The sound of 17 9th grade students speaking Russian softly to themselves is like the sea washing onto a pebbled beach—whush ... russhh ... wasshh. Hunched at rows of computer terminals in Connecticut’s Glastonbury High School language lab one May morning, Jan Eklund’s Russian III class resembles nothing so much as a junior crew of telemarketers in hot pursuit of a commission. Though they could be practicing a sales script for selling refrigerators to pensioners in Vladivostok, the students are actually talking to software that allows them to record and later review their own pronunciation.
Fast-forward a few years, and one of these young Russophiles might just evolve into the next Erin Doyle or Jimmy Lodge. Considered a linguistic phenom by his teachers and school administrators, Lodge, a Glastonbury senior, has already been to Russia twice and won national and international gold medals for his Russian essays. But none of it would have been possible, he says, if he hadn’t already had so much Russian so early— by graduation, he will have taken five years of Russian. Still, the teen was a latecomer to the language by district standards: In Glastonbury, children start learning it in 7th grade—something virtually unheard of at a public school, especially in the post-Soviet era.
Almost since the moment the Berlin Wall crumbled, American schools’ interest in teaching Russian did likewise. But precisely because the number of Russian learners fell off so sharply, Glastonbury and the few other schools that have stuck with the language are finding their students very much in demand.
“It’s not really common,” says Lodge of the language, adding that being able to take so many classes in it before graduation “helped me stand out” when the time came to apply to colleges. “You see Russian more among private or prep schools.” Lodge was accepted to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he plans to major in Russian. If he sticks with the language, he could end up, as have previous Glastonbury grads, recruited for high-profile diplomatic jobs or for executive positions at international finance companies.
Erin Doyle, a 1992 Glastonbury alumna who went on to graduate from Georgetown University, can attest to that. Doyle says foreign languages are great for kids to learn—the younger, the better. Besides the personal and cultural enrichment, she adds, “if it turns out to be a less-commonly studied language 15 years from now, they just might have a rare skill set that makes them more valuable to employers.” Doyle would know: She’s now an assistant vice president at Deutsche Bank, analyzing investment portfolios in Russia and elsewhere worth nearly a billion dollars.
There’s something to be said for sticking with last century’s flavor of the month.
Nothing is particularly Russian about Glastonbury, Connecticut. There are no Slavic-sounding local landmarks, and no town monuments bear Cyrillic lettering. There’s no big ethnic enclave there to flog the schools into teaching the mother tongue: Less than 3 percent of its residents are of Russian ancestry. In fact, the Hartford suburb of 32,500—best known for being the longtime home of Aqua Velva after-shave—looks pretty much like any other upper-middle-class East Coast bedroom community.
The language caught hold there the same time it did all over the country: immediately after the Soviet Union stunned the world by putting a satellite into orbit in 1957. Stung by criticism that the United States had failed to put proper emphasis on monitoring the work and publications of foreign scientists, the government passed the National Defense Education Act, designed to fund strategically important educational initiatives. Glastonbury administrators applied for and won a $1 million grant from this program to adapt an intensive Army language-teaching method for civilian educational use. And when the administrators polled families to see whether the money should be used on Russian, German, French, or Spanish language programs, parents overwhelmingly voted for the first option. Classes began the following year.
To hear school officials tell it, the fundamental difference between this district and the thousands of others that started teaching Russian around the same time is that they’re still doing it almost half a century later. “The thing that has sustained the popularity of Russian has been the public relations efforts of our teachers,” says Christine Brown, an assistant superintendent for Glastonbury County public schools. “Rather than wait for people to suggest that we should eliminate the program, they have tried to recruit students ... and monitor the success of students after graduation to show what you can get with a Russian language education.”
Absent that boosterism, local educators say, the district’s program would have been one among the many others toppled by the USSR’s demise. In fact, there are now too few secondary schools offering Russian to even produce a statistically significant comparison with other languages. At the postsecondary level, though, the number of students studying Russian plummeted from 44,000 to 23,000 between 1990 and 1998, largely due to the “loss of Cold War-driven demand for analysts and academic researchers in Russian,” says Dan Davidson, president of the American Councils for International Education and a professor of Russian and second-language acquisition at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Not that there haven’t been financial pressures over the years to cut back Glastonbury’s Russian program, which costs about $160,000 per year, excluding teacher salaries. During one late-night school board meeting in the recession-sapped ’70s, a superintendent under the financial gun managed to sneak through the elimination of one grade level of Russian, but the resulting outcry from parents pressured the board to restore the class the following year.
And the district has gotten creative. It designed its own audiolingual teaching method in the late 1950s, which was adopted by other K-12 systems, and when royalties from that started petering out, it looked for other ways to save money. “We use our own materials, ... and we run a very economical program,” says Brown, whose K-12 foreign-language program has more than 50 teachers and a budget of around $2 million. “If you looked across the school district, you’d see that [language education] is probably the biggest bargain for the money.”
With her shoulder-length blond hair and a breezy, bright-yellow dress that matches her personality, Lynne Campbell is prompting the seniors in her AP Russian class to fill in the blanks on a Hartford Courant editorial cartoon showing President Bush driving a car through Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The students’ cartoon interpolations—mostly variations of Putin demanding to know why Bush is taking him for a ride and where they are going—are delivered in smooth, confident Russian and elicit appreciative laughs from classmates.
A teacher in the Glastonbury system for more than 31 years, Campbell came up through the district’s schools herself, taking classes in all three languages offered at the time—French, Spanish, and Russian. After college, Campbell trained to teach Spanish and French because she feared she would have no opportunity to teach Russian, but her alma mater welcomed her home to instruct a new generation of Slavic scholars. If she’d been teaching in some other district, she likely would’ve had to fall back on her other languages once the Soviet Union broke up, but school officials say the momentum of prior grads’ accomplishments has helped sustain the program.
“Success breeds success,” says Rich Brown, chairman of the Glastonbury school board, who points out that generations of students have followed older siblings or friends into the program. “A number of students have gone on to wonderful careers based in part on their skills in Russian.”
In fact, the increasing number of multinational corporations seeing investment opportunities in Russia’s large market size, work force, and energy reserves means that even without high-stakes nuclear summits, plenty of translation and other lingual career opportunities still exist for American students learning the tongue.
Maybe it’s just coincidence, but Russia does seem to be blanketing the news on this day in May. The Courant, for example, ran a front-page photo of Russian troops goose-stepping across Red Square to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat, with President Bush standing at Putin’s side on the reviewing stand. Doyle, the Deutsche Bank fund analyst, also cites Russia’s recent membership in the G-8 club of international movers and shakers, its economy—which is growing faster than Western Europe’s—and its imminent membership in the powerful World Trade Organization in support of her contention that Russia is no less important today than when it was feared as a global menace. Other schools may be waking up to what Glastonbury officials seem to have known all along: Davidson says that since 1998, the number of schools offering Russian has begun to rise again.
“There are a lot of careers that are still available to people who speak Russian—and they don’t have to be spy-type careers,” Eklund says. “I think there are also possibilities in the U.S. for people to use their Russian skills to interact with more and more Russians who are coming here.” According to figures provided by the Department of Homeland Security, 175,650 people have immigrated to America from Russia in the past decade.
In his Glastonbury shirt, jeans, baseball cap, and sneakers, Jimmy Lodge might not fit in with Russia’s jet-setting oligarchs, but his career goals aren’t the stuff of top-shelf vodka toasts over billion-ruble deals anyway. He wants to do what he’s wanted to do since he was in middle school.
As Lynne Campbell leaves her AP Russian classroom and turns off the lights, she says she can still remember meeting Lodge when she was mentoring his 7th grade teacher. “He told me, ‘I’m going to have your job someday,’ ” Campbell recalls. “I think it would be great.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Russian, With Love