Rapidfire Language Learning

February 19, 2016

Kasey Cheydleur

Comics panel showing Spiderman jumping into the bad guys' lair where Lenin and other revolutionaries are making plans.. Title: Winter Term Russian, January 2016 in Oberlin.
One of the posters advertising the winter term intensive Russian opportunity.
Photo credit: the Russian Department

Students wander into class after the lunch break, shedding the layers of clothes necessary to brave Ohio winters. They settle into their seats and pull out books as the teacher greets them in Russian and together embark on the momentous task they have set themselves—cover an entire semester of a new language in one month.

For more than 40 years, Oberlin has offered intensive language winter terms, including Russian, Greek, Latin, and German. Associate Professor of Russian Tom Newlin praises the program for producing many students who have gone on to distinguished careers in the language. “There are numerous Russian winter-term alums working as professors of Russian, Russian history, and other Russia-related disciplines at colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. There are others working in journalism, some in government at the State Department and Foreign Service, and others in the sciences who are putting the knowledge of Russian they acquired here at Oberlin to daily use,” he says.

Taught by upper-level language students, the winter-term classes are less formal than traditional language courses. Nicoline Meyer, a fourth-year classical civilizations and Latin literature and languages major, taught the Latin intensive course. She says that although there are frequent review quizzes and exams, the focus of the course is not on grades, but rather on participation and developing an appreciation and enthusiasm for the language. To keep the atmosphere light she often organizes review games and hosts movie nights outside of the class.

The pace of the classes is fast, but Russian intensive teacher Hannah Grandine, a fourth-year comparative literature major and Russian minor, says the speed can work to students’ advantage, particularly with the notoriously tricky Russian grammar. She says while students taking the class traditionally risk forgetting material over the long break in between Russian 101 and 102, winter-term learners can hit the ground running with Russian 102 because they have spent the last month immersed in the language and grammar. Grandine emphasizes the class is more than just language and grammar, however. She and her co-teachers also strive to bring a sense of the Russian culture to the classroom. They speak about their experiences studying abroad in Russia, share their favorite authors, discuss current events, show Russian cartoons, and read a lot of Silver Age Russian poetry. “Everyone teaching the class this year is really into poetry,” Grandine says.

Third-year Walker Griggs was another of the Russian co-teachers. He says he hopes students leave the class at the end of the month feeling free to further explore Russian language and culture. “All of them signed up for this class because the culture intrigues them. Now they should feel free to engage with the culture, music, literature, or art in a new way, with a greater understanding. The first time I read Chekhov's ‘The Student’ in Russian, it was an amazing new way to engage with the text. I hope they have the same experience,” he says.

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