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'Russian as a Foreign Language in Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Perspective' Programme Kicks Off at HSE

HSE’s Faculty of Humanities is launching a new Master’s programme on teaching Russian as a foreign language. Olga Eremina, Academic Director of the programme, told the HSE News Service why the programme will be taught in two languages and who ‘heritage language learners’ are, as well as why the labour market for the programme’s graduates will be expanding.

A Programme with a Difference

Our Master’s programme will be different, as we are going to focus not on philology or Slavic Studies in general, but on the linguistic component of teacher training. We definitely have a good background for this.

For many years, our School of Linguistics has been creating a corpus of errors commonly made by foreign students when learning Russian. Our linguists are studying these errors, why they appear, in what context, and how they may be influenced by a student’s mother tongue. And, if we have already started looking at the reasons for such errors, why don’t we use this knowledge to instruct students?

For example, the programme will include the course ‘Typology in Terms of Teaching Methods’. Students will learn how various languages work. This, in turn, will help them in teaching, since they will understand that, for instance, it’s hard for certain students to understand what an ‘object’ is, since, in their language, objects may behave quite differently. Moreover, we’ll keep these differences in mind when explaining grammar.

 Don’t be afraid to apply if you have no linguistic background

Another unique aspect of our programme is the how we approach teaching ‘heritage language learners’. These are people who have inherited Russian from their parents, but grew up in another language environment. Most of such students are the children of emigrants and Russians from CIS countries. They know Russian to some extent, but this is ‘home’ Russian, which is enough for everyday communication, but not enough for study and work. They have to be taught Russian as a foreign language, but under special methods. In Russia, no one has dealt with this issue in depth, neither as researchers, nor as methods developers, nor as educators.

We’ll offer several courses on how to teach such students. We’ll use the methods developed by our American colleagues, who have extensive experience in teaching heritage learners.

Another feature of our programme is that students will be taught to use various modern computer tools for teaching. For instance, students will learn to create not only conventional learning aids, but also digital aids, tests, and simulators.

What Does ‘Cross-cultural Perspective’ Mean?

We intentionally didn’t limit ourselves to the traditional ‘Russian as a foreign language’ approach, since we wanted to demonstrate to students that they will have a wide range of opportunities, not only language teaching methods.

For instance, we’ll have three blocks of elective courses. The first block can be called ‘Intercultural Communication in the Russian-Speaking World’. It includes linguistic anthropology and Russian communicative style, as well as intercultural communication in business and administration.

Furthermore, we plan to offer courses that help to establish business communication and understand the specifics of the mentality and traditions expressed in the language, thus enabling our graduates to help their students adjust to a Russian-language environment, rather than simply teaching them the language. Students can specialize in this ‘cultural’ area of studies and, thus, become a highly sought specialist in a Russian professional environment, business Russian, etc.

If a student, for example, is more interested in teaching and learning methods, he/she will have an opportunity to choose the block of courses on methods. After graduation, they will be able to work not only as instructors, but also as teaching and learning specialists, as well as be able to develop teaching aids and textbooks.

One more block will be aimed at those learners interested in distance-learning programmes for students who can’t come to study in Russia, but want to learn Russian. Furthermore, students with programing skills will be able to apply them here. Also, computer linguistics is a very strong focus at the HSE School of Linguistics, which means that we are quite experienced in this field as well.

Who Will Teach the Programme?

The programme will include courses in Russian and English, so we will be pleased to enroll both Russians with good English skills, as well as international students with a respectable command of Russian.

International applicants must pass an interview in Russian (this may be done via Skype), while Russian applicants should do an interview in English.

I believe that, for international students who have studied Russian as part of their undergraduate programme, a Master’s degree in Russian as a foreign language from a prestigious university in Russia can give them a good competitive advantage.

There are always students who say that they want to 'read Chekhov in the original'. However, there are even more students who choose Russian due to practical reasons

The programme will be taught in two languages owing to various reasons. First, since most academic papers on heritage learners, for example, have been published in the West, and no one writes about this topic in Russian. Thus, the programme’s students will have to read these papers in English.

Second, we plan to invite internationally recognized professors. For example, we’ve already applied for short-term visits of two professors from the U.S. One of them is a globally renowned expert in teaching heritage Russian language learners. The other professor is an expert in testing and language skills assessment. In addition, we are planning to organize teaching internships at HSE’s international partner universities for our students.

What Background Does One Need to Apply to the Programme?

Any background in humanities would be fine, including philology, journalism, and linguistics. A technical background is also suitable, especially in computer science. Don’t be afraid to apply if you have no linguistic background, as we can offer bridging courses during your first semester.

Career Opportunities

Interest in the Russian language is growing around the world. This may come as a surprise, but students of, for example, American universities more often choose to learn Russian when relations between the two countries are more complicated. Of course, there are always students who say that they want to study Russian because they ‘would like to read Chekhov in the original’ or ‘talk to their friends from Russia’. However, there are even more students who choose Russian due to practical reasons, as it is becoming more politically and strategically important. So, the number of people today willing to learn Russian is growing, which means that demand for teachers is growing, too.

I can give you one further example. In February 2013, we opened our Russian Language Centre, with 40 students and only two instructors. Next year, it enrolled about 170 students. Today, it has 800 students and 20 instructors. Every year, we employ new people, and the same things are happening at the other universities, especially those that are part of the 5-100 Project. All of these universities have been given the intensive task of boosting their overall number of international students. This also means that demand for qualified teachers of Russian as a foreign language can only go up in the near future.

We also shouldn’t forget secondary schools. How many migrant children are studying there now, who don’t speak Russian well, and who also need to be taught by qualified instructors? I believe that it won’t be long until schools need special teachers to instruct such children and ensure their adaptation to the Russian school system. Also, just imagine - how many schools are there in Russia? Thus, the labour market for teachers of Russian as a foreign language will be growing, and not decreasing by any means.

How Does it Differ From HSE’s Continuing Education Programme?

Our Master’s programme is not the only one at HSE that teaches Russian as a foreign language instruction. We also offer the continuing education programme ‘Methods of Teaching Russian as a Foreign Language’. This is aimed at secondary school teachers, who teach the children of migrants as part of their job. This is a long-term programme, which includes 200 class hours. However, it is completely different from the Master’s programme in terms of its goals.

For instance, this continuing education programme doesn’t include courses in linguistics or Russian studies. Instead, there is a course about ‘what’s new’. If you already know how to teach Russian, we’ll tell you what is new in this area and teach you how to work with non-Russian-speaking children. At the same time, if you want to master teaching Russian from scratch, you are more than welcome to apply to our Master’s programme.

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