Interview: Teaching Russian

with 4 Comments

Who is teaching YOU Russian?

If you’re lucky, perhaps you have a teacher like Olga Jarrell. Olga is passionate about helping students learn Russian! She’s a Russian language instructor at Utah Valley University and the creator of Amazing Russian. Although my past interviews have been with people learning Russian, I love Olga’s resources and thought it would be really interesting to hear more about her career + ideas for teaching Russian.

Olga with her students.


Read on to meet Olga! 🙂


Olga, what is one of your favorite words in Russian?

I have a few. One of my favorite phrases from last semester, for example, is Всегда́ гото́в(ы)! (Always ready). It came from my students who would use this phrase to respond to my question about their readiness Гото́вы? (Are you ready?). Every time I hear the phrase, it makes me smile and remember the times when I was young. In fact, this Soviet Era phrase is taken from the motto of the Young Pioneers Organization «Будь гото́в! – Всегда́ гото́в!» (Be ready! – Always ready!).

Here are a few more words and phrases that I like using:

  • Вре́мя лети́т. (Time flies.) – It really does, doesn’t it?
  • Дава́йте (Let’s) – This word starts a lot of classroom instructions.
  • Здесь говоря́т то́лько по-ру́сски! (Only Russian is spoken here.) – This is a reminder for students to speak Russian in the classroom.
  • Про́ще просто́го (piece of cake; literally: easier than easy). I like how redundant it sounds.


How did you become a Russian teacher in Utah?

It’s an interesting story. It all started while I was teaching ESL classes at Utah Valley University. One day, my husband suggested that I should try teaching Russian at UVU. I thought, “Why not, right? I am a native speaker and a professional educator, after all.” I literally pushed myself into the office of the Department of Languages and Cultures, introduced myself to the Department Chair and left my resume. I, honestly, didn’t think I had a chance to get a job as the Russian program was small and fully staffed. Unexpectedly, one year later, I received a call from the Department Chair who asked me to teach one beginning Russian class the following semester. This is how I became a Russian instructor at UVU.

After a while, I was offered two more classes, and then completely focused on teaching Russian. I should mention, that being an ESL instructor has helped me tremendously in teaching Russian. A lot of techniques, methods, approaches, and activities I am using today in the classroom, came from my ESL teaching experience. Today, being a Russian instructor and helping students learn one of the most challenging world languages makes me feel happy, professionally accomplished and fulfilled.     

Can you describe a typical lesson in one of your classes?

In my teaching arsenal, there are many types of lessons, and it is hard to describe a typical one. When it comes to lessons, I try to make them student-centered, highly engaging and fun. From the very beginning level of instruction, I offer lots of communicative activities including games, where students have an opportunity to use the language actively. 

I almost never conduct lectures. How are students supposed to learn? I have created grammar and vocabulary video tutorials so that students use them at home to grasp a grammar concept and/or learn vocabulary. Then they come to class to practice the language in various activities. My role as an instructor is to organize an active learning environment and facilitate students’ learning. Of course, there is also time for clarification, asking questions, discussion, projects, and assessment.

You can take a look at my YouTube channel Amazing Russian, where I share my video tutorials with other people who want to learn Russian. These videos work very well for auditory and visual learners, and they are a great help with grammar, vocabulary, listening, speaking, and pronunciation.

Click on this picture to visit Olga’s YouTube channel!


I’ve never met a Russian speaker from Utah before. Is there a large Russian-speaking community there?

I do not know the exact number of Russian-speaking people living in Utah, but I know that in major Utah cities, there are about 5,000 people from Russia. Even though Russian-speaking community in Utah is small, there are several Russian grocery stores and restaurants with authentic Russian cuisine.  There are also two Russian Orthodox Churches in the Salt Lake City area.


How old were you when you learned English? In your opinion, what parts of learning English are especially difficult for Russian speakers?

I started learning English at the age of 10 when I entered the 4th grade of Russian secondary school, and I’ve never stopped learning it since then. Even though I am quite fluent in English and earned an MA in English, I am still learning it every single day. I don’t think I will ever stop.

In my opinion, one of the most challenging parts of learning English is dealing with phrasal verbs. They are treacherous! They can create a lot of misunderstanding, confuse and puzzle you. I had to learn a lot of them when I came to the USA.


What’s something about the Russian language or culture that you think is misunderstood?

A lot of things. If you are not involved in learning the Russian language and culture, you probably have a lot of stereotypes about Russia and Russian people such as “Russia is a cold country”, “Many Russians are alcoholics”, “Russian people do not smile”, “Russians are too serious and rude”, just to name a few. On the other hand, if you are learning Russian, you are probably learning Russian culture as well. The more you learn the language and culture, the fewer stereotypes you have. When our university students start learning Russian, they usually have a lot of stereotypical ideas about Russia. Exploring different aspects of Russian culture through the courses as well as visiting Russian community events, church services, stores and restaurants help students better understand and appreciate Russian culture.

As for the Russian language, some people think that Russian Alphabet (Cyrillic) is difficult, and Russian cursive writing is almost impossible to learn. I don’t believe it is true. Our university students of Russian learn the alphabet within the first week of the semester. They practice cursive writing on a regular basis and finally understand it and write in cursive fairly well.  A little training makes wonders.  


If someone wanted to improve their Russian quickly and only had 15 minutes a day, what would you advise them to do?

In my opinion, 15 minutes a day is not enough for quick improvement. You should spend at least an hour for your practice if you want to progress fast. However, it is not effective to study a language for one hour straight. Having short 15-minute sessions frequently is much more efficient than studying for hours.

Here are a few suggestions for 15-minute study sessions.

  • Learn some vocabulary. Remember to ALWAYS learn phrases, even sentences, but not individual words. In this case, you will also learn grammar, e.g. cases, conjugations, tenses, aspects, prepositions, adjectives – all the environment that a word includes. If you learn vocabulary in context, you will learn grammar effortlessly, without memorizing any rules. Also, use AUDIO to learn vocabulary. If you learn by reading only and do not have a model for correct pronunciation, chances are, you will memorize incorrect pronunciation.

On my website, there are some tips on how to learn vocabulary with flashcards.

  • Watch a video tutorial in Russian. By doing that, you can kill many birds with one stone. You can learn or review grammar concepts and vocabulary, improve your listening comprehension and speaking skills, and master your pronunciation.
  • Watch an episode from a Russian movie or a cartoon and study it. Here are my tips on how you can learn Russian by watching cartoons.

It’s up to you how to master the language. However you choose to study, do it on a regular basis and actively. Keep in mind that learning a language is like training for sport or practicing playing a musical instrument. It’s ineffective to learn a language by reading rules from a textbook or listening to a lecture in English about a target language.

Good luck with your learning Russian! Удачи в изучении русского языка!


Olga, спасибо огромное for sharing your story here! Even though I don’t live in Utah and can’t take your classes in person, I’m definitely going to continue to watch all the Amazing Russian videos and follow your posts on Facebook. I wish you and your students a wonderful new semester this fall!

Click on this picture to visit Amazing Russian on Facebook!


4 Responses

  1. Valentina
    | Reply

    I like this video encouraging to study Russian

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      I hadn’t seen that one. It’s great! 😀 😀 Good find, Valentina!

  2. […] Interview: Teaching Russian (Street Russian) […]

  3. profRaree
    | Reply

    Спасибо за информацию.

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