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Inspiring the Next Generation of Russian Language Learners

By Paige Lee | Published: June 23, 2020

A middle school classroom for students of Russian
Maps and posters on the wall in my middle school
Russian classroom. 

As I stood in front of the class of wide-eyed seventh grade students, I saw myself seated at a desk. Like looking at the past in a mirror, I remembered sitting behind that same desk years ago—peering around the classroom with wide eyes at the brightly colored map of the former Soviet Union on the wall and the downsized paper replica of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the corner. I remembered sitting in that room struggling over the then-foreign Cyrillic alphabet and how I felt betrayed when I learned that the same letters in English and Russian made different sounds out loud. That was my first year studying Russian, and this is my eighth.

This year, during the winter break of my sophomore year of college at Harvard University, I returned to my former middle school to talk to the new Russian students about my time studying Russian in middle and high school, my current involvement with Russian, and my future plans. As an extremely passionate language learner, I wanted to share my experiences with the students in order to make them feel excited about studying Russian through high school and even college.

However, I know that fostering students’ passion for language learning is often a difficult task. This is the case especially for Russian, a language whose sounds, appearance, and structure are all very different from English. The Cyrillic alphabet serves as the first roadblock to language learners, and the incredible complexity of Russian grammar, to make an understatement, creates many bumps along the road to proficiency. These potential deterrents to language learning are familiar to me because I recently lived through them, and with my presentation I hoped to convince the students that the struggle and confusion of language learning are outweighed by its benefits and real-world value.

First, I spoke to the middle schoolers about the unique and exciting opportunities afforded to Russian students in our school district. Some opportunities I highlighted are Russian Club, an after-school organization that brings Russian students together to make cultural food and celebrate Russian holidays; and the Russian Exchange, a biennial exchange program that sends students between our high school and a high school in St. Petersburg, Russia.

A stack of paperback Russian novels
Books for my Slavic language and literature seminar.

I also discussed topics I thought would be relevant to the students: the academic and social aspects of Russian throughout middle school and high school. I assured them that there wasn’t too much homework and shared that I had met some of my best friends in high school Russian class. Though far off for them, I talked about how my experiences with Russian made the college application process easier because I had lots to talk about in my essays and interviews.

Continuing my presentation, I told them about how my language background from middle and high school allowed me to skip two years of college-level Russian and how I’ve chosen to pursue a double major in computer science and Slavic languages and literature. When I described my college Russian classes, I emphasized how well-prepared I felt going in and how much I learned in them. To finish my presentation, I listed many of the exciting career paths for Russian speakers ranging from government to education.

Throughout my presentation, the students were attentive, and when I was finished, a flurry of hands went up. How fluent did you feel by the end of high school? How do you want to use Russian in your job? What are your favorite things about Russian culture? It warmed my heart to see the students’ genuine interest in the progression of my language study, a progression they could see happening for themselves.

This was when I realized that experienced language students like me are in a unique position to be role models for younger students. In contrast to teachers and educators, older language students have the advantage of proximity to the experience of younger students. For one, older students are more accessible for younger students to imitate than educators. Second, older students can approach younger students as peers rather than educators, and this gives younger students more freedom to express uncertainty and ask questions.   

If we seek to promote passion and excitement about language learning among younger students, then older language students serve as a powerful resource. They are more than role models—they have first-hand accounts of language study today and showcase the direct effect of language learning on a person’s life. Just as I saw myself sitting in that Russian classroom years ago, the students sitting in that class today see themselves standing in my shoes tomorrow.

About the Author

Originally from suburban Connecticut, Paige Lee is a sophomore at Harvard University pursuing an A.B. in computer science and Slavic languages and literature. In her free time, she enjoys reading books (Russian and non-Russian), playing the piano, and petting cats.

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