The benefits of being bilingual have become a highlight in our global society. But what about when the language in question is a critical one, as defined by the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI)? The NSLI, a program created by President George W. Bush in 2006 and jointly operated by the State, Education and Defense departments has identified 13 languages that have an unmet demand professionally, including Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and Russian. It is extremely challenging to break both the logistical and psychological barriers to learning these languages but one vigilant teacher is making University of Central Florida (UCF) a major player in this initiative.
Dr. Alla Kourova is the assistant professor for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and the relatively young Russian Language program at UCF. With the support of the College of Arts and Humanities and its dean, Jose Fernandez, she has spearheaded the revival of the Russian program since it was reopened in 2011 after a 12-year hiatus. Watch Forward Florida’s interview with Kourova in a three-part series. An interview about Russian language would not be complete without a Russian complement. Check out the Russian version of Kourova’s interview here.
Kourova knew teaching was her calling at a young age and has strived to be an effective teacher ever since she taught her first lesson at age 11. She is the recipient of numerous UCF awards, including the University and College Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching awards, the Teaching Incentive Program Award, Scholarship for Teaching and Learning and research awards. Kourova has been at UCF for seven years and has been honored as one of America’s Most Respected Teachers in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.
“The University of Central Florida Russian Program subscribes to the philosophy that you cannot understand a foreign culture unless you speak the language,” explains Kourova.
Speaking a critical foreign language could very well translate to counting profits. Global markets and business partnerships need crisp and concise dialogue that convey their needs, goals and motivations.
Conscientious consideration toward cultural values and differences are an integral component of effective international business. Brian Hartly, a UCF senior majoring in history, says, “Russian business would be more direct and American practices are more social with [people] smiling, but Russia is very different in everything that we are used to hearing.”
Enter STARTALK, a new NSLI vehicle for effective international communication. According to the program’s website, “The initiative seeks to expand and improve the teaching and learning of strategically important world languages that are not widely taught in the U.S.”
STARTALK is on par with other NSLI’s cross-cultural initiatives, such as Fulbright and Title VI. It follows the six basic principles of effective teaching and learning, focusing on authentic materials, cultural integration and performance assessment.
Already at the local level, UCF’s STARTALK collaborated with Russian businesses, including Lacomka Russian Bakery and Deli and the Russian-owned Euro Style Beauty Salon, in turn increasing sales and advertising for both businesses. STARTALK also partnered with the nonprofit Russian-American Community Center of Florida and its Orlando base. Students practiced their interview skills in Russian with the center’s director Michael Frafel.
One critical component was a program entitled “Preparation for a Business Trip to Russia,” from July 6-25, the program targeted current and prospective college students in the Orlando area. The program focused on second language acquisition, intercultural competence and broader perspectives on international travels — topics which Kourova has been already cultivating throughout her 30-year teaching career.
“The major goal of this program is to give students the necessary skills for a successful business trip to Russia,” she says, “by providing language instruction using topics and situations students will be able to relate to in real life. Students have become competent in Russian language and gained understanding of Russian culture necessary for a business trip to Russia.”
Program components, lessons and supplies were fully funded so students had every advantage to speak Russian.
In addition to providing the opportunity of learning a language at virtually no cost, STARTALK eased the bulging 40-person class sizes that have plagued the beginning and intermediate Russian language classes since their inception. STARTALK’s popularity resulted in the number of chosen candidates (ages 15 and up) to be cut to 82 from 122. Many were determined to stay despite the 60-student cap.
“This STARTALK class is amazing. I learned basic greetings today. The words that overwhelmed me yesterday were actual words to me today. We were actually reading and talking in Russian. I am so blessed,” says Carolyn Irving, one of the program’s students.
Even before the launch of the STARTALK grant, Kourova’s work has been relentless. She is in the middle of the U.S. Department of State grant U.S.–Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program project focusing on teaching foreign languages to U.S. students and blind/visually impaired students. The partnership is with the Grot School for Blind and Visually Impaired Students in St. Petersburg.
Student teams are participating in interactive Skype conferences, online forum postings and the development of an interactive video game with the aim of learning the English language and American culture. UCF students on the U.S. grant team visited Russia in May and the Grot School has plans to visit the United States this fall to complete the exchange. The group will learn about the American education system and disability resources in Florida, including Lighthouse Central Florida, a rehabilitation center for the blind operating since 1976.
Many of the STARTALK participants were part of the U.S. Department of State’s Peer-to-Peer program and used their experiences abroad in Russia to prepare engaging workshops on language and culture. The group showcased an interactive Twine (an open-source website) digital story, accessible in both English and Russian and also tailored to the specific needs of blind and visually impaired students, highlighting American and Russian cultures. The research from both Peer-to-Peer and STARTALK will be primary material for two future books by Kourova: Picturing Russia: A Research Guide to Russian Language and Culture and Language and Culture of Doing Business in Russia.
For inquires about the Russian program at UCF, please contact Dr. Kourova at firstname.lastname@example.org.