Official website of Saint Petersburg State University.
  1. In the autumn of 2019, a number of experts commented on a two-fold decline in interest in studying the Russian language in the world compared to the beginning of the 1990s. Moreover, this trend was predicted to persist. The International Online Olympiad on Russian as a Foreign Language is a joint project of St Petersburg University and the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation. Its results indicate the opposite: in just one year, the number of participants in this competition increased fivefold.

    olympiada online 1

    The principal aim of the Olympiad was to stimulate the interest of foreigners in the Russian language and Russian culture, as well as to increase the importance of the Russian language as a means of international communication. The competitive tasks were similar in structure to those used in the state testing system for Russian as a foreign language.

    The Olympiad was held for two age groups: 13-17 years old and 18-30 years old. About 3,000 people were expected to take part in it, but this figure more than doubled. 7,199 people from 131 countries – from Argentina to Japan – applied for the contest. However, only a few hundred young people withstood the high competition and were shortlisted for the final. According to the organisers, the record number of participants and the wide geography of the competition indicate a huge interest in learning the Russian language from all over the world.\

    olympiada online 1

    ‘St Petersburg University began its work on Olympiads and competitions on Russian as a foreign language only a year ago. However, during this time we have achieved a decent result. At present, the international Olympiad is held annually at St Petersburg University. In 2018, we received 1,450 applications for participation from citizens of 82 countries. 250 people became winners and were given prizes. In 2019, the number of participants increased by almost five times. The International Online Olympiad in Russian as a Foreign Language was conducted completely remotely, which meets the needs of numerous applicants from all over the world,’ said Dmitrii Ptiushkin, Acting Director of the St Petersburg University Language Testing Centre.

  2. For several years, researchers from St Petersburg University have been studying how the mode of learning (explicit – through conscious effort or implicit – without conscious effort) affects the efficiency of vocabulary learning and what happens during this process in the human brain.

    brand olga shcherbakova

    Human beings never stop learning new words. Often this happens without any special effort; therefore, we tend to take it for granted. Nonetheless, the mechanisms used to learn vocabulary remain one of the top mysteries of cognitive neuroscience. Researchers from the University embraced the challenge of solving this mystery.

    The research project is a winner of the ‘Megagrant’ Competition of the Government of the Russian Federation. It is a large interdisciplinary project ‘Cognitive neurobiology of learning and language perception processes’ led by a neurophysiologist, graduate of St Petersburg University, Professor Iuurii Shtyrov. At present, Professor Shtyrov is the Head of the Laboratory of NeuroDynamics of Human Communication at Aarhus University (Denmark). To implement the project, St Petersburg University established its own Laboratory of Behavioural Neurodynamics, which meets all the requirements of modern international standards.

    ‘We focus on the ways to learn new words. There are two main options that are described in the literature, and in practice everyone is familiar with them. Explicit learning is the way we study vocabulary at school and in foreign language classes. We are shown an object and the teacher says: look, this is called “so and so.” Another way is implicit learning, when we acquire new knowledge based on the context,’ explained Olga Shcherbakova, Associate Professor at St Petersburg University (Department of General Psychology).

    According to Olga Shcherbakova, presently there are conflicting data regarding the effective methods of learning and the neuronal mechanisms that support learning in each case. There is evidence that the explicit mode of learning is based on slower subcortical processes, while the implicit one is supported by neocortical mechanisms. However, other results were obtained that contradict these data. ‘The fact is that neuronal mechanisms are very difficult to describe. The data available today were gathered mainly through the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging at high spatial resolution. It enables us to register the neuronal shifts that occur at a low speed. However, we cannot track the so-called immediate neuroplastic changes, which may be crucial to the process of gaining understanding and meaning of the new words,’ Olga Shcherbakova pointed out. ‘Also, there have been serious concerns about the experimental protocols of the previous research.’

    brand olga shcherbakova

    Pseudowords for experiment

    To bring the study of verbal learning to another level, researchers from the University undertook to develop an experimental paradigm that would be carefully balanced with respect to the cognitive load, as well as the auditory and visual properties of the stimuli presented to the subject.

    We started by selecting 20 Russian words. These were quite frequently used nouns denoting objects and animals. All these words are triphones and trigrams; that is, they consist of three sounds and three letters – for instance, ‘фен’ /fen/ (a hairdryer) or ‘мул’ /mul/ (a mule). Despite the wealth of the Russian language, this task proved to be very difficult.

    Associate Professor Olga Shcherbakova, St Petersburg University (Department of General Psychology)

    Afterwards the researchers took the beginning and the end from each real word and made up several hundred pseudowords by rearranging the pieces. Of this number, only those pseudowords were selected that do not sound similar to the words which already exist in the Russian language (otherwise they would be involuntarily perceived as meaningful and familiar). The resulting list included pseudowords that do not exist in Russian, yet follow its rules, for example, ‘фел’ /fel/ or ‘мун’ /mun/. ‘Admittedly, such work has been rarely done before. Therefore, our results have an independent value,’ emphasised the researcher.

    Each pseudoword was tested in five different experimental conditions – training sessions of a sort. The word could mean an object or an animal in explicit and implicit learning modes, or it could serve as a meaningless filler word with no semantic value assigned to it. ‘The research subjects listened to these words passively while watching a cartoon, without performing any task. We wanted to find out whether there is a difference between memorising words with a meaning and words that are devoid of meaning,’ clarified Olga Shcherbakova. After the training sessions, the participants performed three tasks to check how many words they remember: a free play activity, a recognition task, and a word-picture matching test.

    The researchers first tested the experimental model on a pilot group of 12 people; and then 50 participants joined the study. The research subjects were adult right-handed native speakers of the Russian language without any signs of neurological impairment. During the experiments, readings of the electroencephalogram (EEG) were taken. ‘Using EEG, we recorded evoked brain potentials arising in response to familiar and unfamiliar words before and after the training session,’ Olga Shcherbakova commented.

    Both are good

    Having analysed the data, the researchers came to the conclusion that explicit and implicit learning strategies are equally effective. ‘We have demonstrated that people successfully learn new words in either case after about ten trials. This finding was confirmed by all three verification tests,’ said the psychologist. ‘Contrary to common perceptions, empirical data, and the results of previous scientific research, explicit and implicit learning exhibit comparable effectiveness.’ And according to Olga Shcherbakova, this is definitely good news as both types of learning can be used in maintenance therapy and post-stroke rehabilitation and after traumatic brain injuries.

    ‘Until now, the scientific community has supported the idea that implicit memorisation occurs immediately, with no need for targeted efforts, while explicit memorising takes much effort and time. Moreover, it has been believed that in case of implicit learning a single presentation of a new word is sufficient and the learner will be able to recognise it a few months later. Consequently, there is a wide-spread opinion that any information is better recalled when it is learned in a meaningful context. Our experiment has not confirmed this theory,’ added the neurophysiologist Iurii Shtyrov, who leads the Megagrant project. Professor Shtyrov is the Head of the Laboratory of Behavioural Neurodynamics at St Petersburg University.

    At the neuronal level

    The situation is completely different with the topography of the neuronal mechanisms that support explicit and implicit learning. It is for this purpose that the researchers took the EEG readings. Despite the comparable effectiveness of either learning modes, the neuronal mechanisms of learning differ. During the study, the University researchers recorded different topographic distribution of brain activities. ‘With implicit learning, the left hemisphere is predominantly active, while with explicit learning – the right-hemisphere activity prevails. The implicit mode of learning appears to engage regions of the brain that have been always associated with the language. This fits well with the generally accepted idea of neuronal mechanisms,’ explained Olga Shcherbakova. ‘As for the explicit mode of learning, it appears to activate a system that is associated with metacognitive executive functions. The latter are considered a rather late evolutionary acquisition, mature and complex with regard to the amount of resources that you have to spend on them.’ The researchers from the University have been the first to be able to elucidate this issue through their experiments.

    The researchers believe that the obtained data can potentially be utilised in therapy and rehabilitation of patients with brain damage. For instance, in post-stroke rehabilitation and speech therapy, the specialist will be able to choose an implicit or explicit learning strategy, depending on which areas of the brain have been affected.

  3. St Petersburg University master’s student Nina Lobyreva took third place at the 2ndAll-Russian Arabic Language Competition, which was held in Moscow. She became one of the five finalists who won the coveted prize – a scholarship to study at Qatar University for a year.

    2020 nina lobyreva arabist21

    According to Nina Lobyreva, this was a reward for her deep appreciation of the Arabic language, culture and history. She developed her interest in the East when she enrolled on a bachelor’s degree programme at the University. There she met her teachers and classmates and became immersed in studying Arabic philology. In the interview, Nina told us how the Arabic language might help in teaching oriental dances, and why an independent self-organised trip to Egypt proved to be better than any internship programme.

    From actress to Arabist

    After finishing secondary school in Odessa, I dreamed of going to St Petersburg to study acting. However, my father did not approve of it, for he considered such a profession to be too frivolous. He is an Oriental man – an Armenian. He is a translator and all his professional life has been connected with the Arabic language. Eventually, I gave up and decided to follow in my father’s footsteps. Arabic studies appeared extraordinary and fascinating to me.

    At St Petersburg University, there is a unique academic programme called ‘Compatriots.’ It provides an opportunity for talented youth from the CIS countries, including Ukraine, to apply for state-funded places. The competition was high; however, in addition to the high grades in my school certificate, I acquired other skills that worked to my advantage. By that time, I had already completed a year of study at the Faculty of Philology in Odessa, I had a good command of English, and I spoke Armenian and studied German. Moreover, I finished a music school where I studied piano and guitar. All this raised additional points under the ‘Compatriots’ programme and enabled me to enter the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University.

    2020 nina lobyreva arabist21

    Loving the East

    When I started a bachelor’s degree programme at the University, I knew very little about Arab countries – how many there are and where exactly they are located, or what is the difference between Iraq and Iran. My notions of the East were limited to general concepts about its culture and Islam. But after I entered the University, everything changed. We were immediately told that in order to cope with the heavy course load we would have no other option but to work hard. We had some serious competition inside the group. Not only did everyone try to complete all the tasks, but also all of us aspired to be among the best. Such a situation, indeed, motivated us to study to the best of our abilities.

    After the first exam session, I realised that I had been enjoying my studies immensely. I was particularly affected by the general introductory course – ‘Introduction to Asian Studies’. It was then that I understood what the East meant. It is the land where life began, the cradle of ancient civilisations and world religions. Indeed, learning the language and culture of the people, we learn to see the world through others’ eyes. It was simply impossible not to fall in love with it all.

    Besides in-depth studies of Arabic grammar, history and religion, our academic programme at the University includes immersion in the culture of the Arab world. For instance, every year, St Petersburg University holds ‘An Evening of the Arabic Language’ (أمسية اللغة العربية). When I was a first-year bachelor’s student, I was invited to participate in this evening by its initiator – Associate Professor of St Petersburg University Hana Yafia Yusif Jamil. I accepted her invitation and throughout my University years I was actively involved in organising these events, and I often staged musical and dance performances for them. When I was a third-year student, I gave a master class in Arabic folk dancing. All the participants learned to dance the dabke (دبكة) – a folk dance popular in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. I do believe that folk arts of the peoples of the East are closely intertwined with their languages. It is impossible to learn the Arabic language unless you like the culture of this people.

    Visiting my Arab ‘mother’

    First, it was the internship programmes that helped me to feel the oriental atmosphere and speak confidently in Arabic. I travelled to Morocco with the ‘Al-Hadara’ Centre for Arab Culture at Kazan Federal University, and to Lebanon with the Higher School of Economics. Then, in my fifth year, I realised that I would prefer to go to Egypt independently, without a group. So, I created a ‘customised’ trip for myself. I booked a room with a local resident and bought plane tickets. My landlady was a wonderful Egyptian woman, who immediately offered me the choice of speaking in English, literary Arabic or Egyptian dialect. I chose the latter, because in Russia such an opportunity is the rarest to be found, while dialects of Arabic, unlike literary Arabic, are almost impossible to master without a native speaker. Additionally, for five days a week, I studied at the Centre for Oriental Studies at Cairo University. That winter I spent three and a half weeks in Egypt. Throughout this time, I did not speak in Russian at all. I spoke only in Arabic: with the landlady – my Arab ‘mother,’ who cooked me breakfast in the mornings, and with local acquaintances. After returning to St Petersburg, I made a decision that I should go back to Cairo to study, but this time for three and a half months in summer. This must have been my greatest gamble that paid off handsomely, since the language learning trip proved to be more effective than any internship.

    2020 nina lobyreva arabist21

    Most complex qaṣīda of all

    Two years ago, I took second place at the All-Russian Student Olympiad in the Arabic language in Kazan. And a few months ago, I was named one of the three finalists of the 2nd All-Russian Arabic Language Competition in Moscow. I believe that it was the high appreciation of my oral recitation of the qaṣīda (قصيدة, a form of classical Arabic poetry, Ed.) in Arabic that gave me the edge over other contestants.

    Both in Kazan and Moscow, I recited a qaṣīda ‘Trill of a nightingale’ (صوت صفير البلبل) by Arab medieval poet and scholar Al-Aṣmaʿī (الاصمعي) who was celebrated at the court of the ʿAbbāsid caliph, Hārūn al-Rashīd. This poem is often considered the most complex qaṣīda of all. There are many phonetically complex onomatopoeic verbs that are also polysemantic. For example, there is a line that in English translation would be: ‘...and the drum went along with me “tab-tab tab-tab…”’ Indeed, each ‘tab-tab’ here is to imitate the rhythmic drumbeats. On the other hand, the Arabic verb ‘tabtaba’ (طبطب) also means ‘to caress, stroke’. Not only is it difficult for a modern Arab to fully understand the multiple layers of its meaning, but also to read this qaṣīda, let alone to recite it by heart. Hence, when it is beautifully recited by a non-native speaker, and a girl, it wins respect and admiration.

    The Student Olympiad in Kazan provided a good incentive for me to learn the qaṣīda. Associate Professor Hana Yafia Yusif Jamil helped me to vocalise the text correctly and explained all its subtleties. Unfortunately, I left the task of memorising the text to the very last moment. That was clearly a mistake. During my recitation at the Olympiad, I had to pause at the end. I hoped to disguise it as ‘justified silence,’ while, in fact, I tried to recall the last four lines of the poem. That must have been the reason why I did not take the first place. Nonetheless, I received high scores for my recitation of the qaṣīda. Later, I often surprised my Arabic-speaking acquaintances by this poetic number, so I was able to learn it by heart properly. A few months ago, I recited this qaṣīda at the All-Russian Arabic Language Competition in Moscow.

    In Moscow, I took third place and became the only representative of St Petersburg, as well as the only girl of the five finalists who won a scholarship to study at Qatar University for a year. We are to start our studies in September this year. I hope everything will be all right: I will graduate from St Petersburg University and then will go to study in Doha.

    Fitness Centre for women in Morocco

    This year I am graduating from a master’s degree programme in ‘Asian and African Economies and International Economic Relations (with Asian/African language tuition)’. At present, I am focused on my thesis on business development in Morocco. I believe that Morocco offers very good opportunities for foreign direct investment. So, I want to develop a business plan in support of opening fitness centres for women. In Morocco, there are a few fitness clubs for women, but most often they are located in tourist destinations. Indeed, there are gyms for men; however, women are allowed to use them only during certain hours, on certain days. Obviously, it is necessary to analyse the situation, the demand for fitness clubs for women as a business enterprise, to calculate the costs, et cetera.

    Upon graduation, I would like to work in a company engaged in business development in the Middle East. It would be great if in the future I could put my knowledge of the Arabic language into practice.

  4. The right to award its own academic degrees has made it possible: for the University to achieve a high quality of research papers; and for the academic community to have great confidence in the scientific publications of applicants. Under the terms of St Petersburg University, an individual dissertation council is formed for each defence. Its members are top scholars in their field and include foreign experts. We have asked opponents to share their impressions of taking part in PhD Viva Voce.

    Masayuki Hirukawa, PhD in Economics, Professor at Ryukoku University was an opponent at PhD Viva Voce of Anton Skrobotov for the degree of Candidate of Economics. The title of his thesis is ‘Robust testing for trending data in economics and finance: theoretical and empirical perspectives’.

    What attracted you to be an opponent at PhD Viva Voce at St Petersburg University?

    Artem Prokhorov, who is a faculty member of St Petersburg University and my coauthor, invited me. My area of expertise is time-series econometrics, and he thought that I could read and understand the thesis.

    What can you tell us about the quality of the thesis that you had to review?

    The quality of thesis was much better than I expected. It contained detailed technical analyses and extensive simulation studies. The reason why the author could write up the one with such a high quality was that he had a few publications at that time.

    Could you please sum up your impressions of taking part in PhD Viva Voce? Are you satisfied with this experience?

    All in all, I had a good experience. I participated via video conferencing and had no difficulty in communicating with other committee members.

    What positive aspects in the procedure for thesis defences at the University can you mention?

    Compared with my own experience in the U.S. (where I earned my PhD degree in economics), I felt that the whole process of the defense was strict. The reasons why I thought of the defence as more strict are that each committee member was expected to read the entire thesis and write a review on it in advance, and that s/he was should express his/her opinion equally during the defence.

  5. Since 2019, the University has been implementing unique master’s degree programmes in the philosophy, history and literature of France. Students enrolled in these programmes can not only study at two universities – at St Petersburg University and Sorbonne University (Paris) – but they can also obtain two diplomas.

    france students

    Students in the academic programmes with the French component shared with us their professional aspirations and impressions about their studies at St Petersburg University.

    Please tell us why you chose this particular master’s degree programme at St Petersburg University?

    Master’s student in the programme ‘La Russie et la France dans l’espace de l’histoire et de la culture’ (‘Russia and France in Historical and Cultural Context’) Marina Tokareva:

    When I graduated from a bachelor’s degree programme in Moscow I wanted to enrol in a joint, internationally oriented master’s programme in the fields of philology and history. However, I failed to find such a programme in the capital. Then I started looking for options in St Petersburg, and I was fortunate to learn about the programme ‘La Russie et la France dans l’espace de l’histoire et de la culture’ at St Petersburg University. The prospects of the programme are promising: second-year students are offered an opportunity to continue their studies in Paris and to obtain a second diploma in the Sorbonne. Moreover, we have two supervisors, one here in Russia and one in France.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Littératures Russe et Français: Regards Croisés’ (‘The Literature of Russia and France: An Alternate Glance’) Daniil Stognii:

    While studying in the bachelor’s degree programme in Stavropol, southwestern Russia, I became interested in Franco-Russian literary connections and wanted to continue my studies in them. I chose St Petersburg University because it was the only university that offered such a wide selection of interesting master’s programmes in fields related to philology and humanities. I applied for three programmes: ‘Russian Language and Russian Culture in the Aspect of Teaching Russian as a Foreign Language’, ‘Foreign Literatures and Cultures’ and ‘Littératures Russe et Français: Regards Croisés’ (‘The Literature of Russia and France: An Alternate Glance’). To be honest, the latter interested me the most. So, I was excited when after much anxious waiting I learnt that I had been admitted for a state-funded place!

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Dialogue philosophique entre Russie et France(‘Philosophical Dialogue Between Russia and France’) Nadezhda Osipova:

    For many years, my main interests have been the French language and culture. When St Petersburg University website published information about a new joint master’s programme initiated under the cooperation agreement concluded with Sorbonne University, I realised that this was a unique chance. This is the right programme for me because it offers an opportunity to study at two universities. Moreover, in my bachelor’s thesis I analysed the concept of cultural dialogue between different nations. Hence it propelled my keen interest in this master’s programme.

    What are your experiences of studying at the University in the chosen programme?

    Master’s student in the programme ‘La Russie et la France dans l’espace de l’histoire et de la culture’ Marina Tokareva:

    The language requirements in this programme are a real challenge, but such an intensive learning experience will certainly not be in vain. Native-speaking lecturers speak very fast, but within the space of two months you begin to understand French much better and do not hesitate to speak. I think that at St Petersburg University students enjoy considerable freedom in the choice of classes to attend. At the beginning of the semester, we were offered a choice of general elective courses on both ancient history and the history of the Middle Ages and the New Age. Also, we are not limited with regard to topics for term papers (or la mémoire). For instance, I am writing about the French avant-garde in Russian Art. It is about the intersection of art history and national history.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Littératures Russe et Français: Regards Croisés’ Daniil Stognii:

    I enjoy studying in the programme very much because I am doing what I am passionate about: analysis of literary texts and comparative studies (comparative literary criticism). I feel inspired by the way the University lecturers work with students. Studying here is not a process of information bombardment, but primarily a dialogue. Also, the contribution of our French lecturers to the programme cannot be overstated. Their lectures offer excellent preparation for our future studies in the Sorbonne.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Dialogue philosophique entre Russie et France’ Nadezhda Osipova:

    Studying at the University exceeded all my expectations. My student experience is so rich and exciting that I even failed to notice how in a short period of time I made tremendous progress in French. Additionally, every week we have French philosophy classes with a native speaker, which, undoubtedly, contributes to immersion in the French language and philosophical culture of France. Also, I would like to commend the academic staff of the Institute of Philosophy at St Petersburg University. They do take us seriously.

    According to the SciVal information and analytical database, from 2013 to 2018, St Petersburg University research and academic staff participated in the preparation of 786 unique publications in collaboration with their colleagues from 139 research centres and universities in France. Do you combine studying with your scholarly research? What are your research interests?

    Master’s student in the programme ‘La Russie et la France dans l’espace de l’histoire et de la culture’ Marina Tokareva:

    St Petersburg University organises many scholarship and competitive projects, conferences and seminars, where participation implies research work. I have never been a proponent of research for ‘the pure sake of knowing’. Even writing la mémoire following the French guidelines has been a new experience for me. I will definitely develop further the necessary skills, as my motivation is airtight and the teachers are always willing to help. My main interests are in the history of European literature and art from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century. I think a cross-cultural approach is of the utmost importance here. I will be comparing the development of cultural phenomena in different countries. This is what the double degree programme involves.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Littératures Russe et Français: Regards Croisés’ Daniil Stognii:

    I am currently doing research for my master’s thesis. My bachelor’s thesis explored literary connections of the Belgian writer, poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck with the Russian Symbolists Andrei Bely and Alexander  Blok.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Dialogue philosophique entre Russie et France’ Nadezhda Osipova:

    By the end of the first year, we are to submit a part of a research paper in French. In my paper I am going to explore the views of the French intellectuals of the Soviet Union. There is a wealth of material to study, and I think that it will be of interest to scholars from both countries.

    During the 8th St Petersburg International Cultural Forum, the Philippe Habert Library was turned over to St Petersburg University by the French Embassy. At present, this collection of 10 thousand publications in French, many of which are interdisciplinary in nature, are accessible to all students of the University. How do you plan to use these resources?

    Master’s student in the programme ‘La Russie et la France dans l’espace de l’histoire et de la culture’ Marina Tokareva:

    For my research paper, it is crucial that I have access to sources both in Russian and French. Therefore, the Philippe Habert Library is bound to become a valuable resource for me.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Littératures Russe et Français: Regards Croisés’ Daniil Stognii:

    I am very happy about it; and I will definitely be using the Philippe Habert Library because there are not many research resources on Maurice Maeterlinck in Russian.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Dialogue philosophique entre Russie et France’ Nadezhda Osipova:

    I have borrowed books from the Philippe Habert Library a few times so far. It is very convenient, you know, because the publications in the library are both in Russian and French.

    Can you share with us your professional aspirations? Are you planning to enrol in a doctoral programme?

    Master’s student in the programme ‘La Russie et la France dans l’espace de l’histoire et de la culture’ Marina Tokareva:

    I do not like getting ahead of myself, but I would like to contribute to the promotion of the Russian culture in the world. For this end, I have identified three forms of work – research, teaching and cultural and educational journalism. Therefore, I plan to enrol in a doctoral programme, while a master’s programme is the springboard you need in order to join the academe.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Littératures Russe et Français: Regards Croisés’ Daniil Stognii:

    I would like to work with francophones in Russia and with Russian expatriates in France.

    Master’s student in the programme ‘Dialogue philosophique entre Russie et France’ Nadezhda Osipova:

    I consider a doctoral programme as a promising opportunity for me. However, I think that by pursuing further studies in my master’s programme I will gain unique experience and expertise that might affect my plans for the future.