Spotlight Iowa City: A love of languages


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Ashot Vardanyan has lived in two very different worlds.

The UI visiting instructor has experienced Armenia during the Soviet era and capitalist Iowa City — and he’s transferred decades of life and culture from the former, using it while teaching at the latter in the UI Asian and Slavic languages and literature department.

For Vardanyan — a native of Yerevan, Armenia — a focus on the everyday use of Russian is most important. It shows in the way he leads his classrooms, consistently using poetry, media, and literature from his home country as examples.

“In language, it’s absolutely important; it’s a good way to organize dialogue,” said Vardanyan, referring to his teaching method.

Born in 1957 in the then-Soviet-controlled capital of Yerevan, Vardanyan graduated from college at 23 but had to forgo his passion for teaching after he was drafted into the Soviet military to serve one and a half years.

By 1998 — and with years of teaching Russian and English on his résumé — he arrived at the UI campus to help write an Armenian civics textbook. He was hooked.

“That was the time that I really fell in love with Iowa,” he said, leaning back in his chair at the UI Main Library, his Hawkeye cap resting nearby.

Vardanyan eventually returned in 2002 to work toward a master’s degree in Teaching Russian as a Foreign Language, teaching in the classroom at the same time.

Jonathan Rosen, UI graduate student in actuarial science and a former student of Vardanyan’s, said the 52-year-old integrated Russian life in the classroom.

“He’s very enthusiastic and loves language,” said Rosen. Vardanyan creates an immersive classroom, focused on conversation, Rosen said, and he even set up after-class meetings as casual get-togethers while speaking Russian.

Vardanyan’s teaching eventually extended beyond the classroom. In 2003, his wife and daughter moved to Iowa City to live with him. His daughter, Ani Vardanyan, didn’t speak English at the time.

Ani Vardanyan said her father was a big help in teaching her to learn English, passing on his extensive knowledge of grammar and phonics.

Teaching in Iowa City has shown Ashot Vardanyan some differences in the education system.
While the Soviet system emphasized facts and knowledge, UI education focuses on critical thinking and creative learning, he said.

The UI instructor also noticed that while group work was limited in the Soviet system, it is apparent in Iowa City. Vardanyan said he saw students working and learning together all over campus.

So he’s integrated that observation by planning real-life group work for his students, such as having them navigate downtown Iowa City with directions in Russian.

“Students have to practice in possible, real situations,” he said.

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