How Russian pensioners are teaching foreign students their language

LinguaLink of Generations was launched by three individuals who’ve studied at a school in Moscow. The program pairs retirees and students for language lessons using Skype.

Courtesy of LinguaLink of Generations
(L. to r.) Kirill Golubev, Andrey Lisitsa, and Svetlana Pavshintseva debuted LinguaLink of Generations in October.

Svetlana Pavshintseva, Kirill Golubev, and Andrey Lisitsa, who have studied at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, have older parents and observed a common problem: After people retire, they can sometimes struggle to feel useful and connected. The HSE trio saw a way to help.

They launched a program enabling retirees to teach Russian to foreign students using Skype. The LinguaLink of Generations project started in October, and about 100 older people have been paired with students, based on their interests.

“[We] received a lot of requests right away,” says Ms. Pavshintseva, who is now pursuing a master’s degree at HSE and is the public-relations manager for the project. Interest in the initiative, she notes, surged after several media outlets wrote stories about it.

According to Pavshintseva, the idea to create such a project came from Brazil, where a school in a small town used the internet to connect to a retirement home in Chicago. The point was to help Brazilian children study English. Unfortunately, the venture lasted for only a few months.

Now, in Russia, pensioners from all over the country have asked to participate in the Skype lessons, Pavshintseva says, although most are from Moscow and other big cities. The majority of the students come from European countries, the United States, China, and former Soviet republics, say the project’s founders. In particular, many requests come from Italian students.

Most of the pensioners don’t have a language degree. However, LinguaLink of Generations is not only about practicing Russian, but also about exchanging cultural experiences more generally.

“By communicating with the students, I get a chance to share with them knowledge about my country and city,” says Galina Kuchmiy, a retiree from Moscow in her 60s. “I know a lot of facts about Moscow and may outperform any tour guide. I am happy that my interest in Moscow’s architecture is helpful for foreigners who would like to visit our capital.” Ms. Kuchmiy joined the project after a friend recommended it to her.

Rauza Valieva, a pensioner from Moscow in her late 50s, is also excited about participating in LinguaLink of Generations. “I have a lot of free time now, and I am very happy about communicating with young people,” Ms. Valieva says. She is working with an Italian student who is passionate about the Tatar culture, in addition to Russian language and culture. As Valieva represents this ethnic group, she is glad to share her knowledge about Tatar dishes and folk songs with her student.

All can participate in the project free of charge. LinguaLink of Generations received a grant from the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, a Moscow charity, to set up the organization and cover other expenses.

LinguaLink of Generations works with several nongovernmental organizations that deal with pensioners.

“The members of our organization showed great interest in the project,” says Gulnara Minnigaleeva, head of the NGO My Years – My Wealth, which provides older people with opportunities to stay active and be involved in social activities. “Of course, there are some technical problems, as some of the retirees are not advanced computer users, but I guess these are all manageable difficulties.”

Ms. Minnigaleeva is also an associate professor at HSE; Pavshintseva was a student of hers and proposed a collaboration between her organization and LinguaLink of Generations.

Minnigaleeva adds, “There are many stereotypes in our society about what a pensioner should and should not do after retirement.” She thinks that retirees have great potential and shouldn’t be neglected or underestimated. Some members of her organization, she notes, signed up for LinguaLink of Generations in part because they wanted to practice their English.

In the future Pavshintseva, Mr. Golubev, and Mr. Lisitsa want to create an algorithm that would facilitate the process of creating a student-retiree pair. They would also like to visit Brazil and speak with the founders of the similar project.

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