Connor O'Brien (Moscow Spring 2017)
Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad scholarship recipient Connor O'Brien writes about the importance of immersive language programs like the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program and the impact language learning has on U.S.-Russian relations.
This past semester, I, along with a dozen other American students, studied the Russian language at Moscow International University in Moscow, Russia, through American Councils’ Russian Language and Area Studies Program. My American peers came from an array of different universities across America, but we had all come to Moscow on our journey to better understand the Russian language and Russian culture. We spent much of our time together in the University, where we studied from nine in the morning until as late as five in the evening. The Americans in our group had a unique mix of histories and personalities which lent some flare to our group dynamics, and our interactions with each other and with the Russian students in our university ensured that life in Moscow was never dull.
In my opinion, RLASP has a unique layout that is not mirrored by many other immersive language study abroad programs. The vast majority of our classes were with small groups of fellow American students and covered diverse topics such as phonetics, the geography of Russia, Russian dance, and conversational development. Studying alongside other language-learners in small groups eases the pressure that can come with learning and speaking a new language; that feeling of having to “perform” perfectly is much less overwhelming when you are with others who make mistakes and struggle with the language. However, no immersive language program would be complete without interaction with native speakers in the target language. RLASP presented us with a myriad of platforms for forming friendships with Russians and otherwise engaging with Russian students. Every Thursday evening, our university hosted “American Club,” during which American and Russian culture were discussed with blunt honesty and curiosity. Additionally, we were required to audit a class with Russian students, somewhat closer to the model of direct matriculation followed by many programs; these classes provided us insight into the Russian classroom style, while allowing us to meet Russian students and professors.
Connor and fellow RLASP participants recreating poses at the Hermitage.
Ultimately, the immersive nature of the program was fundamental in improving my spoken and written Russian, and especially in improving my listening abilities. At some point in the journey that is language learning, one simply cannot advance any further without journeying to a locale in which the target language is spoken. Interaction with native speakers, and the adjustment of one’s brain to the daily sounds and colloquialisms of the language, is key to making strides in language abilities and inching ever closer to that abstract goal of language “perfection.” Immersive advanced language programs are one of the most effective ways to get this experience, and the chance to explore the oft intertwined nature of language and culture is an opportunity that should not be taken for granted. Of course, these positive aspects of immersive language are even more beneficial when the target language is a critical language such as Russian. As everyone knows, America and Russia have a storied history of cooperation and tension, and relations between the two great countries are ever-fluctuating. In the quest to achieve mutual understanding and cooperation between America and Russia, both countries will have need of individuals with the language skills and the cultural knowledge required to reach across the divide and together move the world forward in a more peaceful and mutually beneficial direction. English and Russian are two incredibly beautiful and interesting languages, and the importance of Russian language learners in America cannot be understated.
About Fulbright-Hays Scholarships from American Councils
American Councils for International Education has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, to provide scholarships for advanced overseas Russian and Persian language study. Learn more about the eligibility requirements here.
About Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad
The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, commonly referred to as the Fulbright-Hays Act, was made law by the 87th U.S. Congress under President John F. Kennedy on September 21, 1961. Senator J. William Fulbright and Representative Wayne Hays introduced the legislation, which represents the basic charter for U.S. government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. 2016 marks the 55th anniversary of this landmark legislation. More information about Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad can be found here.