Teaching Newspeak: A Russian-Language Discussion Section in an Undergraduate Soviet History Course

Elena Boudovskaia, University of California, Los Angeles

—Looks like there's going to be a war.

—What makes you think so?

—The word "however" came up three times in today's Pravda editorial.

(From an authentic conversation of two Russians in 1961)

This anecdote provides an example of a valid approach to texts in Newspeak, the language of Soviet newspapers and party officials. One cannot take Newspeak texts at face value: they are repetitive or self-contradictory or both. But although their message is elusive, they do convey a message, and it is available to anyone who knows how to decipher it.

Soviet texts were the core of the materials I used in teaching a Russian-language discussion section in the undergraduate course "Revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union" taught by Professor Arch Getty of the Department of History, UCLA. This presentation deals with some of the aspects of teaching Russian in a content-based mode, when students are concurrently taught a subject and the foreign language needed to master it.

Authentic materials in content-based instruction provide the best environment for acquiring language for meaningful communication (Krashen 1984, Snow 1991, Celce-Murcia & Olshtain 2000), and the Newspeak texts we read were nothing if not authentic: they are the first and often the only type of text one discovers when looking for information. Without special analysis, however, they make little sense and cannot serve as tokens of meaningful communication. Thus, the first thing I had to teach were rules of thumb like 1) "Don't believe everything you read," 2) "Find out a) who the author is and b) who his audience is. Then you can determine what kinds of lies will be present in the text," 3) "Ignore statements, look for assumptions: if the author says something has been radically improved, it means it was really bad and needed an immediate fix," 4) "Figure out what you can from statistics and percentages, but don't take them at face value", etc.

Besides the Newspeak challenge, I had to face the challenge of two groups of learners with very different language levels and needs: heritage speakers and native speakers of English. Heritage speakers, who were in the majority, naturally had fewer problems with grammar, vocabulary, and listening and reading comprehension, but they were far from native in their knowledge of Russian reality: they were as lacking as the native English speakers in the habit of distrusting any printed document and hence in the analytical skills to deal with them. English speakers needed special assistance in developing the ability to derive meaning from context.

But both groups benefited from the course, though in different ways. English speakers became more confident in speaking after discussing their topics with heritage speakers. They increased their vocabulary significantly and put their new knowledge to the test by translating a Russian document for the term paper. Heritage speakers too needed to improve their vocabulary and come to grips with their characteristic errors. From their term paper, an analysis in Russian of several Soviet documents, they gained a greater awareness of the difference between the colloquial Russian they use and the official language.

Equally important, both groups started to experiment with interpreting concepts of Soviet ideology, assigning meanings of their own to events distorted by the official Soviet version. Even though their interpretations do not yet always coincide with the understanding of the events by an adult Russian, they show the students developing an interest in the phenomenon and the sophistication they will need in their attempts to reconstruct Soviet reality and its impact on the Russian mentality.

Another important component of the class consisted in having heritage speakers check the official Soviet version against personal and family memories. Encouraged by my comments about my family's and my own experience of various periods of Soviet history, they asked their own parents and grandparents about their experience and reported their findings to the class. Heritage speakers thus came to view and value their families as living testimony, and their heritage culture started to make more sense to them. English speakers lacked this opportunity, of course, but they too profited from it: it gave them an appreciation of live subjects as bearers of history and culture.