Friday, March 14, 2014

Cloudberry Language School

When I was at school, I had a very limited choice of languages to learn beside my mother tongue: English or French. It is still the case for many cities, even the large ones, that the choice of language classes is limited to a handful of the most popular ones, and popular here doesn't mean the most widely spoken. I was delightfully surprised to find a school in Chicago that offers classes in languages that are widely spread across the globe, but rarely taught in North America. If you think of taking classes in Russian, Mandarin Chinese or Arabic, and you happen to live in Chicago or Colorado, you might be interested to learn about this school too. I emailed the founder of the Cloudberry Language School, Ksenia Kologrieva, and asked her to tell me more about her language classes. She generously agreed to give an interview for the readers of the Proper Russian blog.

Eugenia Vlasova: Please tell me about your school. How did it all start? Was it hard to build a team?

Ksenia Kologrieva: Cloudberry Language School is a new-generation language school that focuses on teaching Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic—languages that are spoken in countries of key importance for business and diplomacy, but which are not as commonly taught in the United States.

The idea started when I was applying for business school. During the long and painful process of writing essays on my strengths, weaknesses and aspirations, I realized that I would be good at creating a team of professionals who are passionate about foreign languages and cultures.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by talented multilingual people who are very energetic and well-rounded. It was sad to see them struggle to find a job despite their MAs, PhDs and impressive work experience. At the same time, I saw there was a lack of quality language programs for those who wanted to learn languages other than the traditional ones, such as Spanish and French. My goal was to connect the two needs and provide bright people with interesting work.

EV: What kinds of programs and courses do you offer?

KK: We offer very different language courses for both adults and children in Chicago and Colorado, and we are expanding. Cloudberry provides highly customized face-to-face and online language lessons. We don’t offer the old-school cookie-cutter types of classes. We tailor our classes to our students’ needs, and work with different levels—from beginners to advanced students. At Cloudberry, we provide training for translators and interpreters and offer industry specific classes. We offer many private classes to highly motivated and ambitious students or to those who are just very busy during regular hours. Also, we work with small groups at corporations and help their employees prepare for an international move or simply for working with global teams from developing markets.

We have programs for children as well. They differ depending on whether the child is from an English speaking or a Russian speaking (or mixed) family. We also work with adopted children from Russia and China whose parents seek to preserve their children’s native language.

EV: What is the Russian Language through Music course about?

KK: Music is a great and fun way to learn foreign languages. Through music you can learn a lot of cultural things as well as grammar and vocabulary. Our ‘Language through Music’ course is a great asset, not only for children, but for adults as well. It helps them practice rather complex aspects of the language while having fun, for example using the genitive case based on a famous Russian song from the movie The Irony of Fate. It’s also a great tool for our very little students or heritage learners who are not necessarily overly motivated to learn their parents’ language in the beginning.

EV: Who are your students? Why do they want to learn Russian?

KK: I have noticed that all our students are amazing! It takes courage to commit to a language that is completely different from your native one—with a different alphabet and logic. The languages that we offer are challenging languages, and they’re not an option at most schools. So the job opportunities they offer are often as exciting as they are lucrative. Therefore, our students may be very different in terms of demographics—young professionals, small children, teenagers, international couples—but most of them definitely have A-type personalities and are very curious about the world around them. Many of them have traveled extensively and have been, or are planning to go, to Russia. Some of our advanced students have found jobs in Russia and come to our school to better prepare for their international adventure. Many American parents have recently begun to grasp that these languages can provide more opportunities for their children in the future.

EV: Has demand for the Russian language increased or decreased over the last 10 years? What factors affect this demand?

KK: In my experience, demand has increased over the last 4 years. There was a temporary decline after the peak associated with the Cold War. Although Russia is no longer a “Cold War enemy”, demand for Russian speakers is still great in business and diplomacy. Russian is the native language of over 150 million people. It is one of the official languages of the UN, and regarded as a strategic language along with English, Chinese, and Arabic. Moreover, Russian remains the unofficial lingua franca of the former Soviet republics, an indispensable tool for communication across all of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The recent Olympics in Russia and geopolitical games between West and East also raised interest among Americans who might want to learn the language. Many people understand why Russian is a good language to learn. Some more reasons for learning Russian can be found here.

EV: Do your students want to learn colloquial, contemporary Russian or the language of the Russian classics like Pushkin and Tolstoy?

KK: We have some creative students who are interested in reading the Russian classics in their original language or those who are interested in Russian theatre, but most students want to learn the modern language in order to communicate with colleagues, family, and friends from abroad. Therefore, most of our classes are focused on developing speaking skills. Our instructors are trained to get students talking!

EV: One of the most frequently asked questions - How long does it take to learn Russian? More specifically, how long does it take to become sufficiently fluent to communicate in Russian?

KK: There is no one single recipe for everyone. Some students learn faster than others and devote more hours to self-study. I have found that hard working and ambitious students make impressive progress quite quickly. On average, at our school I see excellent results after about 4-6 months of classes once a week or after about 3 months of classes twice a week. Consistency and discipline are very important in learning. As for fluency, research shows that it requires 425 hours of study for the Russian language. The main rule is to constantly speak it—with friends, teachers or study partners.

EV: Russian World-wide Language Quiz, or “Тотальный диктант”, launching on April 12, was primarily designed for native speakers. Who is involved in this fun, educational flash mob in the USA, and in Chicago, in particular?

KK: The Russian community in Chicago is pretty large. Some of them choose to stay connected to the Russian culture, while others do not. Those who do have a better chance of getting their children interested in learning the Russian language and preserving their cultural heritage. And I think this event is for these families. Just imagine, if a child’s mom is going to participate in a Russian language test that is taken simultaneously by people in 271 cities around the world, she will find out how much Russian she has forgotten over the years while abroad and her children will be impressed by the fact that the whole world is doing this together with their mom. In this case, children feel like it’s a global thing and not just their mom’s language that they never use with their American friends. They feel a part of the global community.

Also, this event is for young people who want to get connected with other Russian speakers in the city and around the world and have fun together. Cloudberry is proud to finally bring it to Chicago. Chicago is a diverse city and a main cultural center and it’s great that it can be a part of such a fun, educational flash mob. I’m very excited to participate in it for the first time myself.

EV: Do kids of Russian immigrants want to learn Russian or is it rather their parents who insist on this? Do teenagers treat the language of their parents differently compared to children who are 5-8 years old?

KK: It really depends on the family. If parents make it a priority to raise a bilingual child, then they find ways to motivate their children to learn their heritage language, regardless of their age. At Cloudberry, we do everything to help parents increase motivation and cultural awareness as well as improve speaking/reading skills. We use the latest resources and teaching methods in heritage language learning. It’s important for kids to meet other Russian speaking children from the community and have fun together while learning. We also collaborate with different universities and schools around the world and work hard to connect Russian children living in the US to children of the same age living in Russia. It helps them realize that Russian is not only their mother’s language but a great tool to connect with new friends from abroad and learn about the lives of their peers on the other side of the world.
You probably know that recent studies show that a multilingual brain functions more quickly, is better able to deal with ambiguities, solve problems and multitask, and is even less susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. Raising a bilingual child and a true world citizen who is aware of other cultures should be a priority, especially for immigrant families, and we give a lot of credit to the parents who understand this. It takes a lot of time but the investment is worth it.

EV: What would you suggest to students of Russian? What is the most efficient way to learn Russian?

KK: Speak it! If you want to learn a language, you should speak it, even if it’s hard and painful at the beginning. Don’t be scared of the uncomfortable feeling; do it step by step. Don’t give up and don’t procrastinate. Just 20 minutes a day can bring about great results. Watch a lot of movies and practice your listening skills. And choose a good teacher!

EV: Thank you very much!

Here you can find more information on Cloudberry Language School.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Q&A: Do Russians Understand Mispronounced R-sound?

Here is a question from my reader:

I'm a German native speaker and I can't roll the R at all. It really bothers me and I feel awkward while speaking Russian because it just doesn't sound right. Am I worrying too much? One of my Russian teachers said that there are even Russians who can't roll the R at all, but I don't find this very convincing. Do you have some encouraging words for me? Do Russians have problems understanding foreigners who can't roll the R?

You are, indeed, worrying too much. I am a native Russian speaker, and I couldn't pronounce the rolled R until I was 7. I learned to pronounce it after my parents brought me to a special doctor, who taught how to pronounce Russian sounds clearly. I also was bad at pronouncing the Russian hard L-sound. Even today, if I speak too fast or am too excited I can mispronounce the rolled R. I usually simply skip it when I’m speaking fast.

How did the doctor help me to learn the rolled r? She trained my tongue. She asked me to mimic clicking sounds, the noise that a tractor or a v-8 engine makes and so on. It took me about two months to learn it.

My good friend, who is also a native Russian speaker, has never learned to pronounce the rolled r. She pronounces it in the very cute French fashion - with the back of her tongue. It didn't prevent her from earning a PhD in linguistics. She teaches Communication Theory at one of the most prestigious Russian universities.

Russian speakers do not have any problems understanding foreigners who can not roll their Rs. Yes, we can easily spot a foreigner if he or she pronounces the R like in English.

I found this video particularly helpful:

Benny's article on the website Fluent In Three Months is also very good.

Probably, I will never master short and long vowels in English. It is a much bigger source of miscommunication, since in English, there are words that can be distinguished only by the vowel - long or short. Yet I communicate with English speaking people and normally have no problem being understood. In Russian, there is no sound like un-rolled R, so you can not confuse two similar words only because you don’t roll R.

Photo by Steven Mueller

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Culture Clash And Online Classes

Education, and specifically language learning, are drifting towards online. Some are skeptical about online language courses and one-on-one sessions with native speakers. Others, on contrary, are very enthusiastic. There is one aspect, however, that I found being overlooked by both supporters and deniers of online language learning: cultural differences. The Guardian has published a story about the problems that Anna Parkin was having when trying to find a good tutor to teach her Russian. As I could tell, the biggest problem there was miscommunication caused by cultural differences.

One-on-one sessions – the most popular format for online language lessons – are all about communication. Numerous self-help books like How To Convince People, How Make Friends et cetera shows that communicating in your own language is hard work which requires some specific skills. You've been developing and mastering those skills from early childhood by watching our parents, consuming pop culture and gaining personal experience. So you've acquired cultural standards. The way you communicate is framed by your culture. Now, another person, who is supposed to teach you a language or to learn it from you, was raised in a culture that is different from yours. In such a situation miscommunication is very likely.


Even before a sessions starts, a student and a teacher may have different expectations. Different countries have different education practices: highly competitive, progress-oriented environment vs. stress-free approach, memorizing techniques vs. creative learning, strictly scripted syllabus vs. free improvisation and student-driven scenario and so on. One may expect a dense schedule and a good load of homework, while another expects to have a nice conversation once a week. Both variants are fine, as long as the student's expectations match the teacher's approach, but more often than not they don't.


Different cultures promote different conversation styles between a teacher and a student. In some cultures, students subordinate when talking to a teacher and never ask questions unless being explicitly allowed to. In other cultures, there is higher degree of equality between a teacher and a student in the communicative level, and a teacher expects a student to interrupt him or her whenever a question arises.

What to talk about

One of the problems that online teachers and students struggle with is the choice of topics. Some cultures have specific taboos like sex, death, personal income, bodily functions and so on. Normally, we are more or less aware of those taboos, but it is always good to ask your vis-a-vis openly whether it is OK for him or her to talk about those things. Sometimes taboos are not that obvious and direct. For example, I can discuss politics with everyone who wants to talk about it with me, but I know many people who would feel very uncomfortable touching that topic with a complete stranger.

It is even more important how we talk about things. The vocabulary that is just normal in one culture may be considered aggressive in another country. Speaking negatively about goods or services is absolutely fine in Russia – we give negative feedback openly (which makes the job of smart marketologists very easy). In some other countries, however, direct negative feedback is considered impolite.

Words of Encouragement

In some cultures, saying “Good job!” to a student every time he or she does anything correctly is a standard. In other cultures, teachers react to mistakes rather than to correct answers. If you happen to have a teacher that never says good words no matter how hard you work, it is not because your teacher is mean, but exactly because you are doing all right! Otherwise, he or she would let you know.

A mere awareness about cultural differences may help you to improve your communication with students and/or teachers. If you feel an irrational irritation about a person who teaches you or takes your lessons, it is very likely that you are dealing with a culture clash. Take a step back, try to analyze what exactly makes you feel bad, and do not hesitate to speak up. Your teacher or student may be completely unaware of breaking your cultural standards. By communicating those issues you'll help him or her realize the differences and to adjust your classes accordingly. You may also learn a lot about your own culture and language by discussing those topics.

culture clash
Photo by Gianluca Vegetti