Language Immersion and Identity in Russia

Being the only student in the Heritage Speakers Program, I get all the attention in the world whenever I go to class, and I love it! In class, I get to be one on one with the teacher which I like a lot because it gives me the chance to progress faster as opposed to a full classroom setting. The greater amount of interaction not only has made each lecture more fulfilling to help me with my personal issues with the language but also makes it less likely that I’ll forget what’s being taught. Another thing I really enjoy about my classes is that I get to ask my teachers about their opinions and viewpoints on societal norms, politics, and culture. I don’t think I would have been able to have the same type of conversation in a classroom setting. For example, I asked many questions to my teachers about what life was like during the Soviet Union and I just find it funny how different their answers are from what I generally expect to hear. That is the best thing about these conversations because I gain more insight and a better understanding of common misconceptions and misunderstandings. The more I listen the more I realize the little I know, especially when it comes to Russian history and politics. I am always hearing different viewpoints, and various contradictions to common belief, which makes me realize more and more that not everything is as transparent as it seems.

Another aspect of this language immersion program with American Councils is that you get what you put in. It would be very easy to pass this program with a very little gain by doing the bare minimum. I try to avoid this by writing down every vocabulary word I don’t know a bunch of times until I get it memorized and memorizing concepts in grammar. Instead of just guessing the answers based on what sounds right, I try to teach myself to explain why things are spoken and structured the way they are. Another important aspect to consider is speaking; I have luckily made some Russian friends here and that gives me enough opportunities to practice my Russian in a conversational sense.

When in Russia one can meet people with very diverse ethnic backgrounds which in Russia can be also referred to as nationalities. Contrary to American belief where nationality is defined as a nation in which one belongs to, in Russia, it can either mean citizenship or ethnicity depending on the context. One of my Russian friends, Liza, a young woman who is originally from the region of Yakutsk, he coldest inhabited region in Russia and the world. She told me the coldest temperature she has ever felt was -40 degrees Celsius, which is unimaginable for me as a girl who grew up in Florida all her life. She also grew up speaking a completely different language, Yakut, which is a Turkic language. She learned Russian later on and picked it up so well she doesn’t even have an accent. I was surprised to learn that they speak little to no Russian in some regions, like Yakutsk. To think that there are whole regions in Russia that don’t speak Russian as a first language was a little strange to me, but then again it does make sense considering how large Russia is. I think with such a large span of land the diversity is an inevitable aspect of Russia. I have a lot of respect for the country in the sense that they recognize these ethnic identities and also preserve them.

By: Christine Simatos

Program: Heritage Speakers Program, St. Petersburg, Russia

Term: Summer 2019

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