Students test Russian language proficiency

Students in Vassar’s Russian Studies department got a chance put their knowledge to a practical test. While students can compare themselves to their classmates, competing with other collegiate institutions gives them the opportunity to see how their skills stack up against their peers.

On April 13, five Vassar College students along with a faculty member and Russian Language Fellow participated in a competition of spoken and written Russian. The competition took place at United States Military Academy at West Point and included teams from a number of colleges including Union College, SUNY Albany, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The competition broke students up into two teams based on their years of Russian study. Coached by Professor of Russian Studies Charles Henry Arndt III, Sean Keller ’16 and Alycia Beattie ‘16 and Jeremy Burke ’15 represented the first year team, while   Henry Hollithron ’15 and Savanna Holcomb ’15 comprised the second year team. Adjunct Instructor in Russian Studies Svetlana Otverchenko coached and guided the second year team. Russian Language Fellow Olesya Yelfimova assisted both teams in their preparations for the competition.

The competition itself consisted several different events: memorizing a poem in Russian, reciting a monologue and answering questions based on the recitation. Additionally. there was a cold reading section of a Russian text and first year students also completed a short, written grammar test.

Despite this being Vassar’s debut at the competition, which has been running since 2001, the Brewers nearly swept the competition. At the introductory level all three members of Vassar’s team won awards. Keller won first place for the introductory level, Burke was second place in the same category and Beattie took the prize for the best performance for a poetry reading in the beginner level. Hollithron took first place for the intermediate level.

The teams needed to put a significant amount of time and effort into preparing for the competition. The students first learned about the competition through their professors in the Russian Studies Department. The department then chose the students it believed would best represent Vassar at this Olympiad. None of the students had any experience with Russian language before taking the introductory course at Vassar. They cited the excellence of Vassar’s Russian Studies Department as the reason for their success.

Beattie’sexperience working with the department ultimately led her to declare a Russian Studies Major. She wrote in an emailed statement, “I suggest everyone at Vassar try to take at least one class in the Russian Department, it is just so great! My favorite thing about the department is definitely the faculty…All of the faculty members understand that Russian is a difficult language and they do a wonderful job of helping us grasp complex ideas and they are very patient about it.”

Burke echoed these sentiments, stating, “Professor Arndt and Olesya were both really helpful in making sure I was pronouncing things correctly (as well as getting the grammar right)…The professors and students interact with one another a lot outside of class (at Russian Tea or big events like Maslenitsa, our Fat Tuesday celebration) which builds this departmental community that’s great to be a part of.”

Preparing for the competition required extra time commitments from all involved. Keller said, “Professor Arndt held focused three hour-long practice sessions during the month prior to the competition…he helped us all sound more natural and speak Russian with a good Russian accent…there is a sense of camaraderie among the students and faculty involved in the department, which really makes learning the language feel much less difficult than it actually is.”

The students were impressed with the level of competition from the other schools present and were happy to do so well against tough competitors.

Hollithron particularly appreciated the level of sportsmanship he witnessed: “I am glad to say we competed amicably, with no taunts, jeers or other gestures denoting a lack of sportsmanship being exchanged.”

He, too, agreed that the excellence of Vassar’s Russian Department helped make his decision to participate and to do well at this year’s Olympiad.

Hollithron concluded, “I am…impressed that [the Russian Studies Department] members always push us to make an extra effort rather than allowing us to speak and write Russian in complacent mediocrity. Their kindness, patience, and seemingly endless reservoir of knowledge about vocabulary and grammatical concepts have been indispensable to my performance at the competition.”

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