ABC of knowledge

Belarusian Gordei Khomich named the best teacher of language and literature among representatives of 60 countries
 Gordei Khomich began teaching when he was just 21, at a school and then at the Belarusian State University, where he works today, as Chair of Russian Language for the Philological Department. Aged just 30, he is a senior teacher, and the winner of an international competition, named ‘Best Teacher of Russian Language and Foreign Literature’.

Gordei surpassed 600 teachers from 60 countries to claim the award. He currently teaches Russian to Belarusian and Chinese students and has his own theories on how best to convey a love for language, as well as adherence to ‘literary standards’.

Gordei Khomich personally knows how difficult it can be to learn to speak correctly, “As a child, I was slow to pronounce the sound ‘r’. It can be hard for many children.” Of course, in Chinese, there is no sound ‘r’ so Gordei is able to help his students with his own childhood experience. He adds, “However, the Chinese have the advantage of an ear for music, which is a feature of their language. Sentences have a musical tonality, helping them memorize the sounds of modern language. They cannot start talking immediately, since they need grammar as well as a good vocabulary.”

Good knowledge of grammar is akin to drivers knowing the rules of the road. Not all teachers agree that pupils should learn grammar first but Gordei Khomich tells us, “There are two standpoints; the first is traditional, teaching grammar before vocabulary; the second is popular of late, being the communicative method, learning intuitively, almost like a parrot repeating words. You speak, although not always correctly. You learn words and expressions not always in their truly correct form. It’s fine for a tourist trip to another country but grammar is needed to speak well. If you already have vocabulary and know some phrases incorrectly, it can be difficult to ‘unlearn’ your errors. Accordingly, I support the first, traditional method, of learning correctly from the very beginning.”

Mr. Khomich also has his own approaches, such as ‘plunging into culture’, believing that language should be studied alongside literature. Belarusian language should be learnt by exposure to the works of Yanka Kupala and Kuzma Chorny, while Russian should incorporate Alexander Pushkin’s poetry and Mikhail Bulgakov’s prose, and French should feature Flaubert and Dumas.

Mr. Khomich also likes to compare syntax in kindred languages, as part of his ‘plunging into culture’. He notes, “In Belarusian, we say ‘to get married to someone’, while in Russian they say ‘to marry someone’. There is an opinion that this reflects the comparative position of women in Belarus and Russia in ancient times. In Belarus, women had almost equal rights with men; in Russia, women always submitted to men.”

Such knowledge helps students to learn correct phrases, associating them with historical phenomenon. Gordei is convinced that such information helps his students not only to understand but to gain a feeling for language. He adds, “How can you explain to people from another culture that, in Russian, addressing a woman as ‘woman’ is impolite? Should they use ‘madam’ or ‘comrade’? These are important questions. The answer is simple: at the beginning of the 20th century, ‘woman’ was applied to those working in brothels.”

Language is a means of dialogue, and can convey the highest mental sphere. Should it be constantly improved for the sake of purity? Mr. Khomich asserts that language is primarily an instrument of communication, and one that should be perfected. He explains, “We enrich our language for oratorical purposes, which have always been valued. What makes a good orator? I believe that it’s someone who can command language as an instrument, selecting just the right words for every situation. I teach such people at the university.”

As we know, teaching, not only in Belarus but aboard, does not bring the highest remuneration. What drew Mr. Khomich to this path? No one in his family taught, his mother being a bookkeeper and his father a car mechanic. Gordei recollects that, at school, he wanted to become a doctor. “That was when I was in the 7th or the 8th form. I wanted to become a cardiologist, or an expert in ultrasonic diagnostics. I like to diagnose and carry out analytical work. It sounds strange, but I was good at physics. Up to the 9th form, I liked this subject, especially studies of electricity, but I lost interest when it came to mechanics.”

Analysis comes naturally to Mr. Khomich, helping him now with language teaching. He tells us, “In truth, I’ve never enjoyed writing essays, but dictated with pleasure. I liked to divide words into grammatical parts. I like to analyze language. The method developed by a teacher helps pupils to understand the essence of language.”

Mr. Khomich believes that there’s no need to re-invent the wheel when teaching. He comments, “Some of my colleagues try to think up new methods but I think this isn’t a good use of time. For centuries, our predecessors spent time developing schemes of teaching, which we only need to use. Many aspects are forgotten. I see no point in invention, rather using the approaches developed by predecessors which I consider useful.”

Are some methods fruitless? Mr. Khomich cannot hide his feelings regarding some innovative methods used at private language centres. He notes, “I don’t consider it productive to leave pupils alone to complete a task for presentation. It’s better to help along the way. Of course, students need to learn independently at home as well, revising material studied during classes. I like to work with students, especially when I see that they are interested. I like to check their homework since teaching is a pleasure for me, as well as work. I’m not strict, but I take responsibility for the results of those who come to my lessons.”

Mr. Khomich is sure that anyone can learn a language if they are properly motivated. Interestingly, he knows no foreign languages himself, having never had the need to learn. He does not travel abroad so has no need for English or Polish. It’s a practical attitude!

Gordei Vasilievich Khomich is a very traditional person; some would say old-fashioned, despite his youth. He doesn’t look like others of his generation, using an old push-button phone. He admits to having won a smartphone in a competition but is yet to unpack it. “Why do I need it when my old phone works? I used it to chat to you before this interview and you could hear me alright, so it must function correctly,” he states.

Mr. Khomich once dreamt of becoming a theatrical director, and is still drawn to the stage. He remains a theatrical critic, and laments, “Minsk has few decent drama theatres. The best is the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre. At other theatres, I tend to enjoy only a few performances. However, I really admire the world level professionalism of our opera.”

We may not all agree with his choices but it’s undeniable that he has an opinion on everything. He much admires the poetry of Akhmatova, Gumilev and Tyutchev, but is less inspired by Brodsky, Mayakovsky and Fet. His attitude to books is surprising, as he views his favourites as works of art. He tells us, “Recently, I bought Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ as it was lacking from my library. I’ve read many works by Dostoevsky but most covet those editions illustrated by well-known artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. Those are the ones I want to own. I love beautifully illustrated editions.”

Will we ever see a work by Gordei Khomich in a bookshop? Probably not, as he leaves teaching textbooks to those conversant in such writing. However, if you want to learn about language, or attend lectures by the young BSU teacher, it’s never too late to learn.

By Viktar Korbut
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