Immersed in Russian

Tyler Young has never set foot outside the United States. That changes June 14, when his plane touches down in picturesque Tbilisi, Georgia.

“I’m very excited,” says the 28-year-old first-generation college student from Federal Way, Washington.

Leila Ehsan has spent long stretches of time overseas, including a semester in France, and a Fulbright year teaching English in Tajikistan. On June 18, the 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania and Santa Monica College alumna will land in another former Soviet republic: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

What Tyler and Leila have in common are SMC Russian instructor Susan Bauckus’ classes—the launch-pad for any SMC student interested in the language of Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Lenin—and Putin.

These two Corsairs have rapidly advanced from novices to intermediate Russian speakers, and now they’ve won prestigious scholarships to take their fluency to the next level.

Tyler, a linguistics pre-major with a 3.8 GPA, will travel to Tbilisi on a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), an eight-week U.S. Department of State program that targets 14 foreign languages deemed critical to national security and economic prosperity. One of the nation’s most competitive scholarships, CLS covers all expenses for its 500 awardees.

Leila—a non-degree student at SMC who already holds a B.A. in history and international relations—will travel to Bishkek via Arizona State University’s respected Melikian Center-Critical Language Institute, a national training hub for under-studied tongues. A $5,000 scholarship will cover most of her eight-week program expenses.

Some Tricks Up Her Sleeve

Russian isn’t for the faint of heart. It has six cases, three genders, and the nouns and adjectives require special endings. Verbs come in six forms, instead of the usual two. Pronunciation is not at all phonetic.

“Then there’s the Cyrillic alphabet and all these sounds that are not native to English speakers,” Bauckus says. “It’s a lot to learn!”

But she has some tricks up her sleeve to hold students’ attention.

An authority on language pedagogy for heritage speakers, in her day job, Susan works as a journal editor at UCLA’s Center for World Language. She knows the Russian web universe well, and she likes to expose her students early and often to YouTube videos, cartoons and online news. On a darker note, she throws websites like “Today in History” and “Last Address” into the mix. The latter honors the roughly 600,000 victims of Stalin’s Great Terror with memorial plaques placed at their last known residences.

“They read almost like gravestones,” she says of the small metal plaques, which can be searched and viewed online. “It’s something a first-year student can read. And it’s really important stuff. There’s depth, and I like that.”

When Professor Bauckus first started teaching Russian at SMC in 1999, none of these tools were available. But now is “a good time to be studying language. There’s a lot of authentic material out there,” she says.

“A Beautiful-Looking Language”

For Tyler, the initial attraction to Russian was purely aesthetic.

“I just thought it was a really beautiful-looking language,” he says.

The melting syllables and enigmatic script drew him in. Professor Bauckus’ lively teaching technique and cheerful encouragement soon had him hooked.

“She’s so great at teaching that it really was inspiring to be around her,” Tyler says. Someday he hopes to emulate Susan. “I would love to teach Russian,” he says.

That’s remarkable, coming from someone who dropped out of high school in 9th grade. Tyler struggled with debilitating body dysmorphia disorder as a teen; it kept him housebound for a year. After he recovered, he didn’t go back to school.

“It felt like busy-work, so I opted out of the system,” he says. An independent learner, he completed his GED on his own and later moved to Los Angeles.

Russian is what lured him back into the classroom. “Learning a foreign language is something you can’t do alone,” he says, wryly. “You need other people. It wasn’t until I went to SMC that I actually started to enjoy learning in a formal setting.”

In Bauckus’s class, Tyler blossomed. She describes him as “socially gifted and immensely methodical.” After exhausting the Russian course offerings in SMC’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, Tyler applied for and won scholarships to attend Middlebury College’s world-class language immersion summer academy two years in a row. When he returns from Tbilisi in August, Tyler plans to continue his linguistics and Russian language studies as a transfer student —he is waiting for admissions decisions from several UC campuses. Down the road, he envisions graduate school, possibly at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, and then a career teaching college-level Russian in the federal government.

Intelligence agencies, he says, “need language instructors badly. The material they are trying to sift through isn’t getting sifted through” because too few Americans citizens can read and speak critical languages. Those languages, according to the State Department CLS program, are Azerbaijani, Bangla, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian.

From Tehrangeles to Tajikistan

Russian isn’t the national language in Georgia or Kyrgyzstan. But it’s universally spoken across the former Soviet sphere, which is why Leila is studying it in the first place.

She wasn’t looking to learn Russian when she went to Qurghonteppa, Tajikistan, on a 2017 teaching Fulbright. Rather, she had hoped to immerse herself in Persian. Leila was raised trilingual in an English-Spanish-Farsi-speaking home; her Cuban mother and Iranian father had met as medical students in the Dominican Republic.

But pure Persian, she discovered, isn’t spoken in Tajikistan any more than it is in her native “Tehrangeles.” About 10 percent of the Tajik Persian dialect is borrowed from Russian.

To her surprise, Leila found herself savoring those Russian loan-words. She fell in love with the Caucasus region, too — “it’s so beautiful, and it’s not even on the map for a lot of people,” she says.

The experience reinforced her desire to work in international development, now with a focus on the multilingual “stans” of Central Asia. To make it happen, however, Leila realized she would need Russian in her linguistic toolkit. (She also speaks French, Italian and a little Portuguese.)

Upon her return from Tajikistan, she enrolled in Susan Bauckus’ Russian 1 course. She was then living with her father and sister Nadia, an art student at SMC, in the family’s Westwood home. A few months later, she would move to Calabasas to be closer to the Woodland Hills law firm where she now works as a paralegal. But by then—PCH commute notwithstanding—taking Russian anywhere but SMC was unthinkable.

“I loved Suzy’s class,” she recalls. “I just wanted to continue.”

Professor Bauckus’ courses attract a diverse mix of learners.

“I have classmates who are 17,” says Leila, now enrolled in Russian 2. “There are people who are working professionals, and also people in their 60s. It’s for everyone, and that’s great.”

Their levels of proficiency vary too—from complete novices to heritage speakers who can speak fluently in Russian but can hardly write or spell.

“I like that it’s all over the place,” Leila says. “I always end up learning something from someone in that class. And Suzy does a really good job of making sure everyone’s learning needs are met.”

Susan values their diversity, too. “It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy teaching at SMC,” she says—“because of the incredible richness in terms of the students who come through the classes.”

Leila stands out, though, “as one of the best students I’ve had,” Bauckus says, “and I’ve had some really, really good students. She’s just very bright and active. She asks good questions.”

Filling Out Luggage Tags

As Tyler and Leila get their passports and visas ready for their language immersion experiences, they have much to be excited about.

Tyler looks forward to deepening his appreciation for the Russian alternative rock scene. He’s already a fan of Splean and Zemfira, mega-bands from the 1990s. And as a linguistics major, he is thinking about the next language he’ll tackle once Russian is in the bag. He’s leaning toward Georgian, which is part of the independent Kartvelian language family and the primary language spoken in his host country. He’ll have eight weeks to make up his mind, hearing it spoken in the streets of Tbilisi.

Meanwhile in Bishkek, Leila will be getting an earful of Kyrgyz, a Turkic language closely related to Kazahk. Adding another language, however, isn’t high on her to-do list just now. In addition to continuing her Russian studies, she’ll be sorting out her goals for the future. Leila is currently trying to decide on a professional direction within the field of international development. Having worked the past year as a paralegal, she hopes to spend the coming year shadowing a physician, with the goal of deciding how she feels about global health versus international law as a career niche. She has already passed the first round of the U.S. foreign service exam, so a diplomatic option is also on the table.

“I feel like the world is my oyster, and I have time to figure it out,” she says. “That’s the beauty of being able go back and study at SMC as a continuing student. It’s so cool to have this resource to tap into.”

* * *

SMC’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures provides a wide array of courses—in preparation for transfer to a university or for the workplace—for beginning students who wish to develop language skills, intermediate students who are honing their skills and furthering their introduction to literature and culture, and advanced students who enroll in our civilization and tradition and culture courses. Areas of study include 14 languages and linguistics. Check out the department’s website for more details.

In recent years, students who’ve received the State Department’s Critical Language (CLS) Scholarship include Courtney Kelley, who studied Mandarin in Suzhou (China), and Sharon Nat, who studied Punjabi Hindi in India.

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