here had left the Soviet Union some years previously, and so were unfamiliar with the new Russia; and many had little enthusiasm for the country they had left behind.

So we travelled to Moscow, placed an advert in the fledgling Moscow Times and, after sifting through more than a hundred CVs, interviewed potential candidates. Many quite reasonably viewed the whole set-up as decidedly suspicious. Some brought friends or mothers along to the interview; a few, I remember, kept their hats on, as if preparing to make a swift getaway.

A couple of months later, armed with work permits (after we had convinced the UK Department of Employment that there was little point in advertising extensively in the European Union for Russian teachers normally resident in Russia), our first three teachers arrived in London, ready to start teaching in the former spare bedrooms of my parents’ house. It soon became apparent that we would need to develop our own teaching materials. There were some good textbooks available, but they were mainly aimed at school and university students, and were not entirely appropriate for professionals heading off into the unknown for two years. And some of the subject matter was already dated – a few too many visits to the collective farm, perhaps – although we never actually used a particular favourite book of mine, subtitled ‘Conversations of Real Use’, in which Mr and Mrs Stuart play bridge against Mr and Mrs Petrov on a cruise to Leningrad, a sample Conversation of Real Use being: ‘Just think! If you get a grand slam, you’ll score 126 below the line and 350 above.’

There was precious little ‘live’ material to be had: no internet, of course; satellite TV only in the upper floors of the Russian Embassy; and a couple of week-old copies of Argumenty i Fakty on sale near Holborn station if you got there early enough in the morning.

So we began to develop our own course book, a process which continues to this day, often agonisingly slowly. Textbooks are peculiarly difficult to pin down, because every single time you use one, a student will say or do something that makes you see how a tiny tweak here or there could improve it. But even if our course books are not perfect, we are still extremely proud of them. To a large extent they, along with our wonderful teachers, define our approach to teaching: clear, practical, adult, but never forgetting that if it isn’t fun, hardly anyone will do it.

Nowadays our students have changed. Fewer are being posted long-term to Russia, as western companies have rightly engaged more and more local employees in place of ex-pats. We have also felt the Russian presence in London strongly, as more students come to us from companies providing services here to Russian clients. And we have a large number of students from other Eastern European countries, places where Russian was once viewed as a compulsory school subject to be forgotten as soon as possible, but is now recognised as a relatively easily acquired skill. Other things have changed, too: thankfully we no longer have students like the director of a tobacco company who insisted on chain-smoking throughout his 6-hour-a-day intensive course.

Above all our students have lost their fear of Russia: it is now a perfectly usual place for people to work, have family or visit on holiday. Prejudices and misconceptions, however, remain, and we still believe that a vital part of our job is to help people overcome these through studying the language.

In 2006 we were put in touch with the trustees of Pushkin House, and when London’s new Russian cultural centre opened its doors at 5A Bloomsbury Square, the Russian Language Centre took up residence on the top floor. The move has benefited us in numerous ways. It has raised our profile more than we could ever have managed on our own, introducing us to a huge number of potential new students. Our groups programme has exploded, and we currently have more than 300 students studying weekly in 40 groups. In return, we hope that we have brought plenty of new people to Pushkin House, as our students expand their interest in Russia beyond the language.

But what I value most of all is that at last we are in a truly Russian environment: from the moment they walk past the Russian-speaker on the front desk, our students are encouraged to linger as they make their way to lessons; no longer are they rushed past the un-Russian elements of our previous offices (including, in the very early days, my parents’ dog).

Since we started more than 25 years ago, I suppose thousands of students must have taken a course at the Russian Language Centre. Over that period relations between Russia and the outside world have often seemed to hurtle from one extreme to the other. But at all points (the low ones sometimes even more than the high) I have remained certain of one thing: that the language, from the most stuttering здравствуйте to the most elevated literary translation, remains fundamental for anyone who wants to attempt to understand this magnificent and complicated country and its people. It is a constant pleasure and inspiration to all of us at RLC that we have so many students who share this view!
I quickly found out that the RLC is unique from institutions I had studied at previously in that my teacher individualizes the course structure to the student's needs.
One thing I really like about learning at RLC is that the whole experience is about Russian language and culture.
The course book produced by the RLC makes learning Russian really interesting, and gives a student plenty of opportunity to practice reading, writing and speaking skills.
My teacher also has a very engaging and supportive style and is very passionate and enthusiastic about the Russian language and its culture.
Our diverse and stimulating daytime group receives high quality, engaging tuition which matches our interests and needs.
I'm just finishing my first term and feel really inspired and enthusiastic about continuing.
Our tutor Dmitri Antonov has been an excellent guide to the complexities of the language.
The RLC appealed to me due to its central location and wide range of day and evening classes.
The quality of teaching and course material at the Centre is exceptional.
The use of different teachers also offers different accents, voices and opinions so that one's ears become more attuned to the patterns and rhythms essential to understanding what to me at least is a new language.
I've stuck at it, and my class goers have become friends as well as fellow students. We struggle through our grammar together!
Familiarity leads to greater confidence, which has also been bolstered by our excellent and extraordinarily patient teacher!
The class was young professional people and it was fun but learning was serious and the teacher maintained a strong pace.
After careful research on the internet, RLC seemed the most impressive of the options available. And what a good choice it was.
RLC at Pushkin House means there is a cultural aspect to your learning as it is in the Russian cultural centre of London so I could attend political talks or music recitals and meet others interested in Russian language and culture.
I do definitely recommend RLC. Classes are intense and demanding, but also a good fun, something really important when taking evening lessons after work.
What made me actually enrol was the relaxed, friendly, yet efficient meeting with the course director to establish my level of knowledge.
So when I learned that all the teachers at the Russian Language Centre were Russian I felt confident that I would be in good hands not only learning to speak Russian but also understanding it.
The people in my group are friendly and supportive of each other which is also important as it creates an atmosphere of shared learning.
I joined a group and, unlike large language schools, the groups are small and everyone has plenty of time to practice the language with the teacher's input.
If you are interested in learning Russian, whether as a beginner or someone who might have studied a little before, the RLC is the place to do it.
I chose the RLC after looking at several schools because I liked the flexibility of the courses, and the possibility of having one-to-one tuition, which is the option I took.
The centre has its own set of course books that I've found very effective in helping me to learn.
My teacher also has a very engaging and supportive style and is very passionate and enthusiastic about the Russian language and its culture.
One of the things I most enjoy about the course is that we can now tailor the lessons to meet our various interests.
I would recommend the RLC both for its focus on rigorous learning of the grammar (which is essential to make any real progress in Russian) and then at a later stage for its flexibility in allowing students to pursue their own interests.
I have found the atmosphere at the RLC to be very open and supportive.
From the beginning, the teachers have been motivational and invested in their students' success, giving them confidence to improve. What began as a spontaneous decision to try something new slowly became a serious hobby and then a passion.
I would recommend RLC to anyone wanting to begin learning or improve their Russian language skills.  It's an inclusive and friendly environment.
The course is very practically based and combines grammar and themes which build on the grammar with further vocabulary; for example, travel and directions, conversation about families, the weather, shopping, ordering in a restaurant and much more!
Having completed four terms, I am now having a break from studying, but may return after another few weeks travelling in Russia, for which I am even better equipped than before.
I was pleased to pass my first exams last summer as did the other two of my classmates who took the exam.  I would strongly recommend the school to other potential students.
After less than a year I was able to attend Euro 2012 in Ukraine with a friend and manage my way around without having to resort to English - and more recently, I was able to give half my wedding speech in Russian which went down very well with the in-laws!
After two years people have come and gone from the group but the core few along with our tutor have all become good friends, usually finishing each term with a visit to a Russian restaurant to toast our progress!
I am soon to visit Russia for the first time to take extra lessons and try out my linguistic abilities on the locals! This would not have been possible had it not been for the progress I am making at the RLC.