A Colorful Way to Learn Russian

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Students in “Russian 27” learn culture and vocabulary by painting matryoshki dolls.


Alfia Rakova, a research assistant professor of Russian and director of the Department of Russian’s language program, is always looking for ways to engage her students in learning Russian.

This term, thanks to a “humanities lab” course development grant from the Leslie Center for the Humanities, Rakova has been able to develop several hands-on projects to help her second-year Russian students improve their language skills.

For example, students in “Russian 27: Intermediate Russian” have used the online application VoiceThread to create slide shows with recorded interpretations—in Russian, of course—of fairy tales. They have taken a field trip to Somerville, Mass., to visit the Museum of Modern Renaissance, a former Masonic lodge renovated by Russian artists in flamboyantly colorful patterns of traditional Slavic iconography.

And for a unit on the function of color in different cultures, they have painted their own matryoshki dolls—the traditional Russian nesting dolls—in colors and patterns whose meanings they then presented to their classmates, also in Russian.

Marlo Mundon ’20, whose mother is from Nicaragua, says the act of choosing colors and motifs has taught her to consider culture in new ways. “We’re studying the different meanings of colors in different cultures—understanding what’s relevant to Russian culture and being able to actively understand it and put it on the doll,” she says, noting how details, like the dolls’ traditional headscarves, are different in the Central and North American cultures she’s more familiar with.

“The details are helping me understand more about the culture,” she says.

Hannah Silverstein