Russian in Plain English: amazing things start with a timid first step

by Natalia V. Parker (University of Leeds)

Having taught Russian to adults in the UK for over 20 years, I most definitely did not plan a postgraduate researcher career. Living in rural Somerset, I was enjoying helping my learners discover my mother tongue and looking for ways of making it easier for them to understand how Russian works. Over the years, this search grew into my own independent research into specifics of the acquisition of Russian by English speaking beginners, which resulted in a new approach to teaching Russian. My students encouraged me to see whether I could make this methodology work for other learners of Russian and I decided to try testing it within some kind of research project.

The difficulty was that language teaching methodologies for Russian is an extremely under-researched topic in the UK. The Russianists I approached were mainly interested in Russian literature, history, politics, music, rather than language teaching methodologies, and language teaching methodologists were not Russianists: it took me over a year to find an academic who was interested in what I was doing. The other difficulty was that, having a teenage daughter and no full time employment, I was not able to fund my project in any shape or form. Nearly a hundred emails, letters and applications later, I suddenly received an email from the British Philological Society, suggesting that I could possibly apply for your Masters bursary. Receiving that bursary was so much more than financial support – it made me realize that somebody believed in the potential of my project and gave me hope that I am not on my own in striving to promote the learning of Russian.

The bursary enabled me to run my first experiment on phonological acquisition, teaching Russian pronunciation (including notorious Russian stress) to complete beginners. Its results have not only confirmed the effectiveness of my teaching approach but have led to identifying the differences in stress making by Russian and English speakers, crucial for stress acquisition, which have not been covered in the research literature to date. These findings have been presented at the BASEES (British Association for Slavonic and East European Languages), AATSEEL (American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages) conferences and SLS (Slavic Linguistic Society) meeting in Potsdam, among others. My article, based on this investigation, is under review in SEEJ (Slavic and East European Journal, published in US).

Furthermore, after two years of numerous reviews and active correspondence, Routledge accepted my publishing proposal for a beginners’ textbook, Russian in Plain English, which is due to come out in May. The book employs recent findings in language pedagogy, Second Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics, language processing in particular, and is anything but traditional. It is not a course book, but rather a learner-friendly starter, that helps learners understand the logic behind Russian phonological and grammar systems, as well as acquire solid reading and speaking skills. More information about the book can be found here.

The book is really why I started all this, though my research now has gone further. I was asked to develop my methodology further through a PhD. I am now in the second year of my PhD at Leeds, fully funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (through White Rose College of Arts and Humanities). My current study is investigating the acquisition of the Russian inflection system by English speakers, and how to make language instruction more processable for learners.

This might not have happened if my first timid step was not supported by your MA bursary four years ago. Thank you for helping me take it.

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