Why you should still debate even if English isn’t your first language

Explaining your point of view is often difficult as it is, let alone in a language that doesn’t come to you naturally. My first language is Russian and, although I’ve been learning English for most of my school life, I still felt quite lost when I first started studying in the UK. I had no issues with my written English or understanding others, however, speaking myself – and being convincing when I do – was a massive struggle even on an everyday level, mostly because I didn’t have the confidence.

I joined debating in the very beginning of my first academic year and loved the idea behind it – but I was also dreading my first speech in a round. And, to be honest, it didn’t go too well, and neither did the second or third. I had to speak slowly, thinking about every word and stopping all the time because I wasn’t sure I was making any sense – and so I was very surprised when my lack of fluency had no impact on my ‘ranking’ in the debate. And that is one of the things I love most about debating – judges in debating are prohibited to take into consideration anything but the participant’s arguments.

Knowing that my accent or my phrasing doesn’t matter was really encouraging – but I had another concern. The arguments I made for my side of the debate sounded excellent when I was thinking them through in Russian, but were much less persuasive when I actually said them. However, as I continued to debate, that happened less and less as I listened to other debaters’ speeches, heard how native speakers would phrase their arguments and asked for feedback from judges – after a month in debating, the issue went away almost entirely. Going to competitions was also a great help as many of them have a separate English as a second language category, where in the final stages of the tournament you wouldn’t have to compete with native speakers – unless, of course, you want to!

I’ve been debating for 2 years now – although I still occasionally make small mistakes when I speak or have to say “that thing” when I forgot a word during a round, my English is nowhere near when it was when I just came to the UK, and I owe at least half of this progress to debating. I sound much more persuasive in English than I do in my own language – debating taught me to think quickly and put these ideas into arguments in the most convincing way possible and, of course, gave me the confidence in my words. And these skills are absolutely priceless not only in casual conversations but also in business ones – being able to come across like you know what you’re talking about (even when you don’t) is an exceptional ability to have.

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