Only Russian is spoken in this U.S. classroom

The Cyrillic alphabet is a common sight in a Virginia classroom where American students speak only Russian in class and respond only to Russian names.

Determined to solve the mysterious riddle of the Russian language, a group of American students and teachers are participating in a total immersion course.

This language immersion helps students make progress in learning the Russian language in just a few weeks. And for American teachers who teach Russian, it’s a chance to meet their colleagues and improve language skills.

The adults take part in a two-week training course for teachers of Russian, while students are in a four-week immersion program for students from sixth to 12th grade in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The students in the course are not alone in their eagerness to learn the language. According to Forbes magazine, Russian is among the top 10 most popular languages for American college students.

The course is one of several foreign language courses within STARTALK, a program launched during George W. Bush’s presidency as part of a U.S. national security strategy. Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian and Russian were named “critical-need” foreign languages.

Charles Byrd, professor of Russian at the University of Georgia and a STARTALK program participant, said that American students are interested in Russian, but many find it very hard to learn and master.

Joseph Doran, 19, has been to Russia, where he says he ate borscht seven times a week and took walks along the Volga, a symbolic river in Russian culture. Doran is an assistant teacher at STARTALK, and students call him by his chosen Russian name, Joseph Timofeyevich.

“I love Russian culture, language. I love reading Russian classical literature,” Doran said. “It is a very interesting language. Russian people are very nice. I love the opportunities that open to me because I know Russian.”

Betsy Sandstrom, a program director at STARTALK, says that, for many students, learning a foreign language is an important first step into their future careers. Knowing more than one language also has other benefits.

“They have different interests. One person wants to become a Russian language teacher, another wants to be a politician,” she said. “Knowledge of any foreign language is needed. And Russia is the largest country in the world.”