UCLA Today

Unless you can read the Russian sign outside, you wouldn't likely take the dim stairwell up from Santa Monica Boulevard.

Heaven Books, as the store is known in English, is not just a second-floor shop catering to West Hollywood's Russian-speaking community. At least once a year, it is also one of many authentic settings where UCLA students encounter languages such as Arabic, Italian and Japanese without going overseas.

On Santa Monica Boulevard.
On Santa Monica Boulevard

For the last four summers, the Center for World Languages and Summer Sessions have been organizing intensive language courses that take advantage of L.A.'s vaunted diversity. Most of the courses run eight or nine weeks and offer the equivalent of a full year of academic credit. This summer, more than 400 students signed up for Language Intensives in L.A. in 12 of the more than 100 languages spoken locally. The summer Russian classes are supported by the UCLA Russian Flagship, a U.S. government–funded program focused on teaching to high levels of language proficiency.

East of Fairfax Avenue on a recent Monday afternoon, about 20 students from two Russian intensives lunched on fresh pocket pastries called pirozhkis and bourekas and searched for CDs, videos and books in a scavenger hunt. Jessica Buford and Adelina Tomova, both second-year students, reported that the day presented plentiful opportunities to speak Russian. Going into local communities to learn languages just made sense, they said.

"It makes it seem more realistic, since we're able to actually see the benefits" of living in L.A., said Buford.

A few students bought books or the classic matryoshka dolls nestled one inside another, and everyone got complimentary bumper stickers – "The Russians Are Coming" – from shopkeeper Alex Katz of St. Petersburg Entertainment.

At Heaven Books, Russian instructor and graduate student Naya Lekht reminded students that "Russians don't say thank you" every time they buy or sell something, but instead reserve "spasibo" to acknowledge genuine favors. That sort of cultural knowledge is hard to get across inside of classroom walls.

Students inside Heaven Books
Students inside Heaven Books

The Russian that students heard in the stores was a variety well known to Lekht, a Ukrainian-born graduate student in the area of 20th-century Russian Jewish literature.

"A lot of the immigrants here are from the Ukraine, so they speak a Russian that is dialectical" and not a prestige dialect such as the one spoken in Moscow, Lekht explained.

Additional cultural excursions, such as a Tchaikovsky concert at the Hollywood Bowl, are not really opportunities to speak the language but nevertheless are eye-opening events.

The summer language intensives being about much more than field trips and cultural days, the Russian students spend four days of their five-day week on grammar, pronunciation and other requisite aspects of learning a language.

But you learn faster "if you go inside the stores where they actually speak Russian," said Eric Prendergast, a first-year student. "And they're not hard to find."

Also reporting on this story was Susan Bauckus, managing editor of the Heritage Language Journal, published by the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA.