Russian students see the sights and pick up some American English


If it's Tuesday, this must be . . . exhaustion.

In your handy-dandy Russian-English dictionary, see if you can find a translation of "zonked to the max." That just might be the best way to describe how a group of exchange students from the Russian city of St. Petersburg appeared last week as their visit to Baltimore was winding down.

You couldn't blame the nine students for looking whipped during a stroll through the Baltimore Sun's Calvert Street plant. It was only one of many tours they took of local sites, from City Hall to the finer shopping malls, since their arrival two weeks earlier.

The students, each 16 years old, did a little more than just see the sights. They came here mainly to take part in an exchange language program held concurrently at three public high schools -- City College, Western High School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Last spring, 10 Russian-language students from those three schools visited St. Petersburg, the city known as Leningrad for much of this century until the recent collapse of communism. The trip marked the first time that Baltimore students of the Russian tongue traveled to the Soviet Union in an exchange program, says Andrew Tomlinson, a teacher of Russian at City and Poly and a coordinator of the Baltimore-St. Petersburg program.

On that trip, the City, Western and Poly students stayed at the homes of the nine Russian students who were just in Baltimore. The Baltimoreans returned the favor by hosting the Russians on their visit here, which concluded last Thursday when they boarded a plane for the return flight home.

Nearly 400 students at the three Baltimore high schools study Russian, Chinese or Japanese in an "exotic" language program begun four years ago and sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The foundation also paid about $20,000 to send the 10 Baltimore students to Russia last spring. The Russian students' expenses on their U.S. visit were covered by their families.

Never mind that some people say English is a foreign language to many Americans. The students from St. Petersburg's School No. 11 say they have enjoyed the chance to come to the United States and practice the strange tongue that they have been studying for the past few years. Under a recent directive, however, English now is introduced to Russian schoolchildren when they are about 8 years old.

"When we first came here, I couldn't understand what people were saying because they talked too fast and slurred their words and used slang like 'Hi' and 'What's up?'" said Katya Pankova, one of the St. Petersburg nine. "In Russia, we are taught English the way it is spoken by the British, not Americans. But soon I understood very well and I could even do telephone conversations."

Most Russian students are fairly fluent in two foreign languages -- English and either French or German -- by the time they finish high school, said Veronika Aksyonova, 25, the students' teacher and their chaperon on the trip. She's a graduate of School No. 11 herself and still looks young enough to pass as a high schooler.

During the Sun tour, Pankova said she and her classmates were really feeling the effects of their rigorous stateside schedule, which included short stays in Washington and New York.

"It's the end of the trip," she said with a shrug that could be universally understood as a gesture of fatigue.

The weariness showed in other ways. When the students began talking in English about the food shortages back home, Aksyonova cut them off with a few curt words of Russian.

Later she complained that too many Americans have asked for the Russians' impressions of the United States. Implicit in the question, she said, is the notion that the St. Petersburgers are primitives who have never laid eyes on a big town.

"We come from a major city with a great history and culture, and we have read many books and seen many films about the United States, so we weren't overwhelmed by what we've seen here," Aksyonova said. "But when we got here, people asked us our opinion of America as though we come from the jungle and have never seen anything like this."

On a day trip to Annapolis, the teacher recalled, the Russians met some local residents who asked if the visitors were impressed after seeing the U.S. Naval Academy.

"In my city, we have five naval academies," Aksyonova huffed.

Yet, she added, she and her students admired much of what they saw on what was the first trip to the United States for each of them. They said they would especially remember the museums and monuments in Washington and the skyscrapers of New York.

They probably had a lot to talk about on their flight home -- if they didn't sleep all the way back.

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