Debate sharpens nonnative speaking skills

The University of Washington Bothell’s Debate Team offers valuable skills and experience to any student, including nonnative speakers of English who sharpen their word choice and sentence structure through competition.

Misheel Ildbaatar, a native of Mongolia in her first year of college, and Helen Fita, a native of Ukraine in her second year, are both new to the team in the novice category. Both say debate has prompted new ways to think about language and culture — and has been a way to make friends during remote operations.

The team, which is a campus club, has had another good year, winning a program in the regional contest and sending nine students to the four-day national competition over spring break. English is the second language for a number of the members, including two of the nine in the nationals, said Dr. Denise Vaughan, head coach.

Language skills

Denise Vaughan

For students who didn’t grow up speaking English, debate is a good way to learn the language very quickly, said Vaughan, who has been at UW Bothell since 2011 as director of forensics and lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences. She teaches courses in debate, social research and policy studies.

Students improve their literacy by capitalizing on storytelling and speaking about what they’re interested in, Vaughan said. “They can find their strength in speaking and connect it back to their academic work in terms of writing.”

The debate team typically has a number of nonnative speakers, said Vaughan. This year, in addition to students who are from Mongolia and Ukraine, other students are speaking Spanish or Chinese at home. Despite the challenges of teleconferencing during the pandemic, the team grew by five members to more than 20 students who took part at some level.

UW Bothell won the Northwest Forensics Conference’s Division II Silver Program for 2020-2021. The conference represents Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and part of Utah. “We have a strong program in both speech and debate,” Vaughan said.

Beyond competition, debate skills are useful to anyone in any course or circumstance, she said. “Debate is ethical communication, meaning you have to listen to what the other person is saying in order to be able to properly respond,” Vaughan said. “It’s a fabulous way to develop language skills.”

From Mongolia

Misheel Ildbaatar
Misheel Ildbaatar. Courtesy photo.

Ildbaatar didn’t know any English until five years ago and speaks Mongolian at home with her parents. Before coming to the United States with her family in 2016, Ildbaatar participated on her school debate team in Mongolia, where there were different topics and structure.

A debate in Mongolia might be about a local policy or be to “prove your notebook is the best notebook,” she said. The debate topics she’s seeing now are issues such as hate speech, gun control and the death penalty.

In Mongolia, her team also did not compete outside the school, and there was less structure. A teacher would say when to start and stop.

Ildbaatar says the debate experience at UW Bothell supports her plan to major in Law, Economics & Public Policy and her goal to become a defense lawyer. “There will be some new words or topic that I haven’t visited before,” she said, “and it’s helping me look at what’s happening in the world.”

From Ukraine

Helen Fita
Helen Fita. Courtesy photo

Fita has been in the United States since she was a toddler and is comfortable speaking English at school and Ukrainian at home. She is planning to major in Biology and Environmental Studies, with the goal of working in marine biology and teaching oceanography to contribute to the field.

Debate started her thinking about how sentence structures in two languages are related. “Even though I was debating in English,” Fita said, “I was thinking about how the structure and word order would be if I were to debate in Ukrainian.

“Debate not only helped my skills in English and in organizing logically but also my Ukrainian,” she said.

Fita was part of the team selected for the nationals, competing as a novice in the speech division in Informative Speaking.

Go for it

Screenshot of debate team members
Screenshot of debate team members in March 2020. Courtesy of Denise Vaughan.

The debate team is about more than language and logic skills. Being on the debate team also means sharing an experience with other people, adding points of view and gaining confidence, both Fita and Ildbaatar said.

“We get to see all these different cultures and ideas come together,” Fita said. “Debate means communication and listening to the other side. I think that’s been really helpful for being able to see the whole picture instead of being biased toward one side.”

For someone who hasn’t had an in-person college experience yet, Ildbaatar said it’s nice to meet people online who have similar interests. She recommends that other nonnative English speakers try the debate team — with confidence.

“It’s OK if you mispronounce a word or don’t know a meaning of a word. Just act like everything’s OK,” she said. “Go for it.”

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