Studying Through Cultural Immersion: How International Students Perceive the Russian Language

The Day of Slavic Writing is celebrated on May 24th . This is a holiday dedicated to Kirill and Methodius, who were the creators of the first Cyrillic alphabet. Today, Russian is also studied by international students. We asked the Head of the Department of Russian as a Foreign Language of the SUSU Institute of Linguistics and International Communication Elena Kharchenko how international students perceive the Russian language. 

– What are the peculiarities of teaching Russian as a foreign language?

– We often forget that Russian is one of the most difficult languages in the world. We have flexible stress rather than fixed, difficult grammar, and many exceptions. The language itself is a synthetic one, which is displayed by the abundance of endings which we choose without thinking, and international students have to learn all of this. All of this creates difficulties in the academic process. So we try to turn the learning process into a series of discoveries. The most difficult thing at the first stage is the word “пре-по-да-ва-тель-ни-ца” (lady teacher)! This first victory gives them such joy. We try to maintain this sparkle in their eyes and not scare them by immediately telling them that they will soon have to face the system of declensions and conjugations.

Immersion into Russian culture, which is of great interest to them, helps a lot. There are many events held at the Institute which unite our students from various countries. Russian very quickly becomes a unifying bridge. It’s very interesting when students from different countries try to get to know one another using phrases from their textbook: “Как тебя зовут?” (What is your name?), “Из какой страны ты приехал?” (What country are you from?). In terms of linguodidactics, we use a communicative sociocultural approach, and during lessons every teacher puts their soul into teaching, each time discovering this difficult Russian language anew for themselves as well. The recently-created Center for Sociocultural Adaptation also helps in this work. The efforts of the organizers and volunteers help the international students survive cultural shock.

– What novelties have been introduced at the department over the last year?

– The opening of a Bachelor’s program in philology for international students is something new. The program’s peculiarity is that the academic process will be taking into consideration the specifics of studying in one’s non-native language. All of the courses are being developed with a focus on linguodidactics, material is given to students in written and spoken form with consideration to their levels of Russian. In practical lessons, attention will be paid to the development of all kinds of speech activity for foreign students (speech, reading, writing, listening). At present a resource center is being actively created, where the required scientific and literary texts for various levels of language skill will be gathered. Along with the mandatory philological disciplines (introduction to language studies, phonetics, morphology, syntax, Russian literature, etc.), students will get to know the methodologies of teaching Russian as a foreign language, studies of Russia, film discourse, and the psycholinguistics of Russian as a foreign language. We believe that our students will be able to work in various fields: teachers, guides, translators, managers in international businesses, etc. With good language training, they will be able to continue their education in Russian universities in Master’s programs and in postgraduate programs in philology and in similar fields. The Russian as a Foreign Language Master’s program, opened specially for international students, has been developing at ILIC for several years. Opening new programs allows us to create closer contacts with our partners from other countries. Heihe University in China is planning on sending their best students for this program. Negotiations are being actively held with other universities in China, as well.

– What difficulties are there for international students when they begin to study Russian?

– The difficulties they have are mostly connected with overcoming the system of their native language. Everyone who has studied English remembers how difficult it is for us to differentiate long vowels which, in English, change the meaning of the word entirely: by pronouncing a sound just a little longer, a totally different word appears. So we try to take the students’ native language system into account. It is difficult to change our habits, a students’ native language system always puts pressure on the student, s/he tries to adapt and apply what s/he already knows to the new language. There are difficulties in differentiating voiced and unvoiced sounds. International students simply cannot differentiate them – the words “баба” (grandma) and “папа” (father) sound exactly the same to them. In pronunciation, first place in difficulties goes to the sound “р”, and for many the soft “л” is difficult, as well as other soft sounds, especially if they don’t exist in their native language. In many languages, there is no differentiation by gender between inanimate nouns. Try to explain why a “стол” (table) standing before you is masculine, but if it’s “парта” (school desk) - then it’s feminine.

Students have to get used to our system of education. In many countries the reproductive system of education prevails, in which rote memorization is key. And our methods of teaching are perceived as unfamiliar. For Chinese students, who have already studied Russian in their own country, speaking and listening are difficult, since in their home country they spent most of their time reading and writing. There have been some funny situations in our lessons when we did not take other cultures into account. Chinese students are often scared by our loud speech and gesturing. For them, loud speech symbolizes a teacher’s displeasure, and we try to speak even louder, thinking that they’ll understand us better. Chinese students don’t ask teachers questions in order not to doubt their competence; imagine what they think about us when we ask them to ask questions. One other special area is how to address teachers. In China, titles are very important, they often address people by their title and last name. Addressing people by their name or name and patronymic is considered low-status. And our teachers think that the students call them “преподаватель” (teacher) because they have forgotten their names. And in each culture there are such unique features that need to be taken into account.

– How do the Institute of Linguistics and International Communication and the Department of Russian as a Foreign Language celebrate the Day of Slavic Writing?

– In the Department of Russian Language, contests are held every year before the Day of Slavic Writing, which has become a tradition. These include contests in calligraphy, reading, and an essay contest. This year, more than 150 people from various countries – China, Korea, Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, USA, Morocco, Colombia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and others participated in the calligraphy contest. The participants of the contest have shown not only their ability to write aesthetically, but also their knowledge of the history of the Russian alphabet. The reading contest “Inspiration through Spoken Word” was held in two rounds: the first round was held in groups, and the winners of that round participated in the second round (22 people). Certificates were awarded to the winners in 10 categories, as well as 3 certificates for the “Best Poetry Readers”. They chose classical pieces. The favorite was A.S. Pushkin – his works were chosen by 7 people, and we also heard the poetry of M.Yu. Lermontov, A. Blok, Yu. Levitanskiy, A. Dementyev, R. Rozhdestvensky, M. Tsvetaeva, and other famous poets.

The winners of these contests will be awarded at an event dedicated to the Day of Slavic Writing, which we have organized with other departments of the ILIC and with student historians. As a rule, this is a bright, colorful event, in which all of our students take part with great pleasure. International students really like Russian quadrille. They don Russian national costumes and dance with joy. This year, the event will be held as part of an International Scientific Conference, which will be attended by colleagues from Tianjin Foreign Studies University (China). In addition, for the second year, our international students are participating in region-wide competitions for young orators, the organizer of which is the Ministry of Science and Education of the Chelyabinsk Region, the Znaniye Society, and the Council for Russian Language and Literature. Our international students chose the topics “The History of My Family Is Part of the History of My Country” and “A Link between Generations”. For the second year in a row, we have been winning 3rd places among international citizens. This combination of lessons and events gives our students motivation to learn Russian.

Ekaterina Kuznetsova; photo by Oleg Igoshin
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