Why you should study Russian at Middlebury

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In this language program spotlight, we interviewed Jason Merrill, the Director of the School of Russian at Middlebury. Jason himself graduated from Middlebury College in 1990 and received his Ph.D. in Russian Literature from the University of Kansas in 1997. He is currently a Professor of Russian at Michigan State University. In this interview, Jason sheds light on how the Russian program at Middlebury has changed over the years, what makes Middlebury’s Russian program unique, and he also shares some tips on reaching and maintaining advanced proficiency in Russian.

You’re entering your eleventh year as the Director of the Middlebury College Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian and yourself graduated from the College in 1990. How has the Russian program developed and changed since you were a student?

Certain things have stayed the same for many years at the Middlebury Russian School (known, more formally, as the Kathryn W. Davis School of Russian). The close interaction among students, instructors, cultural staff, and guests has not changed. We continue to emphasize the co-curricular program as a valuable way of keeping students immersed in Russian outside the classroom. The central piece is, of course, the Language Pledge; students arrive on campus and promise to speak only Russian until the Pledge is officially lifted at the end of the summer. The Russian School now surveys students at the end of each summer to learn more about how students experience the intensive eight weeks of using only Russian.

The Russian School has added a lot of support to the core academic program. For example, we have several phonetics instructors and a tutoring program to assist students and take some of the pressure off teachers. We have taken advantage of the internet to provide other types of academic support to specific groups. We have developed modules and introductory lessons for true beginners who, unlike in the past, now arrive knowing the alphabet and some basic vocabulary and grammar and have also met their instructors and have better idea of what to expect in Middlebury. We are also working to support heritage speakers of Russian by creating online module(s) for them and by inviting experts who work with them directly on campus. These modules address issues specific to the language of heritage speakers and aim to allow heritage speakers to successfully study alongside traditional students.

Today the Russian School places much more emphasis on measuring outcomes in terms of accepted national guidelines. We have a rigorous and well-structured testing program; we design our tests to be aligned with the 2012 ACTFL Proficiency guidelines and we train our instructors to be familiar with the testing protocol and evaluation criteria of written and oral proficiency tests. Conducting our entrance and exit testing in terms of the ACTFL Guidelines allows us to better place students in the appropriate level and clearly articulate summer progress to students’ home institutions. In our eight-week program, all of our seven levels of instruction have their goals stated in terms of the ACTFL Guidelines.

Classroom technology has, of course, opened up many new opportunities for instructors. They are able to develop many different types of technology-based assignments, including collaborative ones that were not possible before such technology; for example, for many years our Level Three class closed the summer with a festival of student-made films that were of very high quality and featured posters and trailers, all made by groups of students working together. The internet allows instructors access to up-to-date authentic materials, which are very successfully used in several of our levels, for example in our Level Six class, which uses a variety of contemporary media as students present their research on contemporary social issues in Russia.

Research shows that what students plan to do with the Russian language has changed somewhat since 1990, but not all that much: their main goals are still some sort of government work or an academic track, often using Russian in graduate fields like international relations.

What are some unique challenges for students you’ve observed over the years to obtaining advanced Russian proficiency? 

According to research conducted by Benjamin Rifkin, former Director of the Russian School, on average it takes 600 contact hours for students to reach the Advanced level according to the ACTFL scale, which is considered the minimum level needed for a professional use of a language. Most academic-year programs do not have that many contact hours, so time can be an issue for those hoping to reach the Advanced level. Research shows that even studying abroad is not a guarantee of reaching the Advanced level.

Nevertheless, many of our students do reach Advanced proficiency or higher. One of the keys is to put yourself in situations where you have Advanced-level input. The Russian School’s co-curricular program is developed with an eye toward exactly that, providing quality input on many different topics from a variety of voices. It provides students the opportunities to use Russian in a variety of settings for every moment they are awake (although many report dreaming in Russian too, an important milestone in an immersion experience). These opportunities mean that an immersion program, as research has shown, offers many more contact hours than traditional classes or even study abroad. Advanced-level proficiency is very doable – it takes dedication and a good plan.

Given US-Russian relations over recent years, have you seen a rise in interest in studying Russian and how do you balance students’ interests in geo-politics with other fundamentals of studying different topics in Russian?

For the past 15 years or so interest in Russian (as measured by enrollments) has remained steady, with small increases and decreases from year to year and a slightly overall upward trend. But the years around 2006 were a very low period in Russian enrollments, so we are still very far from our historical highs.

It is a commonly held opinion that Russian enrollments are linked with US/Russia relations; the colder the relations, the larger the enrollments. This correlation might have held true in previous years (the launch of Sputnik, Detente, Perestroika) but it has not recently. If it did, enrollments likely would be much higher than they are now. The answer to why they are not partially lies in larger trends within the Humanities and languages overall, which have seen significant decreases in enrollments over the last 25 years. The languages overall have seen similar declines in enrollments. There are many factors that have played into this decline. Many institutions have reduced or eliminated language requirements, often in response to demands to reduce time to degree. In a time of budget reductions, the languages are often seen as the “low-hanging fruit,” especially in institutions that measure impact in terms of student credit hours. The general public is not always aware of or convinced of the value of studying a language and its culture(s), because they see languages as a field with no job prospects in a world that speaks English or has machines do the translating for them.

In Russian, as in many languages, there is great interest among our colleagues in expanding beyond the traditional language and literature model and developing curricula that include a wide range of voices, topics, experiences, all of which are much more relevant to today’s students. Russian lends itself well to such curricular innovation, thanks to its rich cultural heritage and the many places in which the Russian language is used today.

Middlebury’s Language Pledge and total immersion environment facilitate giant leaps in a student’s language skills. What structure or advice do you advise students to apply when they leave the program to maintain and continue to improve their Russian proficiency?

Research shows that the Language Pledge is a factor in choosing Middlebury’s Russian School for almost every student who chooses to attend. To attend, students pay a significant amount of money and give up an entire summer; not surprisingly, the vast majority take the Language Pledge very seriously. Feedback shows that they know the experience will be difficult but will lead to significant progress.

At the end of the summer, I host a session with students devoted to exactly this question: how do I maintain or even build on the amazing gains I have made? I provide students with a list of resources, mostly online, that can help them work on their language. I ask students to share strategies that have worked for them in the past. Among those mentioned are sites that offer Russian videos (movies, music, TV shows), often with subtitles, both Russian and English. Today it is not difficult to find a Russian online tutor or a conversation partner who would speak Russian with you in exchange for talking to them in English. Social media offers a wealth of opportunities to use both receptive and productive skills: you can listen to and read others’ posts, and also interact with others, for example by exchanging messages through Facebook, Instagram, or Telegram. Popular online dictionaries such as Reverso and Google Translate as well as language corpora allow students to learn vocabulary in a new way: students can see how a particular word is used in context, see common collocations with this word, and read examples from authentic texts that use that word.

How to maintain one’s language after immersion is not an easy question to answer, because it requires much more than simply finding the right resources. Students go from a structured collective environment in which they are only studying Russian back to the “real world” with its many demands. Maintaining language demands dedication, lots of work, and planning, sometimes working with others if one is fortunate enough to live in an area with other students or speakers of the language. Some sort of letdown after the intensive Middlebury summer is inevitable; it is up to individual students to try to minimize its impact. I should add that in any given year 15-20% of our students have studied at the Russian School previously and have returned for another summer.

In your opinion, how important is studying and living abroad in Russia to a student’s mastery of the language?

This is something that, I believe, is true for all languages. Any language is much more than a bunch of words. Language is inseparable from its culture, the everyday environment in which the language constantly develops and grows. Any language contains numerous cultural references that will be understood only by those familiar with it and who have spent time in the environment where that language is spoken. Russians who move out of Russia, for example, quickly find that their language becomes not exactly the language spoken in Russia, although the internet helps them stay more current. Similarly, language textbooks can quickly go out of date; students who study abroad find that they learn many words and phrases that are not found in any textbook.

One of the exciting aspects of Russian today is that it can be studied in many different places, both inside and outside the Russian Federation.

Studying abroad also gives students an important confidence in their ability to use the language in real situations and to solve problems and negotiate unfamiliar situations (examples of the core skills Humanities disciplines teach). This confidence can be gained only by studying (or more broadly, living) abroad; much of it comes from the fact that abroad students interact with all types of native speakers, not just sympathetic instructors who are used to working with non-native speakers. Middlebury prepares students well for a study abroad experience and many of our students choose to spend the summer in Middlebury before going to Russia. They discover that Middlebury can provide certain important experiences (significant language progress in a structured environment) and study abroad can provide the others I mentioned above. One experience can complement the other.

Middlebury obviously attracts students who are ready to commit themselves to master the Russian language and taking the next step in their Russian language journey. How big of a role does that student commitment play in creating an environment conducive for both students and instructors?

Student commitment is perhaps the most important factor in making progress in language study. Under the Language Pledge, students come to Middlebury for the summer and do nothing but study Russian in Russian in various ways. The stress many feel is real and we try to teach strategies for working with stress. Many of the successful students will frequently remind themselves why they have come to Middlebury and put themselves in this position. A fair number of students at the end of each summer write that they wish the experience were more intensive.

Throughout the summer, I repeat that the Language Pledge works best when instructors and students both believe in it and work together to maintain it. Students, however, are in class for only four hours a day and spend much time away from others. Commitment also means maintaining the Language Pledge when nobody is looking, because one realizes that this is best for individual progress. In a certain sense, the Language Pledge is a tool and it is up to the students how they will use it.

Every summer we have students who have to leave campus for a short time. Even those who go to a short doctor’s appointment where English is spoken report afterward that it takes them a while to make up for the interrupted momentum. Those who go to a family wedding or similar event for an entire weekend often need days to feel like they are back in the flow of the Language Pledge.

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