Six communist textbooks to learn English

I’m excited about this post, it’s a little side project I’ve been doing while traveling. Inspired by Scott Thornbury‘s old collection of English language textbooks I wanted to collect a series of covers of old English textbooks from former communist countries. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many countries of the former Soviet Block and have lots of contacts who were kind enough to help me in my search. Here they are. six little pieces of history.

1. Starkov English Textbooks and Readers (Russia, 1980s)

This from my colleague at the British Council in Moscow, Olga Barnashova. She told me that when someone brought these in the other day everyone got really excited as they recognise their childhood. Check out the exercise too.

2. English 7 ( Georgia 1984)

This one courtesy of Scott Thornbury’s collection. A striking design, and another course that just goes by numbers (like Starkov above). I don’t know how high these courses go actually. Line from a dialogue in English 7 Hello Gia. I’ve got a fine picture of Lenin which, as Scott remarked dryly, makes a nice change from I’ve got a pen.

3. My English Book (Poland)

I quite like the retro image of the children on this book, as well as how the yellow ribbon in the girl’s hair is echoed in the yellow cover.

4 We learn English (Poland)

Great collectivist title. And such a minimalist cover design too. I would love to do a new version of this, but keep the same artist. This and My English Book both come courtesy of my Polish friend and fantatstic teacher trainer Grzegorz Spiewak.

5. English for the Small (Hungary)

My absolute FAVOURITE title for a child’s book to learn English. My good friend Tamas Lorincz sent me the cover and pages from this book. The insdie cover says “English for the small. Rhymes and games, for them all.” Priceless! It also has a great picture of Lenin on the inside page too. In fact this was all so good I’m including a few pages here.  Click on the image to see a bigger version of the scan – it’s worth it.

6 Armed Forces English Broadcast (Republic of China 1965)

This one is a little different from the others, but what a treat. Published by Republic of China Military Foreign Language school, I came across this one online. It was found by a travel blogger called Roy Berman outside the Taiwan National History Museum (Roy’s blog is called Mutantfrog Travelogue, a very original title for a blog!). I was especially fascinated by the table of contents. Unit 2… Cabbage Soup? Is that some kind of military term for food in the barracks? Curiouser and curiouser…

So, have any of my readers studied with one of these books? Does anyone have any other gems of old English textbooks they could share? And the big question… are contemporary books really that much better?

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Published in: on June 21, 2010 at 9:52 am  Comments (20)  
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  1. These really are fantastic, Lindsay! There must be thousands of books out there from many different countries, Communist or not, that have the potential to take us back to basics in our techie world. I would also love to see some more, if anybody has any. Great stuff!

  2. Nice to see there’s a place for humor in an Armed Forces English course. And, of course, cookery ;o)

    No English coursebooks here (I’ve only been teaching for 2 and a half years) but I do have a Ladybird ‘Learnabout… Handwriting’ book. I’ll make some scans…

    Also looking forward to seeing if anyone has any more =)

    Neat post, Lindsay!!

  3. These are great Lindsay! Who needs the term ‘Young Learners’ when we can teach ‘English for the small’? Brilliant!

  4. Yes, Sir. I, your faithful reader and fan, solemnly swear that Starkov’s books was the first book I ever used when I started learning the English language.
    The thing with the book was that everybody (the ovewhelming majority) knew about Olga Stogova’s family (the model family in the textbook) but were completely unable to communicate simple ideas like ‘I’m thirsty. Should we ask this lady for a drink?’. The most capable learners would translate this sentence this way:
    ‘I want to drink. Let’s ask this woman to drink a glass of vodka’ — roughly like this …
    Oh I wish I could scan some of them to show you how preposterously ridiculous (and vice versa) they were, but I’ve burnt them all … not to yield to the temptation of teaching people using them. 😉
    P.S. You should listen to the audios for the book! 😉

  5. fix” Starkov’s books were … But come on! You have to take the fact that this was my first book into consideration.

    • That’s okay, thanks for the comment. I would indeed love to hear the audio.

  6. Hi Lindsay,

    What a great collection. When I was studying Russian (in post-Soviet times), our professor used a series of textbooks that was actually pretty good, but the characters and their situations still held on to a few interesting things from the Cold War era.

    For example, one character was a kind old man who lived in the same apartment building as our heroes. Any time anyone had a problem or secret, they always shared their concerns with him. Our professor indicated that this was to encourage foreigners who visit Russia to always be open and fully divulge any secrets if an older neighbor came round asking personal questions. We never knew how tongue-in-cheek this analysis was, but it made for some amusing lessons.

  7. While I was at university (late 50s) I studied some Russian with a lovely Soviet textbook. The only thing I can remember doing is translating and memorizing sentences and the only sentence I can remember now is “The combine harvester and other agricultural machinery are happily working on the collective farm”. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to use that phrase in conversation with Russian colleagues but it has been trotted out at numerous parties in the UK where it has almost always served to impress (but not attract) girls.

  8. These are just too funny, Lindsay!

    Thanks for sharing them.

    Some contemporary ELT textbooks from former communist countries seem to be pretty amusing too, by the looks of things…

    http://englishrussia.com/index.php/2008/12/08/another-english-textbook/

    • Thst Russian thing is outrageous! The drawings are hilarious and it gives “functional” language a whole new spin. Superb!

  9. I sooooo want this collection! What a glorious, glorious selection!

    I am going to have to hunt around for some old Japanese books.

  10. I just hasten to add that Poland was not a communist country, but a country under socialist rule.

  11. Lindsay,
    at school I studied English by Starkov’s textbook. It’s one and only good point for me was that the reading rules were explained really well for that time, and there was a decent system of language-oriented (as opposed to speech-oriented) exercises. The main EFL goal of those times was to teach students to read and understand written texts, but other forms of communication were not really considered necessary. However, the texts in Starkov’s textbook can now be read as one large comic strip. I think I still have two or three Starkov textbooks somewhere, different grades, as well as a couple of other old textbooks.
    For seome reason the texts there remind me of London Linguaphone Course (God knows when it was made, but I had to listen to it at the university as recently as in early 1990-s), in which they said; “I am a man. My wife is a woman” and presented other wonderful scientific discoveries of the kind.
    Alexey.

  12. Hi Lindsay,

    I see you’re coming to Czech in september so hope to see you when you are over here in Usti nad Labem though haven’t actually booked a place for the conference. Will you be coming through Prague?

    • Hi there Blade,

      I’m pretty sure that yes I will be coming through Prague. It would be good to catch up, I agree. Let’s get in touch closer to the date!

  13. Inspiring examples of ideology in practice.

    While I’ve seen some wonderful cartoons for teaching prepositions from an old Soviet Union, I don’t know the name or could never locate the entire book. Next time I visit Vietnam I will also hunt for some books. Thanks for the tip!

  14. I have a well preserved copy of English 5 as well as English 1-4. My favorite reading has to be “Lenin’s Birthday”, but C\”Cllective Fram” is a close second.

  15. Another Hello from Russia!
    Lindsay, great collection! I also remember Starkov’s books though I didn’t use them for a long time – in early 90s teachers rather quickly switched to some more appropriate materials.
    But I’ve got some pages from a soviet period book (dunno the name and the title unfortunately). It’s the part of the book with poems and songs – most of them are great for children (about animals, seasons etc.), but the first poem… Check it out:

    http://picasaweb.google.ru/pazyaba/PortraitOfLenin?authkey=Gv1sRgCO_cneXCqOS-Vw#

    I believe it perfectly demonstrates the spirit those children should have had…

    • Wow. What a great poem! Loved it. Thanks for sharing. Would go very well with the first page of “English for the Small” above I think 🙂

  16. This is brilliant! I collect old English textbooks and dictionaries: I have some Polish handbooks and phrasebooks from the 1950s and 1960s which praise the Polish industry and encourage the reader to talk to English speakers about the joys of communism. “We Learn English” vol. 3 suggests that racism is rampant in Britain (as opposed to Poland, of course). By the way, I’ve also met Dr Śpiewak – his workshops are fascinating.


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