Mastering Russian through Debate

Russian students are improving their language mastery and international understanding through debate with students half a world away.

PROVO, Utah (January 22, 2015)—In 2006, Tony Brown, associate professor of Russian, was in Moscow for a conference. There he met up with a former classmate who was working as a Foreign Service Officer in the US Embassy. This classmate explained that he knew of some college students in Moscow and Saratov who were eager to debate Americans. He asked Brown, “Does your university have a debate course?”

Brown answered, “Yes, but certainly not in Russian.”

But the idea intrigued Brown. Having no previous debate experience, he began to research the topic and found many similarities between what constitute a good debater and a Superior-level speaker. The more he learned, the more possibilities he began to see. Brown said, “What if we could create a course designed to facilitate Advanced- and Superior-level proficiency through the medium of debate, which naturally lends itself to that kind of discourse?” Not only would debate require advanced language skills, but it would provide an authentic environment in which to challenge them.

Thus began Brown’s journey to design a Russian-language course with a focus on debate, a journey that culminated in a new textbook (coauthored by Brown) and presented to faculty in a College of Humanities colloquium.

As with many new programs, it was expected that initial applicants would be few. It came as a pleasant surprise for Brown – who had only anticipated 12 applications – that the course had 56 applicants, 14 of whom were ultimately accepted.

To teach this first class, Brown partnered with Gary Hatch of the English Department and Cory Leonard of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies. Hatch took over teaching the students debate principles and techniques, while Leonard covered model United Nations training.

The course was a success, with the first class traveling to Russia to compete against students in Moscow and Saratov. Since then, succeeding classes have limited their international debates to video conferences to keep costs low for students. But the results continue to be impressive.

“We definitely see our students improving in their language abilities,” said Jennifer Bown – associate professor of Russian – who has joined Brown in teaching the course. “But what is also exciting is seeing them improve in their critical thinking. They make better arguments by the end, and it’s not just because they have better language skills.” Students grow as they are taught basic debate principles, then put them into practice. Pre- and post-Oral Proficiency Interview and Written Proficiency Test data collected over four years indicated increased proficiency in Russian across the board.

When the time came to write a textbook. Brown and Bown partnered with Tatiana Balykhina, Ekaterina Talalakina and Viktoria Kurilenko to write Mastering Russian through Global Debate and then partnered with William Eggington of BYU to write Mastering English through Global Debate (Georgetown University Press, 2014). Both volumes were written with an international audience in mind. The text goes over basic principles of debate, but also prepares students for interacting with people from other countries. In order to debate efficiently, students need to be able to understand foreign perspectives and the cultural influences that shape them.

“I think you can use debate in any kind of class. It doesn’t even need to be a language class,” Bown said. Through debate, Brown and Bown’s students have not only gained a deeper mastery of the Russian language but become more capable world citizens.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)