Russian for Middle Schoolers

It seems that the Russian language, which had been so popular during the Cold War era, is making a bit of a comeback. Here’s an article from The Washington Post (October 7, 2011) about the teaching of Russian to middle schoolers in the suburbs of Washington, DC.:

To find the public school with the largest reported number of tweens learning Russian, look not in New York City, Alaska or anywhere else known for enclaves of immigrants from that country.

Instead, peer into Room 213 at Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Prince George’s County, where a teacher on this particular day is bouncing a rag doll named “Tyoti Moti” on her knee. Dani Sanders is leading the seventh-graders in a silly song about the frustrations of this doll, her Aunt Moti, whose four sons won’t stop singing these words at the dinner table:

“Pravaya ruka, levaya ruka. Pravoe plecho, levoe plecho,” motioning from one body part to another. Right arm, left arm. Right shoulder, left shoulder.

“Ah, ah, ah!” That translates to “Ah, ah, ah.”

In 2010, Sanders had 176 Russian students in eight classes, according to a survey by the Committee on College and Pre-College Russian, which has tracked Russian class enrollments since 1984. Goddard has the only full-fledged Russian public middle school program in the region. Of the nearly 300 schools at all grade levels that reported data, Goddard has the largest middle school program in the nation.

Often, the biggest Russian classes are filled with “heritage kids,’’ Sanders said. Not so at Goddard. At this school, where 82 percent of students are black or Hispanic, not a single person in Room 213 has a Russian background. Not even Sanders, who is from Bulgaria.

Tacked to her bulletin board are the 33 letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. Taped on the chalkboard are fat numbers Sanders drew, colored in with marker. Only the daily assignment — “to review the numbers, 1 to 100” — is written in English. That’s so parents can review lessons with their children.

“The language is easy to get if you do the work and reflect on the vocabulary at home,’’ said David Williams, 12, a seventh-grader David Williams, 12, a seventh-grader. “I figure that the more variety I have with the languages I speak, the better chance I have to change the world. And all I want to do is change the world.”

Unusual appeal

The interest in Russian is certainly unusual. According to a 2008 report from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, only 10 percent of high school students surveyed would take Russian if they had the chance.

The most popular language — with nearly 40 percent of those surveyed stating they would like to learn it — was French.

At Goddard, an elementary-middle school founded in 1986, students learn both. They are admitted as early as kindergarten through an application process. Then they are taught only in French, except for two courses: English and world languages.

Administrators originally used the world languages course for children to try a smorgasbord of nontraditional tongues, such as Japanese and Swahili.

About a decade later, Principal Kona-Facia Nepay said, administrators decided students should intensively learn a single language. When parents were surveyed, Nepay said, 85 percent wanted their children to learn Russian.


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