Accommodating Native Speakers in the Intermediate Russian Class

Nellie Belin, University of Akron

In my presentation I am going to share some experience of using poetry in intermediate Russian class as well as present some ideas for curriculum development based upon using poetry.

Everybody teaching a foreign language needs to figure out how to deal with “special needs” of native speakers joining the class.

Last year there were five native Russian speakers in my 201 and 202 classes. Two of this students graduated from school in CIS and were credited by examination and a special assignment in individual reading (in both cases a biography) and writing a paper in Russian based upon the book they have read.

Another three students came to the United States after completing three to six years of school back in Russia and Ukraine. Their spoken language was fluent, so they got easily bored while their American peers struggled with making simple dialogs. But their ability to write was rather poor. From the first week in addition to usual classwork the native speakers started to get additional assignments. At first, exercises from an original Russian school textbook (seventh–eighth grade) were used. They basically correlated with a grammar topic being studied in class. They were also asked to go through rules as those were put in the book.

All the students wrote essays, and the native speakers were always asked to present their essays before the class, so the non-native speakers could benefit from listening and asking questions. In about two months writing skills of these three students significantly improved. They started to make translations first from Russian into English, which was easier for them, and eventually from English into Russian, as well as to write summaries on information in Russian (newspapers, magazines, Internet).

To increase difficulty of texts I came upon the idea of doing poetry translation. I recited some poems by Puškin in class, and it turned out, that the native speakers were not familiar with his poetry except the fairy tales. Next time I brought them a selection and suggested that they make a translation into English of poems they liked most. This task was a definite success. American part of the class also showed a significant interest for poetry, so we analyzed some poems by Puškin and Axmatova. In my paper I will give a more detailed description of this activity.

The next set of additional tasks for the native speakers was based on American poetry. They got selections of R. Frost, O. Nash, W. H. Auden and were asked to pick two poems and make a translation into Russian. It was a challenging and very popular assignment. By the end of the semester one of the last poetry readings was from Iosif Brodskij’s Čast′ reči. Translations the students made this time into English and their comments made both them and me proud, and the rest of the class enjoyed a poetry reading session.

Next semester I will be teaching Russian 101. I do not know whether there will be native speakers in my class, but I sure will use poetry even at the beginning stage. I plan to use D. Xarms, N. Olejnikov, K. Čukovskij (with my own translations). In my paper I will show how I am going to use this material in class.