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STARTALK brings Russian out of home, into real world


June 3, 2013

by Indra Ekmanis

New worlds: STARTALK students experience a “Voyage to Mars” at the Challenger Learning Center (The Museum of Flight).

New worlds: STARTALK students experience a “Voyage to Mars” at the Challenger Learning Center (The Museum of Flight).

While tens of thousands of Russian heritage speakers live in Washington State, few have the opportunity to study Russian outside of the home or in community schools. STARTALK, a language program at the University of Washington, is helping to change this. The summer program offers a chance for high school students and community teachers to improve their skills in a government-funded initiative geared toward promoting sustained language education.

STARTALK is a component of the programs of the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) and is focused on 10 critical languages, including Russian, Hindi, Turkish, Urdu and Chinese, among others. While there are multiple centers in the US, the STARTALK program at the University of Washington focuses only on Russian, and has attracted students from across the country and Canada.

Teaching Tech: STARTALK 2012 Teachers conduct mini-lessons with STARTALK 2012 Students.

Teaching Tech: STARTALK 2012 Teachers conduct mini-lessons with STARTALK 2012 Students.

Students (mainly, but not limited to, heritage speakers) in the program have differing proficiency levels, but all are able to read and write in Russian. The program goes beyond grammar and rote learning to engage students in topics relevant to their potential future careers. UW STARTALK program focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM, which program organizers agree is a logical choice for a city like Seattle.

“The students are interested and we’ve been able to engage professionals from the local community, for example from Microsoft and Boeing. Turns out that not only do they employ native Russian speakers, but they actually have work groups that consist of native speakers of Russian,” says Paul Aoki, the principal investigator of UW’s STARTALK program. “For a lot of students here it was news to them that they could pursue studies in topics other than language, but if they continue to sustain their language and expand it, they can actually find work in the local area that combines both their discipline and interests as well as capitalizing on their language proficiency.”

Group Morale: The STARTALK 2012 Russian Student Program participants and teachers pose for a group picture.

Group Morale: The STARTALK 2012 Russian Student Program participants and teachers pose for a group picture.

Partnering with organizations such as the Seattle Museum of Flight, students are able to explore the language outside of family and colloquial settings. “We train students how to approach [individuals] in a professional manner,” says Lena Doubivko, the director of the student program. “Our program gives them the opportunity to familiarize [themselves] with more formal educated language.”

STARTALK is gearing up for its third summer at the University of Washington. It will include a two-week session for teachers and a six-week session for students. Teachers primarily come from Russian community or Sunday schools and have differing levels of education training. A goal of the program is to improve pedagogical methods and help teachers become certified for mainstream schools.

“Because we have both teachers and students in the program, teachers have the opportunity not only to learn, but also to practice on the students,” says Veronika Egorova, the director of the teachers’ program.

The teachers’ and students’ programs have been highly successful, say the organizers, both in terms of increased proficiency, as well as enthusiasm about the program. “We had a lot of parent saying, I actually speak Russian with my kid now. Before, they were only speaking English to us,” says Egorova.

Flying High: Students play a flight simulation game at the Aviation Learning Center (The Museum of Flight).

Flying High: Students play a flight simulation game at the Aviation Learning Center (The Museum of Flight).

Several students have also returned to the program as volunteers, and the program has gained popularity through word of mouth. “The second year was very, very successful according to what the students were saying and what the parents were saying. The parents were doing the advertising work for us,” says Doubivko. “People are asking, ‘How can I get my kid into the program?’”

The Department of Defense is also following the success of the program by documenting methods from STARTALK centers around the country. All of the materials and videos used are shared electronically, says Aoki. The program at UW may have the potential to expand to fields like business or law, or other languages in the future. “One of our hopes is that, similar to the technical Japanese program in the College of Engineering, we might be able to put together an analogous program, say, specifically for Russian, and with other heritage programs for languages in which the federal government is interested,” Aoki says.

But the goal of STARTALK goes beyond focused language learning. “Part of what STARTALK is attempting to do is to keep multiple cultures alive on a sustained basis,” says Aoki.

For high school students, this program offers a connection to their cultural heritage. “It’s very important psychologically for the student to meet each other,” says Doubivko. “Because they’ve been exposed to several cultures at once they’ve never been purely Russian or purely American, even if they were born here. That’s why it’s very important for them to meet kids like them.”

Quotes about STARTALK from Students and Teachers

“STARTALK offered me a way to share my Russian culture with others and learn more about my heritage as something to be proud of in the process. It was wonderful to meet new people and compare my experiences with their own, as well as discovering relationships between Russia and America that I never knew existed.”
—Lenara Litmanovich, student

“The STARTALK Student Program appealed to me because of the opportunities I received to work with flourishing young minds of students who were able to speak Russian. The program allowed people with similar backgrounds and interests to meet one another, and, through personal and direct conversation, develop their skills in a way no classroom environment can.”
—Michael Gofman, student

“I enjoyed the STARTALK program because of the people I met, it’s pretty rare to come across other russophonic kids, especially ones that share your interests.”
—Eddy Pozen, student

“I enjoyed STARTALK because it gave me the opportunity to practice speaking Russian. After the class, my Russian was much more fluent.”
—Anya Kalata, student

“I was having trouble focusing on my Russian language at home, and realized this was the perfect opportunity to really concentrate on education.”
—Vlad Netrebchenko, student

“I liked STARTALK because I met new people and learned new information.”
—Pavel Susin, student

“I Loved the program because it taught me plenty of new facts that I had never known about before and my speaking skill definitely increased. Thanks for pushing me to my limits STARTALK!”
—David Fortygin, student

“It helped me reconnect with my heritage, and my Russian-interpreter-mother.”
—Katya Downey, student

“My confidence in teaching the target language has increased. I got many helpful resources. All my teachers were amazing and professional.”
—participant in the STARTALK teacher program

“I liked the collaboration of all teacher participants and instructors of this program. I felt we were working as a team and learning together and from each other. I appreciate the resources that were introduced and feel confident to use them in my teaching.”
—participant in the STARTALK teacher program

“Thank you very much for bringing the STARTALK program to Russian teachers. It was a wonderful learning experience. Every day was delightful to participate in the STARTALK program. I truly enjoyed the program, learned a lot, and realized that teaching and being part of teaching Russian is the only thing I want to do. I apply STARTALK principals all the time in all my teaching (not only language) and I see the difference and progress of my students’ learning. Thank you!”
—participant in the STARTALK teacher program

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