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HSE University Students Become European Champions of Qatar’s Debate

Photo courtesy of Artem Saenko

Anton Klyuev, fifth-year student of the Bachelor’s in Asian and African Studies, and Artem Saenko, graduate of the same programme, have won the European round of the Qatar’s Debate competition, beating 11 teams from non-Arabic-speaking countries.

Anton and Artem study the Arabic language, Arab culture, history, and economics. ‘We even dream in Arabic sometimes,’ they admit. In an interview with the HSE News Service, the winners talked about how the Russian team ended up in the European debates and why debating skills are so important when learning languages.

— Tell us how you got to the competition in Qatar. Did you have any experience participating in similar competitions before?

Artem: In 2022, our teacher Andrey Zeltyn contacted us and invited us to go to Qatar. Of course, we got excited about this idea and started preparing; eventually, the competition was moved to Istanbul and we went there.

It so happened that during the online selection, our team was included in the group of native speakers. The test questions were very varied, from everyday topics to global ones—for example, what desertification or the space arms race is. It was easy for us to pass this stage, since Arabic is taught wonderfully at HSE University.

As a result, we reached the final 16 of the World Championship, where we competed with Harvard and universities in Chicago, the Emirates, Japan, and Korea. But we ended up against our rivals from Lebanon. Of course, competing with native speakers is much more interesting, but the result was obvious from the very beginning. We lost, but I am convinced that sometimes losing is also necessary. After all, in addition to tremendous language practice, this was also an opportunity to make new contacts.

And that is what happened with us: in Istanbul, I met a member of the jury and one of the organisers of the European Championship in Qatar. It turned out that she loves Russia very much and speaks Russian perfectly, so we began to communicate. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have learnt about the European Championship.

To be honest, I thought that the team from Russia would not be allowed to participate in European competitions. At the same time, we had a great chance of winning, despite strong opponents. We were very worried while we were waiting for the selection results, but in the end, our team was approved. However, we did not make it to Qatar this time, since the competition was moved to an online format.

— Which group did you find yourself in this time? How did the competition go?

Anton: As a result of the selection, we ended up in the group for non-native speakers—we were terribly happy about this. In the first match, we beat a team from Tbilisi University; in the second, we beat a team from Turkey, whose participants turned out to be Indonesians. The next day, there was a match with a team from Bulgaria. The stakes were raised when it turned out that one of the opposing team members was Arab. But we won. A couple of days later came the final match against the team from Bosnia. It was not very easy, but we managed to cope, and the jury also named Artem and me the best speakers. Later, we discovered that we were the only team that did not lose a single match.

— What was the most difficult part for you? 

Anton: To find reasoning against your opponent’s arguments and build a discourse—you only have 20 minutes for this. It is important not to just argue—no one will appreciate it. The argument is built on several basic principles: first, you name and explain the argument, logically twist it to fit a given topic, and provide statistics, facts, and expertise. In addition, you need to try and present four to five arguments from different fields of knowledge: politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, ecology, and law.

Sometimes, the topics are quite peculiar. For example, ‘Restrictions placed by social media platforms on “posting content arising from conflict” are justified.’ One team needs to build arguments for it, the other against it. Who is for and who is against is determined by drawing lots.

— What do you think are the benefits of participating in debates?

Artem: In Qatar, debates are a separate subject starting from primary school. The skill of debating allows one to improve not only your language proficiency, but also your speed of thinking; in a debate, you raise up all your knowledge from your subconscious and include cause-and-effect relationships. In addition, expression, artistry, vigour, and the ability to approach the debate from different angles are important. This is very valuable, because while Google can easily help you find out what year Napoleon was born, real knowledge begins when you think in a foreign language. This means that you are able to communicate on political, economic, and other topics.

I can say the same about simultaneous interpreting—this is a very cool skill that strengthens you and teaches you how to get out of any situation. The key rule for simultaneous interpreters is that they have no right to remain silent. There is a professional code according to which you still have to speak, even if you don’t know what to say. This develops reaction speed.

— Is all of this taught as part of your educational programme? 

Artem: Yes, and I believe that elements of simultaneous interpreting and debate should definitely be introduced into the curriculum in senior years. However, despite the solid knowledge that the university gives us, when it comes to olympiads and other competitions, we have to do a lot of studying on our own—reading everything, including medical and legal literature. Besides, there are many dialects in the Arabic language.

— Why did you decide to study in a Russian-speaking language environment?

Anton: Since Soviet times, Russian Arabic studies have been considered some of the most advanced in the world. I strongly doubt that they teach better anywhere. Maybe only at the Arabic Language Centre at Qatar University. HSE University is perhaps the only place where non-Arabs can teach Arabic as well as native speakers and, most importantly, instil interest in learning the language. Our faculty knows how to do this.

— Is the Arabic language in demand nowadays?

Artem: You bet! In Dubai, for example, a branch of the Sorbonne has opened. This city, in fact, is becoming an academic hub to which smart, educated people with knowledge of Arabic and English flock from all over the world. One can make a wonderful academic career there. But Russia also has excellent opportunities for career development: vacancies for translators, specialists in working with Arabic clients, etc are constantly appearing.

— What plans does your team have for the near future?

Artem: We would like to take part in the World Debating Championships in Doha on May 24–29, 2024. But only undergraduate students can participate in it; I have already completed my bachelor’s degree, and Anton will graduate next year.

Now we are actively starting to build relations with Qatar, so we are thinking about creating an all-Russian debate project at HSE University, which would help develop strong student teams throughout the country. To do this, we need to connect different universities. HSE University could become a centre that would attract students, hold internal competitions, select the strongest ones, and create teams to participate in European and world championships.

December 04, 2023