Students Show Mastery of Russian in Language Tournament

March 14, 2016

Amanda Nagy

Tori Eriv, left, and Jennifer Bird won honors in the recent Undergraduate Russian Olympiada.
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Faculty-in-Residence Maia Solovieva wasn’t surprised that two of her students took home honors in the 2016 Undergraduate Russian Olympiada, held February 27 at Kent State University.

“They are brilliant, with exceptional intellectual ability,” says Solovieva, lecturer in Russian who served as a mentor for the Oberlin students who participated in the spoken language competition. The Oberlin group was among 50 competitors from Ohio State University, Bowling Green State University, the College of Wooster, and Kent State University. Fourth-year Jennifer Bird placed first in the fourth-year level, and first-year Tori Ervin took third place in the first-year level.

This is the second year Oberlin has participated. In 2015, Drew Wise ’15 and William Watkins ’15 took home top prizes in the advanced category, and third-years Oliver Okun and Katherine Dye finished in first and third place respectively.

Within each level, students competed in three rounds of competition: oral interview, poem recital, and topic presentation. Judges gave scores for pronunciation, fluency, and comprehension. Solovieva notes that judging focused on how students expressed their ideas and understood what was being asked as opposed to simply reciting the language.

Bird, who is double majoring in Russian and mathematics, chose the poem “Acrobat” by Vladislav Khodasevich. “I was drawn to the gorgeous imagery of the poem. It’s about an acrobat who walks a tightrope while the crowd below anxiously watches. The poem is only roughly 10 lines, but it's filled with detail.”

The interview portion prompted her to answer questions about herself and her opinions. “They ranged from more simple questions, such as why I chose my majors, to more complex questions, such as whether I thought it would be more important for a modern-day student to learn to write Russian by hand or by computer.”

Ervin, a Technology in Music and Related Arts major enrolled in first-year Russian courses, recited “The Last Toast” by Anna Akhmatova. “At eight lines, it's a fairly short poem, but it gave me some nice opportunities to show off my pronunciation. The dark and bitter nature of the toast causes some interesting cognitive dissonance.”

The presentation topics were picked at random from a stack of cards. Bird’s topic was “If I became president.” “I talked about my hypothetical plans for a couple of minutes, although I tried to give my answer without delving too deeply into my political beliefs.” In the first-year level, Ervin had the opportunity to choose from two randomly picked topics, which were “Your most difficult day" and "Your room/house." “I knew more of the vocabulary and had more content to talk about for the second prompt, so I chose that one.”

Bird, who is from Canton, Michigan, is taking two courses taught in Russian: a seminar on Andrey Bely’s novel Petersburg, and a private reading course on contemporary Russian female writers. She is applying for a grant from Oberlin’s Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies (OCREECAS) to secure an internship in Russia in the fall. [OCREECAS] internships provide real-world job experience in an immersive language setting.

“Learning foreign languages is extremely valuable, both for personal reasons and for career development. Speaking personally, I can say that because I’ve studied Russian, I have become more confident speaking to others, more understanding of people’s attitudes and views, and more capable of adapting to new environments. My language skills have also allowed me to travel to St. Petersburg (where she spent the fall 2015 semester), make friends with people who don’t speak English, and have opened doors for possible careers.”

Ervin, who is from Fishers, Indiana, says the Russian Olympiada boosted her confidence. “Learning new languages not only opens up the possibility of communicating with many more people, but also gives you new ways of looking at the world that English doesn't. Being in a space filled with other people who are passionate about speaking Russian reminded me why I study the language.”

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