Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Student of Russian at the University of Georgia
We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…
Meet Caroline—an incoming freshman to the University of Georgia intending to double major in International Affairs and Art/Design with a minor in Russian.
1. You spent the summer in Estonia participating in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program. Where did your journey learning Russian begin, and how did it lead you to study abroad?
I started learning Russian because I wanted to learn a new language that wasn’t as common as French or Spanish. My two older brothers did the NSLI-Y summer program for Arabic and Chinese, and that inspired me to try to learn a language for which NSLI-Y offered programs. These “critical languages,” as designated by the U.S. government, include Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Korean, Persian. I was deciding between Russian and Turkish when, at the beginning of my freshman year of high school, I met a Russian lady who was offering beginner Russian classes once a week near my house. I started taking her classes and really enjoyed them, so I stuck with Russian for all four years of high school.
I eventually got to study abroad after four years of applying for the NSLI-Y program. My first and third years applying I got to semi-finalist level before either being denied or withdrawing my application because of another commitment. However, my senior year I got the email that I would be studying in Narva, Estonia this summer for 6 weeks. As you might imagine, I was excited to finally get this chance, and the program has definitely lived up to my expectations!
2. You stayed with a host family during your trip. How did practicing your language skills with locals compare to traditional classroom-style instruction?
First, I found that living with a host family and talking with locals was a more natural way of learning. For example, when I learned a word at the dinner table, it was almost always easier to remember then when I tried to memorize vocab words for class!
Additionally, I found that it was more difficult to converse with locals than with teachers or other students in class. My host family and many people living in Narva do not speak English and can’t automatically supply the translation when you don’t know a word. That environment can be frustrating when you’re just learning, but living with a host family was still one of the best parts of the program.
3. What was the most challenging aspect of studying in another country?
For me, the most challenging aspect was not feeling discouraged or too frustrated when I made a mistake or didn’t understand anything that was happening.
One of the worst feelings is being laughed at for making a faux pas in another language. When these inevitably happen, it’s important to not beat yourself up about it or distance yourself from future conversations where you might make another mistake. Instead, I found that it’s best to focus on improving your language skills in whichever area you need most.
4. You’ve also participated in a cultural exchange in Japan. What is the biggest lesson you’ve taken from living immersed in another culture and language?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s important to be flexible and open to whatever might happen.
Don’t be so set in your own ways or plans that you don’t leave room for growth. I learned the most and made the best memories when I said “yes” to a random event or excursion with my host family or language partner.
In fact, that’s what I love the most about being immersed in another culture: the random and unexpected.
5. Is there a moving or funny anecdote about an interaction in your second language you’d like to share with us?
When we first got our host family assignments, it said that my roommate and I had two host siblings: a 12-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy. When we got to our house, I was very surprised because my host sister looked very old for 12. We hadn’t seen our host brother at that point, so I didn’t have any comparison. I asked her how old she was, and she replied, “devetnadtsat,” which means 19.
Unfortunately, this sounds very similar to “dvenadtsat,” which means 12.
“Wow,” I told her, meaning to give a compliment, “you look like you should be 16 or 17!” It turned out that I had misheard her, and the host family assignment document mixed up the ages of the two children. So basically, I told her by accident that she looked like a high schooler when she was much older, and I don’t think she was very happy about that.
BONUS QUESTION: How does your passion for languages and cultural exchange play a role in your college plans and career goals?
My passion for other languages and cultures has led me to major in International Affairs and minor in Russian. Additionally, I plan to be a part of the Russian Flagship Program at UGA, one of only six colleges in the U.S. to have one. As part of this program I’ll participate in intensive Russian classes, cultural events, and a final capstone year abroad after I graduate.
I’m already super pumped about the program and haven’t even started college yet!
As for my future, I’m considering becoming a diplomat, working for the State Department, or having a job in the United Nations. I think it’s interesting to work on solutions to international problems like the refugee crisis, for instance, and be able to interact with people across the globe.
Check out the Lead with Russian page for resources on college programs, scholarship opportunities, student testimonials, as well as our Grants and Scholarships page for information on opportunities like the NSLI-Y Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by American Councils for International Education.
And, as always, don’t forget to share your language learning story @LeadWLanguages on social media!