Post-Program Reflections

  1. Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience. 

Spending time in Russia allowed me to make such incredible language gains as I never would have anticipated. The classroom instruction contributed to this hugely, as my classes were so incredibly small and we received instruction exclusively in Russian. When I did not understand a word, it was explained to me with the definition or other Russian synonyms, which expanded my lexicon hugely. It was also phenomenal to be able to take what I learned in the classroom and apply it immediately off campus at the grocery store, restaurants, social contexts, etc. Engaging with the local people and their culture allowed me to further practice my language and learn nuances and slang that are only available to native speakers who evolve with and help shape their language. It was a privilege to learn from my Russian peers and professors, and I believe their guidance helped me reach the benchmarks I set for myself before this experience on the route to achieving language fluency.

  1. Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

I find that this experience has given me a more multidimensional understanding of Russian culture and mentality. Through conversations with natives, I heard a variety of perspectives about topics ranging from the economy to pop culture to Putin. From a linguistic standpoint – I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it was to hear the language spoken as it was intended on a daily basis. I was able to correct many mistakes I had no idea I had been making and drastically improve my accent because of the language immersion. It is important to take full advantage of such a rich experience and not be afraid of making mistakes in speech. Without leaps of faith, there can be no progress. Such is with learning a foreign language.

  1. How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future? My summer experience has already begin to pay off in the Fall 2016 semester. As I have begun my Advanced Russian class, many of the skills of language learning I developed over the summer have been useful. Additionally, literary topics discussed have already overlapped, and I have been able to bring in information about Golden Age figures like Turgenev and Dostoevsky that my teachers in Russia shared with me. Stronger speaking and writing skills have served me in the classroom, but the improvement of my reading comprehension has allowed me to look at some primary sources in Russian at the library. This will be especially important to me as I move forward in my academic career and build a thesis. Research skills in my target language will give me access to a greater range of resources and perspectives. I can’t wait to continue building my language competency in Russian and very much hope that it will bring me back to the political capital of the country, whether it be for research or in my professional life. Regardless, I will use the skills acquired over this summer to be the best cultural ambassador that I can be.

Taking Tests & Being Tourists – 6

Tomorrow marks the end of my language study in Russia. Although I am sad to leave, I know that I will come back to ND with a much different perspective on Russia, its people, and language learning. It has been a busy week, full of hard work and celebrations for completing said work.

Our group took the TORFL Russian language certification exam. It was a grueling two-day process, but we all successfully passed the exam that consisted of 5 parts – writing, reading, listening, grammar, and speaking. The experience of living in and moving around Moscow made day 2 (listening and speaking) much easier than I anticipated because immersion allowed me to make great leaps on the path to fluency. I had two small victories in language acquisition this week when one girl mistook me for a native speaker and a waiter in a restaurant complimented my accent.

After passing the TORFL, we allowed ourselves some time for final tourist attractions. First on the list was visiting Lenin’s mausoleum. This was on my list of must-sees from the moment I arrived in Moscow, but the mausoleum is only open to the public from 10-1 on a few weekdays, so I was always in class during this time. We arrived over an hour early on Wednesday morning and the line already stretched beyond the border of Red Square. Once the doors opened at 10, the line moved surprisingly quickly. Security was very tight, and the guards kept everyone moving at a steady rate. There was no possibility of lingering in the crypt. Once inside, you go down several dark flights of stairs to where the preserved body is stored. It was a surreal experience to see this infamous man displayed, and he hardly looked human. A friend commented that it looked more so like a wax figure. One many walked through the mausoleum with his hand in his pocket and a guard yanked his hand out yelling “No!”. The entire experience was very tense, but I’m glad I went. Outside the mausoleum there are several other memorials and graves of Russian and Soviet leaders.Pictured is the outside of the mausoleum, located on Red Square.


We then went to the Tretyakov State Gallery. This art gallery features many of Russia’s foremost fine art. I particularly enjoyed the gallery of Mikhail Vrubel’s art. Vrubel, a member of the Symbolism movement, is primarily known for his paintings but also dabbled in other media – especially ceramics. The gallery featured many of his paintings, some sketches, and these alternate-media compositions. Among these, I particularly enjoyed a ceramic fireplace he created- full of colors and intricate designs. One of his most famous works, Demon Seated (pictured), was inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, Demon. The poem exists in two parts and offers a nihilistic perspective of the word that roused Vrubel to create the painting.


After 5 weeks of doing my best to assimilate to the local culture and not stand out as an иностранец (foreigner), it was fun to take a 180º turn for only a few days. We concluded our celebration of the Russian adventure with a trip to the souvenir fair in Izmailovsky Market. This is Moscow’s version of Disney World’s aesthetic, with many colorful buildings, tourist attractions, and hundreds of vendors selling everything from traditional, hand-painted Matryoshka dolls to Putin memorabilia. We bid farewell to our time among the Muscovites with delicious kebabs and ice cream and headed back to the metro.

Food, food, food! – 5

Because Russia is such a vast country, the cuisine is influenced by a wide range of cultures. There are delicious, authentic Asian restaurants. Chinese and Japanese restaurants are numerous, and we even ventured to a North Korean restaurant to try traditional foods from that country. Being Europe’s largest city, Moscow has also taken on western culinary influences. American chains can be spotted throughout the city, especially in areas more often frequented by tourists. McDonalds, Sbarro, KFC, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme are among the familiar logos transliterated into Cyrillic that I have noticed on my walks through the city. European and international cuisine is very popular, with many restaurants catering to specific styles of cooking (more or less accurately).

Food from Russia’s Caucus region neighbors has also crept into everyday cuisine. Shawarma is particularly popular among young Russians and there are 24 hour Shawarma kiosks all across the city. Shawarma is a middle-eastern burrito-like food. It consists of spit-grilled meat and pickled vegetables served in a pita wrap and is delicious. One notable point of cultural distinction between Moscow and St. Petersburg is their spelling of “shawarma”. In Moscow, it is spelled thus. St. Petersburg, however, has adopted a different spelling, “Shwurma”, and this has become a point of pride for residents of both cities.

Another culturally significant food in Russia is cake. Beautifully decorated cakes can be found in the refrigerator section of even the smallest grocery store. The obsession with cakes stems from the shortage of such foods during the Soviet era. In those times, it was difficult to find a cake in the store, especially the most popular varieties so people baked at home. Older Russians still have multitudes of cake recipes, but this is becoming less popular as cakes have become more and more accessible. Left over from those times is the tradition of inviting guests over and serving cake after dinner. With such a high demand for sweets, the selection is excellent. Pictured, is a typical honey cake at a Russian café.


There are traditional Slavic-influenced dishes that one typically considers “Russian”. Among these are bliny, pirogi, and vareniki. This style of cuisine involves a lot of starches and can be prepared as savory or sweet dishes. Grocery stores typically stock a wide selection of these in the frozen food section, so even the busiest Russians can have a taste of comfort food. We have relied on these frozen dinners in the past when preparing group dinners on our floor, as they require no more culinary prowess than the ability to boil a pot of water. There is no major taste difference between these frozen dinners and those served in restaurants, simply because the recipe is so simple. Bliny, and pirogi are necessarily better fresh because they are prepared by pan frying and baking, respectively. Vareniki, however, taste the same whether they were hand rolled by a chef or boiled at home. Quality of ingredients in integral to a successful dish, and there is a notable difference in flavor of these traditional foods in Russia and elsewhere.

Several members of our program have noted to me how delicious the food is. There is a small grocery store across the street from our campus where most students get their groceries. The selection is significantly smaller than in an American grocery store, but the quality of ingredients is significantly higher. The produce is more flavorful and the milk tastes more like milk from a cow than like water. I know that I will miss the “Green Store” (as we affectionately call our local grocery) when I return to America.

The Immersion at Work – 4

After four weeks in Moscow, I experienced my greatest language-related success when someone in the Metro station assumed I was a local and asked for directions. Not only was I able to direct him to the appropriate location to transfer lines, he did not question my use of Russian and we were able to have a casual exchange of small talk afterwards.

A second language triumph was a conversation I had with some friends about movies. We were able to communicate various film recommendations and feelings about cinematography in our respective languages. Since both parties had some knowledge of the other language, we were able to speak primarily in Russian, reverting to English occasionally in order to teach me new words. Google translate only had to be employed three times in the duration of the conversation.

Living in such a large city, I have noticed that it is far too simple to fall back on English in uncomfortable situations because so many people in Moscow learn English and are very eager to practice it with foreigners. In restaurants especially, much of the wait staff is keen to use their English and sometimes even give out English menus. It is a proud moment when the waitress at a restaurant doesn’t switch from Russian to English after hearing me utter a single sentence. Very rarely, we encounter people with minimal or no knowledge of English. I am truly able to practice my Russian in those situations because I have had more language instruction than most of our language group and need to act as interpreter. Sometimes this is more successful than others, especially depending on the clarity and speed at which the Russian is speaking. I have gained a much better grasp of vowel reductions and consonant cluster reductions, which was one of my goals for the summer. Native speakers do this unconsciously, but it is tough for someone learning the language to understand let alone mimic. A simple example of this is the common greeting, здравствуйте, meaning “hello”. It can be used with anybody in any situation, but is usually reduced to “здрасте” in colloquial speech. Catching these differences is an accomplishment that makes me realize the degree to which language immersion makes a difference in lexical acquisition.

Excursion to St. Petersburg – 3

The Journey. The trip to St. Petersburg was my first experience with an overnight train. We were placed in compartments of 4 people. For the most part, we were placed with members from our study abroad program, but one compartment had a pair of Russians, whom we visited and became acquainted with to practice some niceties in Russian. Each compartment came equipped with a little goodie bag of Russian snacks such as pastries and Chudo, the “miracle yogurt”. We initially struggled with stowing our bags below the beds because the bed became locked in the upward position, but a kind gentleman in the compartment next door was able to explain to us what needed to be done. The trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg was approximately 9 hours, so we had plenty of time to sleep and stare out the windows at the sights (as the “white nights” allowed us to see the surrounding countryside even very late at night the more we neared St. Petersburg).

First Day. Upon arriving, we hit the ground running with a bus tour of the city. The tour took us through a rapid-fire introduction to the most famous attractions, from the Winter Palace to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, both of which are pictured below. The architecture of St. Petersburg has a significantly more European influence, as Peter the Great loved Europe and brought back many traditions and customs from his travels to the West.

IMG_5154Spilled Blood

Second Day. After a restful night in our hostel, the group was ready to take on the Hermitage Museum located in the Winter Palace. This is one of the largest collections of art and cultural history in the world and was begun by Katherine the Great’s private collection and has expanded significantly, with a new Modern Art building that we unfortunately did not have time to visit. The pieces range from Imperial Russian to Ancient Egyptian (there was even a mummy!). Beyond that, we explored the city and were able to take a closer look at some of the monuments highlighted by the previous day’s tour. A major difference between Moscow and St. Petersburg is the degree to which the Metro is utilized. As I’ve iterated in a prior post, the Moscow Metro is a thing of beauty. Not only are the stations immaculate, it is perfectly planned to streamline commuting. It is impossible to imagine moving around Moscow without the assistance of the Metro. St. Petersburg, on the other hand, has a rather cumbersome Metro. There are fewer stations, thus it takes longer to find a Metro entrance and it is less convenient to take to your destination because the sights are rarely near the stations. Because St. Petersburg was built on swampland, their metro is very deep underground – as the builders had to take the wet ground into account. Thus, the resulting trip up the escalator from the train to the outside world seems endless.

Third Day. On our final day in Europe’s 3rd largest city, we decided to check out Kunstkamera. Peter the Great established this museum in 1727 and it is the oldest anthropological museum in Russia. While most levels contain artifacts typical of a museum, there is one unique chamber. This is the chamber that houses Peter the Great’s collection of “monsters”. He was fascinated by anomalies in the human form and acquired a store of human children with various defects. These specimens were preserved in ethanol and placed on display in the original museum with the goal of debunking the view that malformations resulted from “the evil eye” or sorcery. Below, is a display case with part of the Siamese Twin collection. After the Museum, we climbed the 262 steps of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the observation tower, where one could see a 360º view of St. Petersburg. Although climbing the spiral stairs was dizzying (and a little terrifying due to the lack of handrails), the view (shown below) was definitely worthwhile as a farewell to the city before the overnight train back home.



Theatrical Adventures throughout Moscow- 2

This week has been full of cultural excursions to театральная metro station. There, one can find the theater district in Moscow. The most famous theater, the Большой, can be found in the center of the square directly off the metro. It is there that I saw a ballet performance of Ondine, the story of an encounter between a water nymph and mortal man. Russian ballet is recognized around the world for its prestige, and after seeing the skill-level from these performers I would readily agree with the assessment. Every movements were perfectly coordinated and the stage design was beautiful. The theater itself was beautiful as well, boasting ornate chandeliers and painstakingly painted scenes. This performance was held on the New Stage, which has only been open for performances since 2002.

New Stage interior:


In my experience so far, the people in the city are incredibly friendly. The stereotype of unfriendliness derives from people keeping to themselves in public areas. Everyone is very quiet on the metro, either reading a book, using their phones, or resting their eyes. Loud behavior on the streets is also frowned upon and rowdy behavior is a surefire way to spot foreigners. However, despite their reserved nature, people are incredibly sincere and helpful when they open up to you.

Later in the week, I went to a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in another Moscow theater. We learned about the performance from a Muscovite we met who happened to be the sound engineer for the theater and offered us some tickets to the performance. This was the greatest linguistic challenge that I have experienced thus far because they maintained much of the integrity of the play by using archaic language. It was difficult to extract meaning from some parts of the play, and at some parts I was relying entirely on my fellow audience members to recognize when Shakespearean jokes were being made. This evening was also my first encounter with the stereotypical Russian grandmother (babushka). It was a hot day, with a high of 88º F. The woman sitting next to me turns to me and asks if I’m not cold in only a short sleeved shirt before offering me one of her two wool sweaters to wear so I don’t catch a cold.

In the vein of language-related adventures, the immersion experience has allowed me to make leaps I would never be able to in an American classroom. I am learning a tremendous amount by listening to my Russian friends speak amongst themselves. Colloquial speech is drastically different from what I learned in class prior to my trip. For example, by going out to restaurants, I’ve picked up four different, and more idiomatic, ways of asking for the check.

Moscow Initial Impressions – 1

The last week in Moscow has been full of adventures, both practical and cultural. As soon as I arrived in the airport, my education abroad began with seeking out a taxi. Luckily, I did some research before boarding my plane and learned that my trip should cost about 2000 rubles, so I was not taken advantage of by the taxi drivers waiting beyond Customs advertising fares of 6000 RUB. One especially adamant driver followed me through half the airport, systematically lowering his fare until I accepted for the price of 1800 RUB, or about 30 USD. Unlike in the US, Russian taxi companies rarely use meters. Instead, you must establish the price before leaving your destination. This was my first encounter with Russians in Moscow, and I was very proud of being able to haggle with my taxi driver in only slightly broken Russian.

The following day, Saturday, involved finding a place to exchange more USD to RUB. I had only exchanged enough to get me through the previous day, because I knew the rates at the airport would be far less advantageous than elsewhere in the city. After finding a shop not far from where I was staying, I took my rubles to the metro to buy a pass. Moscow’s metro is as efficient as it is elegant. The trains come every 2 minutes (~1 minute during peak hours). Each station has its own ornamentation and they range from crisp and modern to opulent and historic. As one rides the escalators down 200 ft, the décor comes into view and can only be described as breathtaking. During WWII, these stations were used as bombproof shelters for the residents of Moscow. Having never lived in a city before, I was apprehensive of my ability to navigate the metro, but the signs in the station as well as one very useful app allowed me to catch on to the workings of this form of transportation very quickly.

After becoming acquainted with the campus of Moscow Humanities University (Московский гуманитарный университет) on Monday, I began my classes on Tuesday. My class has two students, including myself. The other student is a heritage speaker of Russian, so it’s safe to say the environment is challenging. We conduct class entirely in Russian, and have discussed Lermontov and Pushkin’s poetry this week. I feel my listening comprehension improving drastically as I hear the language’s natural flow both in class and around me. I hope that speaking proficiency will follow not far behind.


Пока for now!