Determined to solve the mysterious riddle of the Russian language, a group of American students and teachers are participating in a total immersion course. The government-funded study is part of a national security initiative.
The Americans speak only Russian in class and respond only to Russian names. The adults are taking part in a two-week training course for teachers of Russian, while students are in a four-week immersion program for students from 6th to 12th grade in Fairfax County, Virginia.
This language immersion helps students make progress in learning the Russian language in just a few weeks. And for American teachers who teach Russian, it's a chance to meet their colleagues and improve language skills.
The event is one of several foreign language courses within STARTALK, a program launched during George W. Bush’s presidency as part of a U.S. national security strategy. Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian, and Russian were named "critical-need" foreign languages.
Charles Byrd, professor of Russian at the University of Georgia and a STARTALK program participant, said that American students are interested in Russian but many find it very hard to learn and master. For Byrd himself, Russian was once “forbidden fruit.”
"My parents were American diplomats, and they always wanted to go to Russia, but they were not allowed to," he said. "Because they could not travel to Russia, I always wanted to go there. I remember during my childhood I often heard about the Evil Empire. I had always the impression that Russia is a mysterious riddle."
Joseph Doran, 19, has been to Russia, where he says he ate borscht seven times a week and took walks along the Volga, a symbolic river in Russian culture. Doran is an assistant teacher at STARTALK and students call him by his chosen Russian name, Joseph Timofeyevich.
"I love Russian culture, language. I love reading Russian classical literature," said Doran. "It is a very interesting language. Russian people are very nice. I love the opportunities that open to me because I know Russian.”
Betsy Sandstrom, a program director at STARTALK, says that, for many students, learning a foreign language is an important first step into their future careers.
"They have different interests — one person wants to become a Russian language teacher, another wants to be a politician," she said. "Knowledge of any foreign language is needed. And Russia is the largest country in the world."
The students in the course are not alone in their eagerness to learn the language. According to Forbes magazine, Russian is among the top 10 most popular languages for American college students.