Former SPU Standout Now Teaching English in Russia
Benson visits  the famous St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
Benson visits the famous St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.

Friday, July 19, 2013

MOSCOW, Russia - She speaks very good French, has become conversational in Russian – and makes a living teaching English.

So please pardon Sydney Benson if she occasionally has to pause while trying to determine which word, which phrase, which accent is appropriate for any particular moment in time.

But even in the middle of Moscow, where winters are cold, summers are hot, and fall and spring usually don't bother putting in an appearance, there's one thing for which Benson needs no translation:


"They do have Starbucks there," the former Seattle Pacific basketball player said with a laugh. "I ended up frequenting it a lot when I got homesick. I got reprimanded several times, because Starbucks isn't even Russian.

"But they still have a tall Americano."

Far removed from her Washington hometown of Snohomish, from SPU, and from younger sister and best friend Katie, who still plays hoops for the Falcons, it was comforting for her to have at least one reminder of the Pacific Northwest.

When she's not sipping one of those hot drinks, Benson – a tall Americano herself at 6-foot-2 – is doing her part to help small groups of Muscovites better understand her native language.

And while dream jobs aren't necessarily supposed to come along at age 25 (almost 26), Benson hardly can contain her delight when talking about a position that combines her love of languages with a chance to see a different part of the world.

"I've always been passionate about language," said Benson, a 2010 Seattle Pacific graduate. "And I really wanted an adventure."


Inspiration sometimes comes from the most unexpected places.

For Sydney Benson, a love of languages started with a childhood movie and a distant relative.

"After I watched "Beauty and the Beast," I really wanted to learn to speak French," Benson said of the Disney movie that was set in France. "Then my dad has a Swedish cousin, and she's fluent in nine languages."

French was indeed the tongue toward which Benson gravitated, and she eventually added two years of Russian because she needed a secondary language to complete her degree in European studies.

While still trying to figure out what she wanted to do with all of this, a conversation with Dr. Michelle Beauclair, an SPU associate professor of French, set Benson down a path that eventually landed her in Russia.

"She asked if I had ever thought about teaching English as a second language just so I could get to another country," Benson said. "I was looking to go to France. But in Russia, teaching English is incredibly popular. If you're a native (English) speaker, they'll pay anything to have some one-on-one time, trying to acquire the language and the accent."

As Benson tells it, students are sometimes just as interested in the accent as they are in the language.

"If I had a private student, they would ask whether my accent was American or British," she said. "Most of the time, Russians really like the American accent because they love American movies – they want to talk like the movie stars.

"But if they wanted to be academic or more serious, they preferred the British accent."

Based on her own experience of learning two different languages, Benson knew she had to teach her students more than just words and phrases – the mental side of the process.

There's also a physical side – and that can be just as challenging.

"If you want to be fluent and become like a native speaker, you have to change how you speak and how you channel your vocal chords – even how your mouth functions," Benson explained. "We speak English very gutturally, and our mouth is wide open. In (speaking) Russian, we use a lot more of our tongue.

"It's really tough for them," she added. "But I've seen a lot of improvement."


When Benson isn't in the front of her classroom leading the day's lessons, she's seated in another classroom learning language lessons of her own. Three days a week, Benson spent 2 1/2 hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings studying Russian and further enhancing her speaking skills.

Then, it was another ride on the bus to her teaching job from 2:30 until 10 p.m.

"It was hard to pick up Russian – really hard," she said. "The grammar part was easy for me because I'm more of a visual learner anyway. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet and reading was easier for me. But it was harder with speaking."

There were times when Benson's head would be a jumble of three languages – although on occasion, that proved helpful.

"Some days if I had a business meeting, one of my bosses spoke English, but his wife spoke French," Benson said. "When I was learning Russian, I couldn't communicate in Russian quite yet. I would speak to him in English, speak to her in French, and they would speak to each other in Russian."

But Benson's learning extended way beyond the classroom, where this past year, she had two groups of 5- and 6-year-olds; four groups of 'tweens and teens ages 11-16, and one group of adults. Moscow also has been her classroom, as she got to live and breathe Russian life on a daily basis, sharing it with residents who, in many ways, are every bit the same as folks from Seattle or Snohomish.

"They have a harsh, severe exterior. But when they realize that you're non-threatening and you love Russia and like living there, they would give up their house, they will give up anything for you," Benson said. "For the most part, they like Americans, but the government has been portraying America in a different light.

"It just depends on who you talk to," she added. "We're seen as exotic – America is a distant place; it's so far off."


Of course, she made time for touristy things, too, such as visiting Red Square or St. Basil's Cathedral. Although she doesn't play basketball these days, she found time to run when the weather warmed up, started taking a yoga class, and walks everywhere – by her estimate, about seven miles a day.

When she was done teaching at the end of May, Benson began a month-long trip through Europe, joined by Katie after Seattle Pacific's school year ended, and their parents

Now, Benson is back home until August, then will head back to Moscow for another year. This time, she'll be teaching at a day care center and also will take a French class.

"As of right now, I'm just going to take it one year at a time," Benson said. "That's what I'm learning how to do, just for myself and for my well-being.

"I have goals for probably 10 years from now," she added. "But I'd love to continue learning languages."

After all, Starbucks is located in more than 60 countries …

… which means there are many, many ways to say 'tall Americano.'