Дорогие друзья, здраствуйте из Тольятти!
Dear friends, greetings from Togliatti!
My name is Rev Darragh. You may not know me – having majored in Political Science and German, I have been a somewhat secret member of Grinnell’s Russian community. I took only two Beginner-level classes with our excellent Russian Department. But I am now happily living and working as an English teacher in Togliatti, in the Samara region. Though many citizens call it a small provincial city, Togliatti is the center of the Lada company’s automobile production, making Togliatti known throughout Russia (and even Europe), and earning the name “Russia’s Detroit” (only, Togliatti’s economic prospects are better).
Imagine my surprise when I saw Nicole Stevenson ’12, also an alum, get out of the car in front of the apartment we now share. We were both “recruited” by 2011-2012 Russian Language Assistant Yulia Fedoseeva to work at Windsor Linguistic School. Windsor is easily the best English school in Togliatti. Since opening 12 years ago, it has opened three offices (soon to be four), including a headquarters in a snazzy shopping center-hotel complex. They have had 2-3 US or UK teachers for at least the past several years. The prestige these two accomplishments bring is a key advantage in a market for which passable knowledge of English is the key to working for one of the international automotive companies – some of the best jobs in the city.
I work full-time, and dedicate the majority of my “free” time to studying Russian language. I teach three groups of teenagers, 4 groups of adults, 6 individuals and conduct a “Speech Club;” my hours are distributed in 4-11 hour chunks over 6-7 days (my one Sunday student cancels a lot). Now three months in, I mostly understand how to tailor each class to the personalities and language needs of each group. Teaching is very challenging, especially with adults, who think far too hard and crave simple rules they can follow to speak correctly (read the next paragraph for my view on grammar). I am very lucky that three of my adult groups are all studying at the same “level.” By the third time I teach the material, I feel confident and encouraged – helpful feelings for weathering more difficult days.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, I have boosted my Russian language “productivity” since my work-weeks reached 40 hours. Though it took several months of meeting different people to find people with whom I substantively shared interests, I now regularly meet with a few colleagues and students (separately) to speak alternately in Russian and English about topics of mutual interest. For us, these are business, economics, politics, and interesting macro-social questions.
I am pleased to now have middle-Intermediate skills, with very strong and fast-growing vocabulary at the “cost” of somewhat undisciplined grammar. Reading is the core of my approach to language-learning, followed by conversations to solidify the concepts I have drawn out of the text and actively learned. My philosophy is that as you listen to real or TV/radio speech, you can only recognize the words you have previously (and “actively”) encountered. The most efficient way to gain these words is to read a newspaper or a kid’s history textbook; I don’t have the time, energy or patience to re-undergo childhood-length progressively-mothered language acquisition. Newspapers are also the best vector for tapping into locals’ societal discussions. While my vocabulary is skyrocketing, I learn grammar organically, learning from the corrections people make of my speech.
I have three pieces of advice for students going to Russia. First, start intensively, actively reading text BEFORE you go. Prime your brain early, so that you don’t have to spend valuable time at your desk once you have arrived (I made this mistake for 3-4 weeks). If you know the words on paper, in many contexts, your ears and tongue will learn quickly once you start working hard, “on the ground”. In dollar terms, each day not spent actively expanding your targeted language skills costs >$150, if you are on a typically-priced study abroad program. Second, only speak Russian. By the third time someone speaks with you, he/she will accept your insistence, and be glad to get to know you. Don’t TELL them you want to only speak Russian, just DO it – no explanation is needed. Third, do NOT sit on the Internet, whether chatting with friends or watching American TV/movies. Live in your city, eat what they eat and watch what they watch.
To conclude, teaching English can be a great way to get to your target country. The people are great! If your students are like mine, they will invite you to dinner (this evening), or to bowling (next Saturday), or just want to chat with you long after your next class is supposed to begin. But never forget why you are in-country, and what you have paid in financial and personal/relationship costs to get there. Unlike study abroad programs, there are no syllabi or helpful professors/office staff to nurture your language skills. Be disciplined, and relentlessly pursue the goals you set for yourself.
I don’t know if Novosti has a questions/comments function. But if anything in this letter has inspired a question or comment in you, you can always reach me at my Grinnell address:firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Russia with [Warm Regards],
–Rev Darragh ’12