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13 November 2012

Mistakes and invention in connection with Moscow FM

Today’s Moscow Times carries a story about a new English-language radio station which the Moscow city council has started, I presume, as one small step towards the giant step of making the city an international financial centre.
     Obviously this is a good idea, even if the station fails to live up to expectations and does not, as some commentators have argued, represent money well spent. The point has been made that bi-lingual signs in public places would be more useful for visitors. But anything is better than nothing, and we may come to bilingual signs yet, ’ere the century is out.
     However, the interesting part of today’s report is the language of some of the native-speakers quoted. This is the first of two examples:
Jeff Owings, a humanities teacher at the Moscow Economic School, said the station was a great resource for English-language learners. “The biggest weakness that Russians generally have, once they reach a certain level of English, is being able to effectively listen and respond back. I think this radio station’s going to be very good for that,” he said by phone on Monday.
     “The biggest weakness … is being able to effectively listen.” How is it a weakness to be able to do something positive? The weakness Mr Owings was trying to describe, surely, is the inability “to effectively listen”. And what is “effective” listening? I presume he means listen and understand?
     But perhaps that sentence was intended to suggest that Russians find it difficult to “listen and respond”, which would have been reasonable. But the next one calls that into question. Since when does listening to the radio help you talk? Of course it helps people listen, but folk who talk to the radio—well, let’s just say: few sane citizens do that as a way of improving their interactive skills, not least because the radio does not pause to hear to its listeners’ replies. This makes conversation impossible. And even if the radio were able to hear, and answer each of its listeners' responses individually, there would be a problem with numbers. Only a station with a single listener could hold a proper conversation with its listener. Perhaps this is where the Voice of Russia could move ahead of the pack?
     I will pass over the split infinitive (“to effectively listen”—better to write: “to listen effectively”), since that is increasingly a matter of taste. But I cannot avoid the redundancy in the phrase: “respond back”. Mr Owings should simply have said “respond”. “Back” in that context is unnecessary.
     Taking it all together, I suggest that Mr Owings's first sentence would have been clearer if he had said:
“The biggest difficulty Russians generally have, once they have reached a reasonable proficiency in English, is to be able to understand conversations and participate in them.”
     The second example is a more positive one. The article quotes someone called Pete Cato, a barman at Booze Bub, a pub. He works part-time at the new radio station, but does not plan to give up his night job. He thinks he can do both because the skills are similar. “At both jobs,” he said, “I basically get to sit around and run my mouth.”
     Now, “run my mouth” is not a phrase I have heard before, but it is a good one, along the lines of “run some money”. Being inventive with the English language is not the same as making mistakes. And it is interesting in these examples that it is the barman who adds to the expressive range of the language while it is the teacher who mangles it.


  1. Hello Ian,

    Thanks for another interesting post!

    May I ask a small question? Maybe I've just missed it in school, but anyway, help is needed :)

    How do I judge what to use - 'them' or 'it'? In your article you use 'to understand conversations and participate in them'. Why 'them'?


  2. Because it is plural. Alternatively, I could have written: "to understand a conversation [singular] and participate in it [also singular]."

    Hope this is clear.


  3. So it might be used even for inanimate objects? E.g. "take those napkins and wash them?"

  4. Shame, I made this mistake so many times...

    Just few days ago my colleague has written something like: "...to back up data and store them...". I persuaded him to use 'it' instead of 'them', and not because 'data' is singular (he persuaded me that it is plural) but because it is inanimate.

  5. Interesting article, although it seems a little harsh to criticise a humanities teacher - note, not an English language teacher, on his use of spoken English, when interviewed by telephone.

    The comment about redundancy ("respond back") is perfectly true and accurate - nevertheless, some redundancy can be effective, particularly in a multi-level learning environment, which, surely, must include a radio audience. the redundancy becomes effective for those listeners / learners at the beginner and pre-intermediate levels, who might not catch the gist if it was omitted.

    It is obvious, to me, as a (British) English language teacher, here in Moscow, that Russians (and, most likely, other non-native speakers) struggle with understanding when the input is purely auditory. The absence of visual input during a conversation, including facial expression, gesticulation and, more significantly, passive lip-reading affects comprehension significantly. Try sitting two students back-to-back, in a classroom, simulating a telephone conversation, and you will see what I mean!