The History of Russian Language Instruction in the US

Published: March 25, 2016

Russian is recognized as a critical language in the US (web), essential for maintaining US diplomatic priorities. The US government sponsors various programs for learning the Russian language (e.g., Intensive Summer Language Institutes, Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, Teacher Exchange), and there are Russian programs at many US universities. Given the importance of the language, the complexity of the relationship between the US and Russia, and the obvious challenges that lie in teaching a difficult foreign language, this paper will highlight the main stages of the history of Russian language instruction and their connection with the contemporaneous political situation. To do so, this paper draws on analysis of Russian textbooks used in the US, with an emphasis on the socio-historic, pedagogical, and linguistic context. The teaching methods used by language educators at different times and the differing features of English and Russian morphemic structures are viewed as important factors that have shaped the content of Russian textbooks. Theoretical works by both Russian and American researchers and educators are also discussed to give a broader understanding of these issues.

I. Literature Retrieval

The search for resources for this study involved two sources: American databases and Russian catalogs. The key terms for the references search were Russian textbooks and teaching Russian in the US. ERIC and JSTOR were the main American databases referring to relevant articles. The search for resources revealed a lack of theoretical research in the area of Russian instruction in the US.

Book catalogs were searched for textbooks and materials about teaching Russian in the US and the history of Russian immigrants to the US. Most books cited in this paper were published from the late 1950s to the present and most are either grammar references or works about the history of teaching Russian in the US. The actual textbooks studied (e.g., Kagan, O. E., Kudyma, A. S., & Miller, F. J., 2015; Perevoznikova, A. K., 2013) give a clear idea of the methods that Russian teachers used in classrooms during different time periods.

For social and historical reasons that will be described in this paper, most recent Russian textbooks have been written by Russians (Vagner, 2001).

Most of the recently published textbooks reviewed for this paper came from Zlatoust, a Russian company that is the main producer of Russian textbooks for foreign learners. These books are imported to the US, often directly by US libraries. Most of those books are designed to suit the needs of English speakers. They are reviewed in this paper to show the impact of the differences between the English and Russian languages on the selection of teaching methods. The reference lists of those books served as an additional source of materials that contain pedagogical guidelines explaining instruction methods in Russian classrooms. Most of those pedagogical materials were also published in Russia. Even those books published in the US were typically written by Russian authors living and working in America. The search for books was limited to those that contain practical implications for teaching Russian in English speakers’ classrooms.

This literature review is organized according to the historical principle, beginning from the oldest Russian schools in the US up to the present. The sections of the paper reflect the different historical periods, the main tendencies in teaching Russian to American students, and the influence of historical context on the content of Russian textbooks used by teachers.

II. First Russian Presence in North America

Russian became known on the North America continent, and in what would become US territory, in the 18th century. For geographical reasons, it “entered the continent not on the Atlantic seaboard but in the Far West,” where Russians had only to cross the short Bering Strait to access the American landmass (Parry, 1967, p. 1). The Aleuts, who live in what is now Alaska, thus became the first learners of Russian in North America. Before that time, it was the Russians who had to learn native tongues to be able to do business in the wilderness of Russia’s lands on the American continent (Tikhmenev, 1861).

According to Russian historian Peter Tikhmenev (1861), the first Russian Orthodox priests came to Russian America in 1794. They became the first teachers of Russian in America. This process did not go smoothly; not surprisingly, the natives were reluctant to learn Russian. The new colonizers disrupted the lifestyle of the indigenous people, who were resisting that invasion. Therefore, those receiving Russian instruction were mainly Creoles who were the offspring of Russian colonizers. Tikhmenev (1861) points out that by 1840 in Kodiak, Alaska, the center of Russian America, there were eight Russian schools for native children. They were segregated by sex: four schools for boys and four for girls.

Hector Chevigny (1965), the author of several historical novels about Alaska, described the cultural picture in Sitka, Alaska in the early 19th century as “sheer delight” (p. 247): four schools, a college, a public library, and two scientific institutes.

After Alaska was sold to the US in 1867, the situation completely changed.. As a result, most Russians left; “some went to British Columbia or California [where Russian settlements remained], but most sailed for Russia” (Parry, 1967, p. 21). Nevertheless, the Russian linguistic impact was felt in the area for some time. Robert Oswalt (1958) wrote about many Russian loan words in the language of the Southwestern (Kashaya) Pomo Indians in California, where the Russian Californian colony of Fort Ross was located. Russians had a fur-trading outpost at Fort Ross, Sonoma County during almost 30 years (1812-1841). The Kashaya contacted with the Russian merchants and their workers from Alaska whom they brought to California (Golla, 2011). Consequently, many Russian words were borrowed by the Kashaya. Victor Golla (2011) listed some Russian loan words that still present in Kashaya (e.g., čaynik – “teakettle”, čayu – “tea”, kuška – “cat”, mišuk – “bag”, putilka – “glass”). These examples show that the borrowed words even did not change their meanings much. This fact shows the significance of the Russian impact on the language and culture of some indigenous population groups on the West Coast.

On the East Coast, Russian was mainly known to philologists who learned the language either as part of their jobs or for pleasure. Russian was not officially taught at American schools and universities until the end of the 19th century, when the first Russian courses began to be offered on American campuses (Parry, 1967). Following the East Coast institutions, Californian and Midwestern universities began to offer Russian courses as well.

III. Russian Language Instruction in the US (World War I and Revolution)

American educators did not give Russian much attention until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 (Parry, 1967). Russia was one of the major participants in that war, and Americans became interested in Russian politics, people, and language after reading about them in newspapers. The influx of Russian immigrants to New York, who came as individuals with sufficient means fled the war and then the 1917 revolution, also contributed to the spread of Russian in the US. Albert Parry (1967) claimed that there was a huge increase in students’ enrollment in Russian courses at Harvard and the University of Chicago and that “the war also brought the first formal college teaching of Russian to New York” (Parry, 1967, p. 67). Consequently, Columbia University became one of the main centers of Russian instruction in the country.

American journalists, diplomats, and business people flooded to Russia to see the recent events there, make new contacts, and bring their observations back home. Some of them managed to pick up some Russian while staying there and continued to learn Russian in the US. Russian departments grew at American universities due to the influx of Russian immigrants who moved to the “New World” after the revolution in their home country. Many of those people became Russian teachers, but most of them had no pedagogical training.

Some American instructors who taught Russian used traditional pedagogical approaches focusing on grammar instruction rather than teaching the language for communicative purpose. Parry (1967) provided some examples of this, including a review from Agnes Jacques Chadwick, who had taken Russian classes at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. Chadwick recalls that:

We read and translated in class, and Sam Harper, our professor gave us very fine lectures on Russian verbs, declensions, exceptions, and so on. In those days, it just did not occur to anyone, and certainly not to Sam Harper, that Russian was a spoken, living language… I wanted to perfect myself in Russian studies and become a Russian teacher. When I told Sam about it, he was very discouraging. He said that there was no sense in my plan; that only “freaks” and “nuts” went into Russian studies (Parry, 1967, p. 82).

This extract reflects the common attitude to the subject at that time. Russian author and translator Vladimir Nabokov (1958) also described his own experience of teaching Russian at Cornell University. He characterized many of his colleagues as “ludicrously incompetent instructors whose major field lies outside of the Russian language studies, … while the country needed able translators, not phonemes” (p. 264). Thus, on the one hand, political events (the Russian Revolution and Civil War and the influx of immigrants) promoted interest in Russia and the Russian language. On the other hand, there were problems related to the quality of Russian instruction at US universities. Nevertheless, significant growth of Russian programs occurred after World War II, which will be discussed in the next section.

IV. Russian Language Instruction in the US (Post-World War II Period)

According to Russian Professor Catherine Wolkonsky (1948), “in December 1941, a mere 19 colleges and universities offered Russian; in 1947, the number was well over a hundred” (p. 24). This increased interest in the Russian language grew from two factors, both of which were political: the role that Russians played in World War II and later in setting the post-war political climate in the US where the Soviet Union was viewed as the primary political adversary (Coleman, 1948). The upsurge of interest in Russian resulted in enrollment numbers for Russian classes matching those for German, French, and Spanish courses. However, Wolkonsky (1948) mentioned that at the same time, the drop-out rate from Russian classes was relatively high compared to other European languages, speculating that the reason for this was poor teaching methods. She claimed that teachers did not pay enough attention to the grammatical differences between the languages. For instance, a typical challenge that arises in Russian language classrooms is the necessity to add the correct inflection to nouns and adjectives depending on the gender, number, and case. Incorrect inflection may lead to distortion in the syntactic meaning of the whole sentence. Even when students demonstrate accuracy in grammatical exercises, they tend to make mistakes in spontaneous speech because they are not used to adding inflection to words and cannot process the grammar quickly enough to speak the language accurately. English words change forms for gender and case more rarely than Russian words do. The shortage of instructional attention to such issues suggests that, while interest in learning Russian was still rising in the 1940s and 1950s, Russian language pedagogy in America had not yet developed sufficiently beyond the amateurish and ad hoc status that emerged after WWI.

What development did occur mostly took experimental forms that proved unsuccessful. The post-war period was marked by the emergence of the audiolingual method of language instruction. Author of many books on second-language acquisition, Muriel Saville-Troike (2012), defined this method as “an approach to language teaching that emphasizes repetition and habit formation” (p. 367). This approach died out in the 1970s. Linguist, Frank Margolis (1982), explored the reasons for the failure of the audiolingual method. One is the fact that most audiolingual courses are based on pattern drills, such as repetition of cliché phrases. Thus, those courses lacked spontaneity, which requires development of many aspects of linguistic competence including grammar and vocabulary skills. Consequently, most “students who participated in the survey conducted at the University of Illinois, would prefer a class oriented towards grammar and reading comprehension rather than a course oriented towards oral-aural comprehension” (p. 128).

Wolkonsky (1948) noted other specific issues that concern teaching Russian to native speakers of English. For example, because Russian uses a different alphabet, she asserted that combining oral and written components of Russian is a more logical approach than aural-oral alone (Wolkonsky, 1948, p. 25). However, textbooks such as Audio-Visual Russian Course by A. Menac and Z. Volos (1962) used the audiolingual method without providing teachers with any other resources that encouraged the use of other approaches.

The 1960s were a time of differentiation in pedagogical methods, however. Frank Higenbottam’s (1967) textbook represented the traditional grammar-translation method of teaching foreign languages. Self-guidance was the central concept of the textbook, and reading was a key focus. The author built each chapter around a passage from Russian classics and introduced a new topic (e.g. cases, tenses, adjectival forms). Beginning learners likely received little benefit from this book. The author only briefly covered such complicated topics as types of verbs, and the learner would lack understanding of the covered material without further, guided explanation. The way the author organized the material is also questionable, because he put together adjectives and participles, providing only their grammatical forms without explanation of their semantic functions. As a result, the learner would not understand the difference between these two parts of speech, although participles represent a blend of verbs and adjectives. At the same time, the book could be successfully used as supplementary material for guided instruction in the classroom.

In addition, morphology requires particular attention in the Russian language classroom because of the synthetic features of the language. Bidwell (1969) treated morphology exhaustively in his Russian grammar book, providing structural analysis of word formation and describing the main features of parts of speech and grammatical ties that should be maintained in Russian sentences. The author organized the book as a manual and a reference grammar for learners of Russian. It contains charts of grammatical forms of words with the explanation of word formation processes. Learners can use this book both in class and outside the classroom to look up grammatical forms of words.

As can be seen from the above examples, the latter half of the 20th century was marked by dedicated attempts to find the right approach to teaching foreign languages. Yet linguists and foreign language educators, Newmark and Reibel (1968), claimed that educators were still not aware of the difference between first and second language acquisition and therefore attempted to teach a second language in exactly the way they would teach a first language to children. This approach, it was claimed, “enables the learner to acquire the general use of a foreign language by observation and exercise of particular instances of the language in use” (p. 161). This assumption seems to be naive from the modern perspective of all existing knowledge of second language acquisition, but Hossein Nassaji and Sandra Fotos (2011) claim that confusing the principles of teaching first and second languages is still not uncommon, although it should be avoided by teachers.

V. Russian Language Instruction in the US (1970s and 1980s)

The linguistic method, which came into use in the late 1960s, views second language acquisition by an adult or adolescent as a very different process from learning language in childhood. The supporters of this method put great emphasis on grammar instruction at the expense of vocabulary acquisition (Chvany, 1973). This approach assumes that a learner needs to acquire the main patterns of the language system and, after that, new vocabulary will fit into the existing knowledge of grammatical structure. Lunt’s Fundamentals of Russian(1968) is a good example that illustrates this idea. The stress is put on quickly learning grammar with minimal emphasis on vocabulary acquisition. With such an approach, this textbook can be used only as an supplemental source to increase students’ level of grammatical proficiency.

Lipson’s A Russian Course (1977) represented a blend of both audiolingual and linguistic approaches. The material of this textbook promoted the use of vocabulary in different conversational situations and encouraged the memorization of grammatical patterns. A major part of the book is dedicated to word formation processes and use of affixes in words.

The eclectic method was then offered as a good way to enforce the development of four main language skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Christopher Ely (1973) claimed that with the use of the eclectic method, grammar plays a minor role, whereas meaningful input occupies the dominant position in the second language acquisition process. Ely (1973) also stated that “the eclectic teacher should correlate Russian with other languages” (p. 8), therefore drawing parallels between Russian and other European languages as a convenient way to improve comprehension. This idea found its reflection in the phenomenon known as “word consciousness” (Ellis, 1995). This refers to the process whereby common roots of words that exist in languages belonging to the same groups help learners guess the meaning of unfamiliar words. Roots have vital importance, because they represent the nucleus of the word formation process.

Starting in the mid-1970s, linguists and educators made an attempt to integrate computer programs into the learning of foreign languages. Tom Manwell (1973) authored the first computer-assisted instructional system for learning Russian. The main advantage of this program was that it was non-linear and allowed students to choose their individual learning paths. The course stressed the Russian morphological system, so it gave a clear idea of synthetic features of Russian. Of course, compared to some modern language programs (e.g., Rosetta Stone), that program was not very user friendly, but it was a pioneer in incorporating technology into the second language acquisition process.

VI. Russian Language Instruction in the US (1990s to the Present)

In 1991-92, the geopolitical situation dramatically changed. The Soviet Union ceased to exist, and new political forces became active in Russia. The 1990s became one of the most turbulent periods in the history of Russia. People across the globe had very different views of the new reality. Some of the changes influenced the practice of teaching the Russian language. The most important alteration was the disappearance of the “Iron Curtain.” As a result, Russia began to attract many tourists, journalists, and business people in a manner similar to what happened after the 1917 Revolution. Russian has also remained important to US diplomacy, and nowadays, according to the US National Security Education Program (web), Russian is listed as a critical language.

This situation also helped spur a renewed focus on developing professional instruction and good textbooks for learning Russian. The noticeable interest in RFL (Russian as a Foreign Language) and the profession of Russian language teacher gave rise to RFL programs at many Russian universities and the training of instructors in this area. Many of those well-trained professionals moved abroad, including to the US, where they continued their RFL teaching careers. Many of them also published new Russian textbooks that became popular.

Natalie Roklina (1995) collected short stories written by contemporary Russian authors and supplemented the texts with assignments on such grammatical aspects as verbs, conjugation, aspect, and prefixation. The author explained the morphological structure of Russian in the context of the stories, so the learner could see not just a pattern of forming words, but the way the given patterns work in real texts.

The idea of learning grammar in context through collaborative output tasks (Nassaji & Fotos, 2011) is very popular nowadays. A textbook by Olga Kagan, Frank Miller, and Ganna Kudyma (2006) offered grammar and vocabulary material organized by certain topics. For example, one unit emphasized describing human physical features and character traits, while also covering the topic of spelling numerals as the characters in the texts discussed their age. Verbal constructions given in the unit taught how to express preferences.

The same group of authors published a grammar textbook (2015) that presented a set of provocative texts including the target constructions. For instance, students would be involved in a discussion about being an ideal wife and what she should/should not do (e.g., to obey her husband, be afraid of losing him, and take care of all the housework). Such statements make students talk and force them to use transitive verbs and nouns in the accusative case, often without even knowing that they are doing it.

Now even books for beginners teach learners how to deal with new grammatical patterns in a meaningful context. Lila Pargment (2006) used not only prose in her storybook for beginning Russian learners, but also poetry and song lyrics supplemented by grammatical exercises that help teach noun cases and verb tenses in the context of interesting stories or beautiful songs.

Russian author Nina Boyko (2005) created a textbook called Skazki na uroke russkogo yazika(Folktales in Russian Class) for English learners. The book is aimed at adults who have reached the intermediate level of Russian proficiency. The texts from popular Russian folk tales are accompanied by grammatical exercises that cover such complicated topics as adjectival formation or the difference between full and short participles. Audio exercises also help students to brush up on their listening skills. Such textbooks contribute to the development of cultural competence because they provide an inner view of the Russian national mentality.

Textbooks that teach not only the language, but also the culture, history, geography, and social issues of Russian society, form a separate segment in today’s RFL book market. The main focus of these books is to familiarize students with Russian culture, but grammar and vocabulary exercises remain an integral part of instruction. Alevtina Perevoznikova (2013) wrote a textbook called Rossiya: strana i lyudi (Russia: Country and People). The book is mostly dedicated to teaching students about history, geography, and social issues. However, all of the texts in the book are followed by tasks that draw students’ attention to grammatical issues, including participles and perfective and imperfective verbs.

The recent noticeable increase in the number and quality of Russian textbooks resulted from research undertaken to find more effective approaches to RFL instruction. Comparative analysis of original and target languages helps students understand some phenomena of the target language, even if these do not exist in their mother tongue. Vera Vagner (2001) attempted to explain Russian noun cases as an alternative to prepositions in English, because both case endings in Russian and prepositions in English perform the function of creating word agreement in sentences. Such theoretical materials build the necessary methodological background for Russian instructors to make concepts accessible to students.

The increasing number of textbooks and theoretical guidelines on teaching Russian in the US provides evidence of progress since the time when Russian first became known in the “New World.” These textbooks and guidelines are also a product of the rising popularity of Russian that has occurred due to economic and political changes.

VII. Conclusion

This review of linguistic, historical, and methodological literature on teaching Russian in the US has revealed that teaching Russian in this country is a politicized process, shaped by a social and political agenda. The relationship between Russia and the US, political events in Russia, and the attitude of the American government all influence the degree of interest in learning Russian across the country and can even affect the quality of Russian language teaching at US academic institutions.

Before the beginning of the 20th century, “the study of the Russian language was a slow and sporadic matter, mainly limited to a few scholars and gifted amateurs” (Parry, 1967, p. vii). Russian courses became more common in the 20th century, partially due to the political events that took place in Russia. The 20th century “saw sometimes tense relations, but the two countries continued to talk and, at times, cooperate” (web). The growth of Russian programs at American schools and universities resulted from the intensive, complicated relationship between the US and Russia.

In this study, the lack of available theoretical and methodological sources was the main limitation on the search for material. Numerous textbooks and collections of exercises do not provide a necessary theoretical background for research on and teaching of Russian in English-speaking classrooms. A focus on the practical aspects of teaching the language does not leave much space for work on the theoretical or purely linguistic part of the language acquisition process. However, despite the lack of theoretical sources, a great amount of practical materials indicate that the Russian language occupies a significant niche in the US academic continuum.

The last decades were marked by the appearance of new high-quality Russian textbooks with the use of authentic materials and various types of tasks. In the Russian textbooks reviewed in this paper, the dominant role belongs to grammar instruction. This focus on grammar corresponds to the idea of emphasizing the unique features of Russian in classrooms with native speakers of English, a language that differs strongly from Russian (e.g., in its lack of declension, conjugation, and aspect). Thus, grammar and particularly an emphasis on grammatical features that do not exist in English remain the central component of most Russian textbooks written for English speakers.

This paper highlights the main questions that arise when an instructor has to teach Russian to native speakers of English: explanation of Russian grammatical features that do not exist in English and selection of teaching methods that will develop learners’ language skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These issues should be covered in high-quality textbooks because they have major practical significance for Russian language educators and learners.



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Boyko, N. Y. (2005). Skazki na uroke russkogo yazika [Folktales in Russian Class]. St. Petersburg, Russia: Zlatoust.

Chevigny, H. (1965). Russian America, the great Alaskan adventure, 1741-1867. New York: The Viking Press.

Chvany, C. V. (1973). On root and structure preserving in Russian. You’ll Take the High Node and I’ll Take the Low Node (Papers from the Comparative Syntax Parasession, CLS IX)Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 252-290.

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About the author

Anna Shur

Anna Shur is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming. Her major is Literacy Education with a focus on Second Language Acquisition (English and Russian). After completing her degree, she hopes to continue her research and teaching career.

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