ArticlesJuly 2024

If You Can’t Go to Russia, Russia Will Come to You – Direct Communication with Native Speakers: Oral and Written Practicum Projects

By Julia Katsnelson, University of Vermont

Julia Katsnelson

It is well-known that there is no better way to learn another language and culture than to communicate with native speakers. But what if language learners cannot go abroad to immerse themselves in a language-speaking environment due to various personal and/or global issues? Luckily, we live in a technologically advanced era enabling us to communicate with people around the globe without leaving our own homes. Such communication is often referred to as telecollaboration, which can be defined as the use of online communication tools such as email, web-based messengers (WhatsApp, Telegram, etc.), and video communication tools (Skype, Zoom, Teams, etc.) to link learners from different countries to form a partnership to master their language skills, increasing intercultural awareness, and thus overall communicative and cultural competence (O’Dowd & Ritter, 2006).

The idea of learners from diverse cultures engaging in linguistic and cultural exchanges in order to learn more about each others’ cultures and to enhance their language learning is not new. According to Emeritus Professor of Russian Kevin McKenna from the University of Vermont, in the late 1980s or early 1990s his students “exchanged actual letters with the students at Petrozavodsk State University.” His students loved receiving letters from Russia, but they had to rely on “snail mail.” The length of its delivery (between 4 to 6 weeks) became a real problem. The difficulties of waiting for responses from Russian students ultimately led to the failure of the entire enterprise. The Russian students in Petrozavodsk had, unfortunately, the same negative experience (McKenna, 2023).

However, features provided by advanced technologies today have widened the possibilities to interact across geographic, linguistic, and cultural borders (Taskiran, 2019). Many researchers and educators agree that telecollaborative activities provide learners with extra opportunities to practice and improve their language skills through interaction with people from other countries (McCloskey, 2012). Apart from the linguistic advantages of engaging in language practice with native speakers, telecollaboration is also seen to offer great potential for the development of the skills and attitudes of intercultural competence (Byram, 1997). Moreover, not only students but also language teachers benefit from collaborating with their colleagues from other countries.

In this article, I will describe how technology and global electronic networking communication were incorporated to supplement our program’s Russian language course curriculum and the implications for learners of the language who engaged in telecollaborative projects.

Pen Pals Via “Snail Mail” and Email

For more than three decades, students of the Russian language at the University of Vermont have enjoyed participating in projects that allowed them to communicate directly with native speakers of Russian. The main goal of these projects was to help American and Russian students learn from and practice languages (Russian and English) with native speakers. By supporting exchanges between students in the U.S. and Russia, we also provided an opportunity for young Americans to learn about Russian culture (and vice versa) via direct exchange with their peers. Students compared each other’s cultural similarities and differences and formed a mutual understanding on a personal level, which is considered an essential component of citizen diplomacy and an important part of peaceful, harmonious coexistence. 

Over time, with the appearance of more advanced technologies and with the transformation of teaching language approaches, our projects also transformed. As mentioned above, some exchange projects were conducted in the late 1980s – early 1990s. However, our students started to participate in linguistic and cultural exchange (a semester-long pen pal project) regularly starting in 2010. Our intermediate-level (4th semester) Russian language and culture students communicated via emails with students from Saint-Petersburg State Mining University. As Kevin McKenna said, he wanted to find something more interesting for the students. Having returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, he decided that it might be mutually beneficial for students to converse and get to know one another a bit, especially since it was a time when American students were incredibly interested in everything Russian and Russian students were always unbelievably curious about Americans and American life (McKenna, 2023). 

According to McKenna, students were required to exchange 3-4 emails during the semester. Interestingly, every next email was longer than the previous one, indicating mutual interest in such communication and improving language skills. In each email, the same text was written in two languages (Russian and English). Since the spring semester at our university starts in January (which is almost a month earlier than in Russia), students had some time to prepare for the project. Because they had no prior knowledge of the person they would be corresponding with, students needed to prepare a list of topics appropriate to discuss with Russian-speaking students. Brainstorming the topics they would like to discuss and formulating questions they planned to address to their pen pals was a very engaging in-class activity. During this pre-project period, students were also reminded that the project is strictly linguistic and cultural and were advised to avoid controversial topics such as politics, sensitive social issues, etc. Over the semester, Professor McKenna found that students learned how to formulate their own and answer their pen pals’ questions. They actively negotiated meaning, adjusted, and clarified for understanding.

Besides exchanging personal information, students wished to share and discuss other topics and they corrected each others’ grammar and lexical errors. Moreover, the instructor collected typical mistakes the learners of Russian made to address them in class as well as useful expressions such as greetings and farewells from the native speakers’ texts to introduce them to the learners of Russian. Therefore, emails provided rich authentic materials that were used to teach learners of Russian not just grammar, lexicon, sentence structure, etc., but also cultural aspects of the written language. During the semester, according to McKenna, coordinators closely monitored the flow of the exchange. At the end of the semester, students gave an oral presentation in Russian sharing information about their pen pal with the class. The main objective of the activity was to train students to produce oral speech. Students also were required to write an essay in Russian about their pen pal. The entire project (e-mail exchange, oral presentation, and essay) constituted up to 30% of students’ final grades for the course.

Therefore, besides improving their grammar, reading, and writing skills, and expanding their vocabulary, the project provided an opportunity for students to work on all three modes of communication according to ACTFL standards (interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational). 

Professor McKenna found that the project proved to be very successful year after year. Most of all, students benefited from it linguistically. They consistently reported increased reading comprehension and an expansion in their vocabulary and writing skills. They also felt more confident communicating effectively in the target language. The additional benefit was that some students formed friendships with their Russian counterparts, so they continued to correspond even after the official completion of the project. Moreover, when our students were still able to go to St. Petersburg to study abroad, they met their pen pal in person and continued their friendship in real life. 

Thus, American students were very excited and eager to participate in the pen pal project. The anticipation of communicating with native speakers increased energy in the classroom. Students were very motivated to learn as much Russian as possible to enable themselves to engage fully in the project and benefit from and enjoy it as much as possible. 

When I took over the course in 2018, there was not a split second of doubt about whether to incorporate the pen pal project into it, even though I knew that including such a project adds a significant amount of work to the instructor’s responsibilities. I kept the original format and final project. Our students were randomly paired up by an instructor from Russia and have corresponded during the spring semester. Students were required to exchange at least 4 emails during the semester, and each of them was written in both Russian and English. To stimulate communication, extra points were offered for each extra email. Students were required to copy their instructors on their pen pal exchanges and report if they were not receiving emails from their pen pal within two weeks after the last email was sent. Because the project is time-sensitive, it requires constant monitoring. 

Before the beginning of the project, students brainstormed the topics they would include in their emails which in some way echo OPI test questions for Intermediate/Advanced levels of proficiency. The questions ranged from providing simple information (biographical facts) and description (physical appearance and personality traits, description of a city, university, etc.) to advanced questions that require past tense narration (for example, Как ваш друг/подруга по переписке увлёкся / увлеклась баскетболом? / How did your pen pal become interested in playing basketball?).

At the end of the semester, my students were randomly paired up and asked each other questions as a way of presenting their pen pals to each other. The presentation (about 10 minutes) was a part of the final exam. It was a great stimulus to correspond promptly and ask lots of questions. Students also were required to incorporate in their oral presentation certain grammatical forms and vocabulary that they had learned over the semester, as well as to pay attention to correct pronunciation and intonation. Students were also required to write a one-page essay in Russian about their pen pal based on the information they obtained via their correspondence. 

By 2019, more advanced technology appeared. I proposed to my Russian counterpart that we incorporate an oral component into the written pen pal correspondence. The idea was to have students produce audio files in which they would read their texts aloud (the American students would read in English for the Russian students and vice versa) to provide them with a chance to be exposed to the sound of the language produced by native speakers. I suggested that students record and attach their recordings to each email they exchanged. The Russian coordinator felt that this component would add too much time to the project, and eventually the partnership dissolved. “When one door closes, another one opens.” One day I met our colleague’s visitor, who came from Kazan, Russia as a Fulbright scholarship Ph.D. student. It turns out that she taught English at Kazan State University. When I offered to conduct an enhanced (writing + audio) pen pal project, she became very interested, and at the beginning of the spring 2020 semester, we launched the project. The requirements for the project were identical to the previous exchanges; however, the American students were also required to attach an audio recording of their email/text in English to every email. My American students also received audio files recorded by their pen pals in Russian. Students used their email accounts and any type of voice recorder that they had access to. At the end of the semester, our students were going to be giving an oral presentation and writing an essay in Russian. Unfortunately, the project lasted only several weeks until everything was shut down due to the pandemic, which was a disappointment for the students who looked forward to the project and enjoyed the first several weeks of email and audio file exchange. 

Conversational Pals

After such an unsuccessful experience we had not conducted a telecollaboration project for several semesters. This “forced break” gave me time to reconsider the project. I decided to concentrate more on practicing spontaneous oral production rather than on writing and reading skills, and this naturally led to the idea of conducting a conversational pal project. 

My new partners were instructors of English from Yaroslavl State Pedagogical University. They were very excited to have their students engaged in the project. My students were randomly paired up with Russian students by the instructors from Yaroslavl. The project was built into the 5th semester Russian course and constituted 15% of the final grade. Students were expected to speak weekly for at least 30 minutes (15 minutes in Russian and 15 minutes in English). They were able to agree with their Russian counterparts (via email exchange) on the platform they wanted to use (most students ended up using WhatsApp or Telegram). As proof of regular communication, my students needed to record and submit a part of their conversation while they spoke Russian. For the final project, students were asked to give a presentation about their conversational pal. 

The project started in late January of 2022. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, I made an executive decision to continue with the project as was originally planned. However, considering the difficult situation (in Russia and globally), the project became optional and did not have any due date requirements. Students on both sides of the project and the instructors from Yaroslavl expressed their gratitude for the decision to continue the project. Communicating with the American students helped young Russians to learn what they did not hear from the official controlled media. This illustrates the importance of direct interpersonal communication, especially during political and social crises.

The most recent telecollaboration project my students participated in was conducted over the summer break of 2023. For many years we have been trying to find a way to keep our language students using Russian over the long summer break. It seemed to me that having a native speaker conversational partner during the summer would be an excellent way to help our students keep up the language they learned over an academic year. Luckily, I was able to find learners of English in Russia (in the same city, Yaroslavl) who did not have a summer break. 

This new project differed in many ways. First, since it was conducted over summer break, participation in the project was voluntary. Initially, 10 students expressed a desire to participate for various reasons; some students wanted to improve their language, and some wanted to preserve what they had learned over the academic year and/or during study abroad. But all of them wanted to have a chance to talk to native speakers living in Russia (“real Russians”). Students were also impressed by the courage of the Russian participants to engage in conversation with American students. Secondly, the project was conversational, so students corresponded in writing at the beginning of the project to agree on the time and a platform (WhatsApp, Telegram, Zoom, Teams, etc.). It lifted the time pressure that students experienced during semester-long projects, since students worked asynchronously at their own pace. However, it was suggested that they talk to their partners at least once a week for 30 minutes (15 minutes in each language). Some participants reported that they spoke twice a week for over an hour. Some reported that besides using video call platforms such as WhatsApp, they followed each other on other social media platforms such as Instagram and Spotify and were using text and voice messengers. Additionally, since the project was not a part of any course, students were not graded; however, they were offered an extra point added to the next semester’s Russian course. If students were interested in receiving extra points, they had to upload a short recording of a conversation (when they spoke in Russian) to a designated Microsoft OneDrive shared folder as proof of participating in the project. Students were offered 1 point for each audio file they submitted, which would be added to the course they registered for in the upcoming fall semester. Additionally, the coordinator’s involvement was minimal compared to a semester-long, built-in course telecollaboration project. Another difference was that participants were not given any specific topics to discuss; however, according to student feedback, they mostly discussed familiar topics such as themselves, family, apartment/house, education, job, travel, etc. Besides the typical topics, students were able to expand their vocabulary in an unexpected way: “Our conversations included topics that often come up when using a videoconferencing platform, like how to tell your partner, Sorry, my Internet crashed!” (Participant 1). One of the participants reported that she and her conversational pal “decided to read each other children’s stories in our native language and then discuss the book in the language we were practicing” (Participant 2). 

Since the project was conducted in a new format, the American participants were asked to share their feedback, all of which was very positive. Students enjoyed the project: “I loved doing this program over the summer! It felt both surreal to be talking to someone halfway across the world whom I had never met before, as well as quite ordinary since our conversations included topics that often come up in conversations” (Participant 3). All participants reported significant improvement in listening comprehension, expansion of their vocabulary, increased fluency, and confidence speaking (worrying less about mistakes) in the targeted language: “Being able to speak with someone who is also still learning helped release some of the pressure I might have otherwise felt to be able to speak more fluently.” Additionally, students reported that the project helped them to compare their own and peers’ cultures, build more understanding and appreciation of Russian culture, and thus, feel more interculturally competent: “I valued my communication with her because she made me hopeful that there are intelligent people who lead good lives in Russia” (Participant 4). Another participant pointed out that “Beyond just language mechanics, I think we both learned from and surprised each other with facts about our lives and homes, which was both fun and instructive, which I think is what makes projects like this so important.” Students also expressed a desire to participate in similar projects in the future: “I hope the department will continue this program and that more students will continue to join” (Participant 5). Several students mentioned that they formed a friendship “although we live far away from each other, she is my best friend” (Participants 2, 3, 4) and decided to stay in touch with their conversational pals. 

Phases of Telecollaboration Projects

Telecollaboration projects (whether written or oral) consist of several distinct stages/phases.

Phase one – pre-project during which a coordinator needs to find a partner and negotiate a common target for the project (writing, reading, translation, listening comprehension, oral production, etc.). Rules have to be established. This phase requires time, energy, and creativity from the coordinators. 

The pre-project phase also includes preparation on the part of students. They need to learn the requirements and rules as well as to be prompt linguistically (work on the vocabulary, and grammar structures) and brainstorm the topics they want to discuss with their Russian interlocutors.

Phase two – conducting the project. The coordinators’ role during this phase is to monitor the flow of progress and collect authentic material if needed.

Phase three – conclusion (students’ oral presentation, essay, etc.). During this phase, students share information about their pen and/or conversational pals.

Phase four – post-project. During this phase, instructors can collect student feedback about the project so that it can be adjusted in the future.

Influences on the Outcomes of Telecollaboration Projects

Although telecollaboration projects are usually conducted successfully and have many positive outcomes, it is important to keep in mind that this is not always the case. As several researchers pointed out “success in telecollaborative exchanges is far from guaranteed” (Belz, 2002; Belz & Müller-Hartmann, 2003). Belz and Müller-Hartmann (2003) have produced an important body of research on how a wide range of social and institutional factors might influence the outcome of telecollaborative exchanges between university-level students. According to the researchers, 10 different factors at four different levels might contribute to unsuccessful telecollaboration. Among them are individual, classroom, and socio-institutional, such as misalignment of academic calendars. Conversely, I found the last factor to be very beneficial to the American students, for whom the spring semester starts almost a month earlier, which allowed us to work on some grammar concepts and vocabulary to prepare students for at least the first round of exchange. This helped students to feel more confident about writing on familiar topics, which enhanced their interest in the project.

Drawing a parallel with Belz and Müller-Hartmann’s research (2003), in which it was noted that the German students “were seen to be more motivated in their language learning than the American students” (p. 626), it seemed to me that the Russian students were more motivated to learn English from their American counterparts than American students to learn/improve their Russian. The American students were also found by Belz and Müller-Hartmann to be much more grade-focused and I also observed a similar tendency in some of my students. 

In their research, O’Dowd and Ritter (2006) also pointed out “the need for both teachers to develop a good online working relationship together in order to coordinate and reach agreement on the many aspects of the exchange” (p. 627). This notion supports my own experience. A project cannot be successful if colleagues are trying to achieve different goals. Additionally, since built-in course telecollaborative projects are usually time-sensitive and require constant monitoring, both coordinators need to have similar work ethics and discipline, which is crucial for a project to be successful.

Besides factors discussed in Belz and Müller-Hartmann (2003) and O’Dowd and Ritter (2006), regional and global political tensions such as the ongoing war in Ukraine also might significantly influence the outcomes of telecollaboration. Since the beginning of the war, conducting pen pal or conversational pal projects became not just technically difficult (some web-based platforms were disconnected and no longer available in Russia) but even seen as morally controversial. Our students and I had to make a difficult choice about whether to continue our conversation pal project during the spring semester of 2022 or cancel it as many projects were canceled or postponed due to the invasion of Ukraine. We did elect to continue, but it is understandable that some other groups might make a different choice.

In conclusion, telecollaboration projects are very beneficial for language and culture learners. They not only provide students with extra opportunities to learn and practice their language skills with native speakers, but are also extremely helpful in learning about each other’s cultures. The sense of linguistic progress and increased confidence (especially including cultural competence) as well as the joy and fun students experience while participating in telecollaboration projects result in more time studying and fostering a mastery of the target language.


Belz, J. A. & Müller–Hartmann, A. (2003). Teachers as intercultural learners: Negotiating German American telecollaboration along the institutional fault line. The Modern Language Journal, 87(1), 71-89. 

Belz, J. A. (2002). Social dimensions of telecollaborative foreign language study. Language Learning & Technology Journal, 6(1), 60-81. 

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Ensor, S., Kleban, M., & Rodrigues, C. (2017). Telecollaboration: Foreign language teachers (re)defining their role. Open Edition Journals, 20(2). 

McCloskey, E. M. (2012). Global teachers: A model for building teachers’ intercultural competence online. Dossier. 

McKenna, K. J. (2023). [Personal interview]

O’Dowd, R. (2006). Understanding and working with ‘failed communication’ in telecollaborative exchanges. CALICO Journal, 23(3), 623-642. DOI:10.1558/cj.v23i3.623-642

Taskiran, A. (2019). Telecollaboration: Fostering foreign language learning at a distance. Siendo European Journal of Open, Distance, and e-Learning, 22(2), 86-96. DOI:10.2478/eurodl-2019-0012 

Ware, P. D., & Kramsch, C. (2005). Toward an intercultural stance: Teaching German and English through telecollaboration. The Modern Language Journal, 89(2), 190-205.

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