Professor Irina Dubinina on Teaching Her Favorite Course
The Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry (BGI) supports students who come from Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families. This means that BGI fellows are heritage speakers of Russian. And this, in its turn, means that they are bilinguals, albeit of a special kind.
It happens that my research interests focus on bilingualism, and specifically on Russian as a heritage language. Being a bilingual myself (although quite different from my heritage students), I relate to many of the challenges heritage speakers face and benefit from the same advantages bilingualism offers them.
Perhaps, that is why I love teaching my "Russian Language for Russian speakers" course the most. Since Russian is a part of the Russian Jewish identity (both cultural and linguistic) and Russian-English bilingualism is a part of the identity of BGI fellows, I work closely with many, in fact, most of the BGI freshmen in the "Russian for Russian speakers" class. The nature of a language course is such that a language instructor has a much closer relationship with the students than professors in their other courses. In my class we often discuss personal questions, such as childhood memories, family relationships and even their parents' child-rearing practices. Because of this, I get to know my students very well and I do not stop being amazed at their talent, work ethics and dedication to the language.
Developing a heritage language also means developing a heritage identity, which in the case of BGI fellows is a fascinating mosaic of Soviet, Russian, Jewish and American/English. Every bilingual is a little bridge between two worlds. For BGI fellows this analogy is even more suitable as the Institute expects them to grow into leaders of Russian-speaking Jewish communities. The knowledge of the cultural values hidden in the language, the common immigrant experience and the deep understanding of the challenges and advantages of living in the "twilight zone" will help them in their future leadership roles.
I see my job as a heritage language instructor in helping BGI fellows to better understand and explore the pitfalls and the benefits of this twilight zone, both in the linguistic and cultural sense. Teaching for this purpose is a very rewarding experience. I am also deeply touched when after completing my course a heritage speaker connects better to his/her grandparents, being able to write letters in Russian and discuss more complex, interesting things such as their immigration experience or being a Jew in the Soviet Union.
I also love working with BGI fellows (beginners in heritage Russian or advanced students) because they are all extremely talented, motivated and smart individuals. They sing, dance, play musical instruments, act, program computers, engage in real scientific research, and express themselves artistically. They are interesting people and it is a pleasure getting to know them. Many of them have become my close friends and I feel fortunate to be more than a professor to them.