Tony Brown Discusses Language Competency in the Barker Lecture

At the annual Barker Lecture, Tony Brown discussed his research on debate and advanced language learning.

Tony BrownPROVO, Utah (November 12, 2015)—The first time Tony Brown heard Rachmaninoff’s 18th variation on a theme of Paganini, he knew he had to learn it. Brown got a simplified piano redaction from his father, a professor of music composition at the University of North Texas, and spent the next few months perfecting it.

“I spent months laboring over the notes and, in the process, fell in love with the compositional style of Rachmaninoff and, more generally, the richness and beauty of Russian culture,” said Brown. This deep love is what drove Brown to pursue a career in teaching Russian.

Dr. Tony Brown, professor of Russian, delivered the annual Barker Lecture in a presentation entitled “In Pursuit of Advanced Proficiency and Beyond: Debate as a Means of Improving Language Learning and Proficiency.” In his remarks, Brown discussed results from several of his research projects and their subsequent application in the foreign language classroom.

Brown says the inspiration for many of his research projects came during a lunch conversation with Tobias Bradford, a friend from freshman-year days at BYU. In 2006, the pair reconnected at a conference in Moscow – Brown as a professor and Bradford as a public diplomacy officer for the State Department. Bradford told Brown that he had recently met with students across Russia who wanted to debate with American students in Russian and English. Bradford then asked if Brown had students who fit the bill. At the time, BYU did not have a foreign language debate class; however, after returning to the states, Brown began studying debate and realized that it could serve as a strong tool for developing Advanced- and Superior-level language proficiency based on criteria outlined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Brown collaborated with Gary Hatch, a former English professor; Cory Leonard, the Kennedy Center assistant director of special programs; and Victoria Baird, an adjunct instructor of Russia. Hatch and Leonard taught the formal elements of parliamentary style debate and Model United Nations, respectively, in English, while Brown and Baird implemented the theoretical components into Russian.

Fourteen out of fifty-three applicants were selected based on their ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) and Written Proficiency Test (WPT) ratings, and responses to a language background questionnaire. To provide students with established criteria describing a speaker and writer at the Advanced and Superior levels, students received the ACTFL oral and written proficiency guidelines at the beginning of the semester, which, coupled with their OPI and WPT ratings, enabled students to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses and target specific areas on which to focus. Just prior to departing for Russia, students received their assigned debate topics. Brown noted that students had mastered their debate topics so effectively in Russian that switching to English in some of the debates contributed to an unanticipated form of reverse language interference; students’ second language (Russian) interfered with their first language (English) in terms of word choice and syntax.

“The end result went beyond language gain,” said Brown. “Students and faculty built bridges of mutual understanding and created lasting friendships. One might argue that such bonds, particularly between two countries that seem to be turning back the clock to Cold War-era relations, have far reaching implications that eclipse the language component.”

Post-WPT results initially confirmed Brown’s hypothesis that introducing complexity measures, such as transition words and connectors, from week to week would contribute to improved writing proficiency; however, upon closer examination of students’ actual writing samples, Brown and his colleague, Raisa Solovieva – associate teaching professor of Russian – discovered that many students’ scores improved, whether or not they attempted to use complexity measures. Such a finding led Brown to conclude that those who demonstrated gain focused primarily on consolidated and repairing old knowledge rather than applying new concepts to an already flawed linguistic matrix.

Such a finding significantly influenced Brown’s thinking in regards to teaching grammar concepts in third-year courses leading up to the debate course. The conceptual model for this class now appears in the textbook Mastering Russian through Global Debate, which Brown co-authored with colleagues in Russia and the U.S. Other iterations of the textbook have followed, including Mastering English through Global Debate, Mastering Chinese through Global Debates (forthcoming), and Mastering Arabic through Global Debate (forthcoming).

Brown emphasized the importance of exposing learners to interesting and engaging content that is relevant in a real-life context. Doing so, he explained, motivates students “to learn out of a passion for the subject” and often influences their educational and professional goals, as evidenced by several of the students from Brown’s first debate class who went on to law school and cited their experiences in the class as a motivating factor.

“The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in building bridges between the humanities and the professional world,” said Brown. He explained that foreign language learning plays a strong role in the development of global competency, which will allow students to interact and communicate in a diverse global community.

Just as he labored over Rachmaninoff’s piece to find his own love of Russian, Brown has labored over the curriculum of the debate class to help his students develop their own love for the Russian language and culture.

—Kayla Goodson (B.A. Communications and French studies ’17)

Kayla covers the Department of German and Russian for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a dual degree in French studies and Journalism with a minor in international strategy and diplomacy.