The Year Russian Zoomed Back to Me: Virtual Language Learning and Disability by professor Heidi Sherman

I was the “Bad Seed” of Little Flower Elementary in Minot, North Dakota. It was the 1970s, I was visually impaired, socially awkward, and wound up the nuns by telling them how much I loved the Soviet Union. My plan to bring attention (and possible friendship?) to myself backfired because no one wanted to befriend a 9-year-old communist. And as so many things do in small towns, my Soviet-self stuck.

I loved all Soviet things but becoming a fluent Russian speaker was my ultimate goal. How hard could it be? I had a decade of built-up determination by the time I hit the University of Minnesota campus as a freshman in 1987. I remember filling out my major declaration form like it was yesterday. I then bought the great classic, Irina Pulkina’s Russian: A Practical Grammar with Exercises, cracked it open, and thought to myself, “This print is pretty small.” But like a soviet shock worker, I was down for the struggle! The next day, I walked into my first semester Russian class and took my place with 40 other students. Forty students! And this was only one of five such first-semester sections. Those late 80s halcyon days when studying 1 year of Russian fulfilled Minnesota’s 2-year language requirement. So, there I sat in my first long-awaited Russian class. My professor was John Brown, and he was amazing. He said that if we were to ever travel to the USSR with him, we needed to know one phrase, “Убей меня вместo моего преподавателя!”” (Kill me instead of my teacher!) Anything for you, great Russian master.

Sadly, most of my many years of studying Russian in American classrooms disappointed in comparison to my first class with Prof. Brown. Though Cyrillic is not difficult, reading it in the small font often published in textbooks was rough. And no matter how hard I tried, I could never see the chalkboard. Language classes are all about group work, but I always felt so ill-prepared, not being able to read group instructions or sweet grammar cues written on the board for all others to see. I still loved Russian so much, but decided in my second year to abandon the fluency dream, a goal seemingly unreachable to the visually impaired. When I finally did go to Russia for a year in 1992-93, I wondered how the thousands of sight impaired Russians learned their native language. And was amazed that I had as well, inspired somehow to finally speak because I was there and loved it. But I was now invested in becoming a historian, rather than a fluent Russian speaker, and never looked back.

Until thirty years later.

I am now 16 years into my career as an Associate Professor of History and I feel very fortunate to have work that is both enjoyable and full of meaning. But don’t all jobs have a negative side? In my case, I rarely spoke Russian. I could feel my language skills fade, but was too busy to seek out Russian speakers, especially for something that seemed like a zero-sum skill in Green Bay, Wisconsin. And then the Pandemic happened.

In January of this year (2021), I, along with so many others, facing a long winter, living alone and working remotely, needed some sort of distraction, and decided to purchase Russian lessons through Red Kalinka. My Russian was pretty awful, but the lessons with my teacher (Marina in Mexico City) were fun. Feeling guardedly optimistic, I enrolled in Indiana University’s Summer Language Workshop and placed into 5th-Year Russian. And the program was online! It was a bit of a hard experience because most of the students were learning Russian for the first time. Their recently acquired language skills far surpassed mine, but I was unbothered because my Russian rushed back! Words and sentence structures that I had not used for decades reactivated with little prompting. I learned that my Russian had not abandoned me. Swoon!

What I find surprising is that I am applying things better than I had 25 years earlier. I had a strong foundation in the language, which helps, but I am now having the unique experience of being able to see what the teacher is writing on the Zoom whiteboard or in a live GoogleDoc. My mistakes were immediately and visibly corrected, something I had rarely experienced as a visually impaired student learning in a traditional face to face environment.

Pandemic World and the virtual learning possibilities it affords are helping me, at the age of 52, rediscover a path that I had abandoned twenty years ago. And the learning experience is much sweeter the second time around.

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