The tournament at the Cape Cod Community College on the 16th and 17th of October was very different from the one in Binghamton. This one was a lot smaller and had mostly novices participating. The judging was very different as well. In Binghamton, the judges were experienced. The current World Universities Debate Championship (WUDC) winners were among the judges there. As opposed to Binghamton, where I judged one round with Chris Croke, the 2010 WUDC winner from Sydney, in Cape Cod I judged with some judges who had no experience of debating at all.
This whole American experience and competitive debating has raised many questions in my EFL teacher’s head. I won’t report them all here but I want to say something about two things that puzzle me most. Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I want to emphasise that my starting point is that debate is a wonderful way for students to get to know each other in an inspiring international context. Debate is a form of intellectual sport that widens your perspectives. It gives the debaters self-confidence and develops for instance their critical thinking, public speaking, listening and social skills. I truly believe in all this and I am an advocate of debate. Still, as the very nature of debate encourages critical thinking, looking at the practice critically is in line with the practice itself.
The two aspects in competitive international debate (WUDC) that I wonder most about are the judging and the role of English as a lingua franca. Both of these aspects come together in my suspicion that the world is not necessarily taken into account in this “Worlds” format. Many people practising the competitive format like to think of debate as a game. I understand that as long as it is about winning and losing, it has to be a game. Still, the competitions shape people’s minds. The competitors all around the world are generally young people and they are influenced by the rules of the game. Debate is also an educational tool, not just a game. Because thousands and thousands of young people practise it around the world and thousand and thousands of teachers use it for educational purposes, debate is a powerful political tool. This is why I think it should be used responsibly.
The WUDC format is nowadays called the Worlds format, not British Parliamentary anymore as it used to be called. The shift in the name should ideally reflect shift in the thinking. The format is no longer a property of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. It is now facing the challenges of world wide multicultural communication. More and more people enter the competitions using English as a lingua franca, not as native speakers of the language: people talking to people with the goal of hopefully thinking and speaking a better world.
Looking at the list of winners in WUDC, I do not see non-native teams at all: http://flynn.debating.net/worhosts.htm
The same applies to the list of best speakers: http://flynn.debating.net/bestspk1.htm
This seems to verify that the native English speakers are the best debaters and the best speakers. Not just seems to, but does verify. The rest of the world is not so clever :D. I really don’t think so. To me it seems that the rest of the world may have started their debate (game) programmes later than the English-speaking world and that their challenge in international debating may be the language more than argumentation. I want to believe that people can be intelligent even if they do not speak English. I came across this idea a while ago when discussing the descriptors of language proficiency in the Common European Framework of Reference. To me it seems that some descriptors are based on the assumption that once you develop your skills in a foreign language, your cognitive skills develop equally. This I thought would mean that because I do not speak Chinese, the Chinese can think that I am stupid. A colleague thought that that would be quite reasonable. I suppose she is right. I am stupid in very many languages. But back to debating. The WUDC competitions are partly a language proficiency test. It is not official but the system is embedded into it. What strengthens the native English speakers good position is the fact that the best judges are former champions and as you could see from the winner lists, this means that the final rounds are mostly judged by the English-speaking judges. A self-perpetuating system favouring the English-speaking empire. I’m sorry, but that’s what it looks like.
To improve the status quo, I would suggest a change in the adjudication process. The judging pool should be more like a representative world parliament representing countries participating in the competition and intercultural communication criteria should be developed for adjudication. This would mean that everybody, not just the non-native speakers, but everybody should strive at speaking in a comprehensible manner, speaking to the world.
Coming back from Cape Cod, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant. The proverb in my fortune cookie said:
“Life is never more fun than when you’re the underdog competing with the giants.”
Am I competing? Am I having fun? I simply refuse to believe that thinking through English makes you the cleverest person on earth. But it can give you power. If I’m wrong, it may be because my English is not perfect :D.
Cape Cod photos by Anni: http://mirjas.kuvat.fi/kuvat/Cape+Cod+16-17+Oct+2010/