Abby Downing-Beaver (MARS-REERS ’16) has always been fascinated with languages and the cultural nuances they convey. Growing up in Missouri City, Texas, she tried to learn as many as possible. Unfortunately, her high school offered only French and Spanish, both of which she was already studying. Then her mother, a journalist, discovered a newspaper listing for a Russian language class at the Russian Cultural Center in downtown Houston. The class, geared largely toward people in the oil industry planning business trips to Russian-speaking countries, was informal. It met once a week and there was little emphasis on grammar. “As long as you made sense, the teacher would say, ‘eez understandable,’ and move on,” recalls Downing-Beaver. “I came out of that class with terrible spelling.”
When she embarked on her undergraduate degree at Rice University in 2010, where she double-majored in English literature and linguistics, Downing-Beaver signed up for Russian courses right away. Her professor, whom she studied with throughout all four years, introduced her to Russian culture and history and encouraged her to study abroad. She spent two summers in Russia and a semester in France. As college came to an end, she knew she wanted to pursue Russian studies, and to learn more languages from the post-Soviet region. Her professor suggested she consider regional studies programs. In September 2014 she enrolled at the Harriman Institute on a MARS fellowship.
At the Harriman, Downing-Beaver has taken advantage of the diverse course offerings. In addition to studying Russian with the late Frank Miller, she has been learning Kazakh, Romanian, and Old Church Slavonic. She became enthralled with Central Asia after taking Gulnar Kendirbai’s course on Central Asian history and culture. “I knew absolutely nothing about it and now I am trying to learn everything,” she says. The region’s diverse ethnic makeup drew her attention to Soviet and post-Soviet language policy. The Soviet Union initially encouraged its republics to retain their languages, but soon reversed course, quashing language diversity in favor of universalized Russian. “This has left lasting problems with language retention in post-Soviet states,” she says.
Last summer Downing-Beaver received a Pepsico Fellowship to go to Kyrgyzstan, whose government has been championing the revival of Kyrgyz as the national language, and survey residents about their language preferences. She learned that they range widely depending on age group, ethnicity, and socio-economic status—older ethnic Kyrgyz tout Kyrgyz, while older ethnic Russians and other ethnic minorities prefer to speak Russian. Educated younger citizens do too, she says, as they believe Russian offers a greater chance at financial security.
After she graduates in May, Downing-Beaver would like to pursue an international career, perhaps in the Foreign Service. “I want the opportunity to travel and to use the languages I’ve learned.”