Rather than working from a textbook, students can learn Russian language and culture largely by watching old TV shows and short films.
Senior lecturers in Russian Slava Paperno and Viktoria Tsimberov use their Beginning Russian Through Film (BRTF) website to co-teach a two-semester course at Cornell. A transcript, glossary and exercises highlighting grammar and vocabulary accompany each film. Digital video on the site allows students to quickly stop, rewind and replay segments of assigned films.
The site was originally developed as an experiment in Cornell's Russian Language Program in 1997-98, and the learning materials -- including 130 new or improved clips added last summer -- are available to anyone. The films are "not simplified and not censored, but selected in a way that makes these videos accessible to first-year students," Paperno said.
"BRTF puts in front of the student a large collection of snapshots of life seen through the eye of the camera," Paperno said. "The students want to understand, they want to follow, they want to analyze, they want to talk to other people about all of it. That's what makes it a joy to teach a course like BRTF."
Films are not shown in class, he said: "We want each student to confront, take apart and digest these stories on his or her own."
"The course is structured so that we have two hours of grammar-oriented instruction, one-hour drills and then two hours covering films," Tsimberov said. "For discussion, we wrote these little dialogues including the material discussed in the film. It's not dry like the textbook -- they can talk about the characters."
The short videos include selections from more than 30 years of the popular television program "Eralash" and edited versions of feature films and documentaries such as "Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears," "The Pyatnitskaya Street Tavern" and "The Courier," as well as short films by Paperno and local filmmaker Slawomir Grundberg.
"Last semester, we would do a translation, and this semester we would do a summary in English," said Meaghan McSorley '13. "We would discuss the characters and recite scenes from the films to help with pronunciation. There were also translation tests, to translate into English 10 random phrases from all the movies or episodes we watched that week."
The films also illustrate changes in Russian culture from the late 1970s to the present. The site includes "new videos and new films done after Perestroika," Tsimberov said. "Most of the [television] shows are based on children's lives, and the changes of the society in these little films is very interesting to see."
The site is used by Russian programs at Harvard and Florida State universities, in middle and secondary schools, and at other institutions in the United States and other countries.
"All textbooks are linear, and most teaching materials are designed around some teaching philosophy or a set of methods," Paperno said. "I see that as a limitation; the learner is railroaded into a course with very little play room. The only teaching principle I believe in is that people learn well only when they need to learn; they will not learn simply because they're told to."
McSorley plans to take intermediate Russian in 2010-11, resources for which include an interactive DVD of "The Twelve Chairs," prepared and annotated by Tsimberov and Paperno.
"I think this class is so well done," McSorley said. "The instructors ... make the whole learning process more engaging than other language classes. They really try to get you to speak and form your own sentences and to try to talk in Russian as much as possible."