US Students Learn Russian Through STARTALK

24 August, 2016

Determined to solve the mysterious riddle of the Russian language, a group of American students and teachers are participating in a total immersion course. The government-funded study is part of a national security initiative.

Here Americans only speak Russian and they only respond to Russian names.

Such language immersion helps American students make progress in studying the Russian language in just a few weeks. And for American Russian teachers, this is a chance to meet their colleagues and improve language skills.

This is one of many foreign language courses within STARTALK, a program launched during George W. Bush's presidency as part of a U.S. national security strategy. Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian, and Russian were named "critical-need" foreign languages.

Charles Byrd, professor of Russian at the University of Georgia and a STARTALK program participant, says that American students are interested in Russian but many find it very hard to learn and master. For Byrd himself, Russian was once “forbidden fruit.”

"My parents were American diplomats, and they always wanted to go to Russia, but they were not allowed to," he said. "Because they could not travel to Russia, I always wanted to go there. I remember during my childhood I often heard about the Evil Empire. I had always the impression that Russia is a mysterious riddle."

19-year-old Joseph Doran has been to Russia, he says he ate borscht seven times a week and took walks along the Volga, a symbolic river in Russian culture. At STARTALK, Doran is an assistant teacher, students call him the Russian name, Joseph Timofeyevich.

"I love Russian culture, language. I love reading Russian classical literature," said Doran. "It is a very interesting language. Russian people are very nice. I love the opportunities that open to me because I know Russian.”

Betsy Sandstrom, a program director of Discovery Russia at STARTALK, says that, for many students, learning a foreign language is an important first step into their future careers.

"They have different interests — one person wants to become a Russian language teacher, another wants to be a politician," she said. "Knowledge of any foreign language is needed. And Russia is the largest country in the world."

According to Forbes magazine, Russian is among the top 10 most popular languages for American college students.