Reviewed by Kaden Paulson-Smith, Fall 2017
Debate has the power to educate students about different issues, foster critical thinking and analytical skills, and teach how to engage with and respect different opinions. Debate can be used as a language learning tool because arguments in a debate hinge on “rhetorical strategies and complex linguistic constructions,” as well as persuasive public speaking tactics (1). Therefore, there are similar criteria used to measure a good debater and someone highly proficient in a language, and Teaching Advanced Language Skills argues that advanced language learners can improve their proficiency through building debate skills. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) standards, especially those that explain the leap from a rating of Advanced to Superior, are described in detail in the beginning of this book to convey these similarities. Overall, advanced-level language learners should be able to make arguments with sophisticated language that is tailored to a specific audience, and these are the types of skills that can be fostered by learning how to write persuasive essays and engage in oral debates in the target language.
Teaching Advanced Language Skills explains the framework behind a related textbook that Tony Brown and Jennifer Brown created as a roadmap for learners to gain the skills to discuss abstract topics and opinions and to tailor language to a specific audience. Each chapter in the textbook is dedicated to a debate over a different theme, including economy vs. environment, intervention vs. isolation, and cultural preservation vs. diversity. There are exercises for learners to develop the previously mentioned skills through learning vocabulary in context, different sides of the debates, and comprehension checks. Even without the textbook, the methods and strategies in Teaching Advanced Language Skills can be applied to the concept of language learning through debate.
The exercises in Tony Brown and Jennifer Brown’s textbook are modeled off the approach of Boris Shekhtman’s (2013) island theory, in which learners have example sentences in each chapter as a template that “learners can ‘swim’ to for safety” (Brown and Brown 2014, 2). Once learners become accustomed to the logic of these model sentences, the repetition can lead to easy access to the metaphorical island, especially for higher level learners. This approach makes a lot of sense and is similar to how I initially learned certain grammatical structures in Swahili (e.g., through repetition of example sentences with different noun classes). However, I have not employed this kind of language-learning strategy for more abstract concepts and advanced vocabulary retention. Brown and Brown argue that this approach works particularly well for advanced language learners looking to make the leap to the superior level.
This method includes a unique way of teaching vocabulary that we have discussed briefly in the Multilanguage Seminar yet: words are presented in each thematic chapter in clusters of words generally used together. The text includes links to online corpora to see more words used in context and challenges learners to include new vocabulary in their answers to open-ended discussion questions.
The next step of this method includes putting the newly acquired topical knowledge and contextualized vocabulary to use by preparing for debate. This part has the potential to take learners from the advanced to the superior level of proficiency because it requires the formation of hypotheses and role-playing different stakeholders who might discuss the issue in different ways. The final products of this stage include written position papers, in which learners lay out an organized and persuasive argument, and oral debates, in which learners employ rhetorical strategies.
The rest of the book lays out why this method is effective, beginning with an explanation of task-based language learning. This style of learning is based on the idea that students can evaluate their own language accuracy by seeing whether they have completed a certain task (Leaver and Kaplan 2004). In order to best measure the progress made throughout the course centered on debate, the authors recommend completing at least a self-evaluation using the ACTFL “Can-Do Statements,” similarly to how students who practice self-instructional language techniques measure their progress. There are also suggestions about class size and forming debate teams within the class, although these suggestions apply more to formal language-learning courses.
Before reading this book, I had not heard of the similarities between the process of learning a language and of preparing for and participating in a debate. This approach makes a lot of sense to me given the way the creators of this method described their rationale behind it. When I think of the most fruitful times of my language learning journey with Swahili, especially in the later years of it, the first thing that comes to mind is the debates that my classes organically engaged in.
For example, over the course of watching the Tanzanian TV show and web series, Siri ya Mtungi, in my advanced Swahili course last year, we got into very heated conversations and even disagreements about the decisions certain characters had made, social and cultural norms, and community power dynamics. This show was not only a useful conversation starter and an educational tool that drew us all into a snapshot of life in the context in which Swahili language and culture exists. It also challenged each of us to develop and put forth our own perspectives and ideas on the spot. At times it was especially challenging to find the right words fast enough to put forth the next argument or defend a point of view, but through this process, which is what this book advocates for, I think I can speak on behalf of the whole class that we were able to expand our vocabulary and comfort with engaging in complex conversations about topics that we felt like we had a stake in defending against or arguing for.
Usefulness for Self-Instructional Learners
There is much to be gained from the overview of the processes that Brown and Brown (2014) categorize as teaching reading, listening, writing, and speaking. While most of the book assumes a group and classroom learning environment, I think there are still strategies that individual learners can use or at least be conscious of. Some of the most valuable takeaways for self-instructional language learners in these sections include the following ideas: read editorials on controversial topics so as to help with the shift from learning to read, to reading to learn (Brown and Brown 2014, 16); use concept maps, word walls, spaced repetition, and KWL (know, want to know, and learned) charts to learn more vocabulary in order to aid in reading and listening comprehension; practice active and pre-and post- listening tasks (37); and practice writing travel logs, news stories, and personal narratives for advanced learners; practice writing editorials, critical responses to others’ writing, synthesis and analysis of research, and policy papers and reports of an academic nature for superior learners (42).
The final section of the book delves into the different types of formal and informal debates that groups of students can engage in to practice their language skills. Some of the more informal alternative types of debate that could likely be facilitated with smaller groups of self-instructional learners are presidential debates, tag-team debates, timed pair share, paraphrase passport, affirmation passport, response gambits, talking chips (Brown and Brown 2014, 71-73). While the oral debate takes at least two people, it seems to me that individual learners could still benefit from this framework that challenges them to get to know a topic over which there is debate (perhaps from a country in which the target language is spoken), read and write responses to pieces on this debate, and craft a position essay about one or multiple sides of the debate as an exercise. Individual learners could also turn these position essays into oral arguments and engage conversation partners in informal debate.
Brown, Tony, and Jennifer Brown. Teaching Advanced Language Skills through Global Debate: Theory and Practice. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2014.
Leaver, Betty L., and Marsha A. Kaplan. “Task-Based Instruction in US Government Slavic Language Programs.” In Task-Based Instruction in Foreign Language Education: Practice and Programs, edited by Betty L. Leaver and Jane R. Willis, 47–66. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004.
Leaver, Betty L., and Boris Shekhtman. “Principles and Practices in Teaching Superior-level Language Skills: Not Just More of the Same.” In Developing Professional-Level Language Profciency, edited by Betty L. Leaver and Boris Shekhtman, 3–33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Shekhtman, Boris. How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately: Foreign Language Communication Tools. Virginia Institute Press, 2013.