UI professor helps Russian learners


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Two University of Iowa faculty members and a co-researcher have received a $90,000 grant to help the most advanced students of the Russian language locally and across the country.

UI lecturer Irina Kostina and Assistant Visiting Professor Anna Kolesnikova — in addition to Marina Kostina, the founder and CEO of Wired@Heart —came up with the concept for the grant application.

They are now working on selecting 10 Russian instructors from applicants around the country to participate in a conference in June. The instructors chosen will help build a curriculum over the next year.

“It will be a very rigorous workshop,” Marina Kostina said.

The grant from STARTALK — a program in the U.S. National Security Language Institute — will be used to create a curriculum specifically tailored to the needs of heritage learners, who are students of a language that they also grew up speaking at home.

Heritage learners often have a strong background in language but need to work on expanding their vocabulary and grammar in ways new students to the language aren’t prepared for.

“The grammar is something we struggle with because we combine it with English,” said UI senior Elena Halfan, a heritage learner. “You just start mixing the two languages, and that’s why at home we speak ‘Renglish.’ ”

Without a separate program, heritage learners are put in classes with students learning the language with no prior experience.

“I think heritage speakers come in with a lot of wrong information, things they learned incorrectly, and that can be harder to correct,” said UI senior Anna Plyaskin, also a heritage learner.

Plyaskin said heritage learners should have a class that helps them focus on these corrections rather than grouping them together with students who are learning for the first time.

Kostina said a curriculum such as the one they will create is not only needed in the Midwest but across the country as well.

“The United States needs a very high level of people who speak critical languages,” she said. “Russian is still a critical language.”

There are a little more than 2 million Russian speakers in the U.S. today, and 16 percent live in the Midwest.

As part of their curriculum-building project, the UI teachers plan to make the course adaptable for both classroom and online learning.

“The attention span is very short online,” Kostina said. “You constantly have to fight for your learner’s attention. If you don’t get attention in eight seconds, you’ve lost your students.”

Marina Kostina will be responsible for teaching the instructors to overcome the difficulties of distance learning and how different it is from face-to-face instruction, while Kolesnikova will teach how to utilize software necessary to create online tools such as quizzes and lectures.

All three researchers agree their primary goal is to create a course to help heritage learners perfect their skills.

“The main goal is to prepare the young generation of heritage learners to be ready to serve this country,” Kostina said.

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