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How to learn Russian through Instagram

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How to learn Russian through Instagram


Svetlana Smetanina

Ekaterina Burvikova, a teacher of Russian from the USA, came up with an unorthodox method for teaching Russian as a foreign language. She teaches her students through Instagram. Recently, she shared her method with colleagues from other countries at a conference on Russian language, which was held in Pskov. During her interview with the Russkiy Mir, she told how to motivate nowadays students to learn Russian.

Your report at the conference on Russian language in Pskov was "Using Instagram in teaching RFL at the elementary level." Tell us please about the method - how effective is it? Is it being used somewhere?

Social media is gaining momentum in various areas of our lives; and it is something that cannot be avoided in methods of teaching languages. Students constantly deal with phones in their daily routine they publish and view photos on Instagram, read posts on Twitter and Facebook, follow bloggers’ lives on YouTube.

Ekaterina Burvikova (on the right) with her students

Students often seek and give information in social networks, so why dont we use them in the classroom? Indeed, during our lessons we teach how to obtain or produce information using a foreign language. It is important for students to often access the resources of the language they learn, to get used to forms, endings, the language itself, see it in context. If students are smartphone users, why dont we give them another resource through which they could practice grammar and vocabulary?

Content of my Instagram account is designed for practicing certain grammar and vocabulary, which are challenging for them, as well as providing insight into Russian and Soviet art. I choose paintings with visual presentation of things we want to work out in grammar or speaking. For example, we can use the painting “The balloon flew away” for the verbal group of fly and suggest students to look into each window, tracking the path of the balloon.

In addition to Instagram, my colleague (and former classmate) and I established RKI_p.r.o, an online community and Instagram account, where we discuss the method of teaching Russian with just as enthusiastic teachers, test interesting methodological formats, and have online briefing.

Where do you teach Russian? What is the scope of language teaching?

I teach Russian at two American universities. My main job is at New Hampshire State University in the USA. This is a large university, the main university of the State. According to American system of higher education, a student can choose Russian language as his/her major or minor subject. Requirements vary in each case, but it is extremely important that students learn the language for three years.

We have different courses: language-related courses and themed courses. For example, last term we had a course of teaching language through the history of Russian emigration for the third-year students. It was very interesting and informative. Of course, we do not forget about literature in Russian. But in order to motivate students in the 21st century, it is important to show them connection of Russian language with their interests and, possibly, with their future profession. Therefore, we try to focus on the professional interests of students as well.

What motivates your students to choose Russian for study?

Most of our students are Americans. There are also those, for whom Russian is a hereditary language, that is, they speak it at home. Everyone has different motivation some of students feel it is important to understand their Russian grandparents, some want to remember their roots, and others feel it is important to know Russian for their future job. Most of our students come from such fields as linguistics, history, political science, and international relations. There are those who study maths and programming, and I would like to have more of those with non-humanitarian background.

Classes for painting nesting dolls and Easter eggs

What are the main challenges you face in teaching Russian language?

Many students have never learned foreign languages, so a lot of ideas may be new to them. For example, that a noun may vary in cases or that adjectives agree with nouns. So, more time is required to work with new knowledge. It is important to motivate students and support their desire to learn a difficult language throughout the year (for many this is the minimum requirement) before graduation. And of course, the fact that we learn the language outside its environment makes us show that Russia is a real country on a daily basis. Language does not disappear after students leave class.

Is there a Russian community in Durham, where you live? Are there any cultural ties with Russia?

The town where our university is located is very, very small. The nearest large Russian community is in Boston. In general, there are many compatriots who live near large cities on the east coast.

We used to have an exchange with one Russian school. And the neighboring city of Portsmouth is twinned with Severodvinsk. The cities bonded together on the ground that submarines are built in both of them. Portsmouth is directly related to Russia, because it is the very place where a peace treaty between Russia and Japan was signed at the beginning of the 20th century.

Neighboring Dover was a hometown for one woman (Eleanor Lord Pray - Ed.), who moved to Vladivostok at the end of the 19th century and, together with her husband, founded a Russian-American trading company. Her letters from the Far East, which she sent to her homeland every day, became a well-known historical documentary about Vladivostok. There is even a monument to this woman, and a separate room is dedicated to her in the city museum

Our university has a summer program during which students travel around Russia, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. When we reach the eastern coast of Russia at the end of the program, we definitely discuss such cultural and historical connection between our cities.

When was the Academic Department of Russian language established at the university?

The Academic Department was established in the 1970s. Professor Alexa Fleshar, a wonderful mentor and teacher, was its ideological mastermind. Of course, there was significant influx of students during the Cold War.

American students in Russia (Irkutsk)

Does the university keep in touch with Russian universities? Is there any student exchange programs in place? Are there any joint programs or projects?

There are no any student exchange programs; however we hold teleconference bridges with RUDN students three times per term. Usually we discuss some kind of problems. At the same time, the students speak both Russian and English.

Our students go to RUDN University for summer courses. A few years ago, we also came up with a summer program that I mentioned above: for four weeks, students travel around Russia "taking over" St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kazan, Irkutsk, Baikal, Buryatia, the Trans-Siberian train and Vladivostok. The students are always delighted with such a trip - they get acquainted with history, culture and amazing people. They are always happy to recall their travel stories and adventures.

How does Russian language proficiency affect the career of graduates?

Indication of Russian language in the diploma can promote career development. First of all, as many students note, a line about Russian immediately sparks interest of a potential employer during the job interview. Russian is complicated, which means that a potential supervisor sees a persistent and courageous candidate in front of him/her. In some areas, proficiency in Russian is considered to be an advantage, which is encouraged financially, for example, in the army.

What do students know about Russia? What are they mostly interested in?

Students learn history, literature, some folklore, art, culture of everyday life. It seems to me that students are always interested to know how their peers live, what they are fond of. After all, despite the fact that the students come from different countries, they have a lot in common. It is especially good to see that such a significant concept as language is included into this common.

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