fall 2017

The Native Crux

by Laura Alviž

The article revolves around the issue of native speaker bias that most members of the debating community experience during their debating career, and proposes potential solutions for this problem and reaches the conclusion that a combination of several mechanisms may be able to mitigate the effects of the native speaker bias.

By Laura Alviž • Germany


The article revolves around the issue of native speaker bias that most members of the debating community experience during their debating career. The piece begins by outlining the perks that native-English-speaking debaters receive and the challenges they face. Building up from that, it introduces the theory that the native speaker bias transforms itself from a positive to a negative bias with the non-native-English-speaking judges’ growing awareness of the existence of said bias. Finally, the article proposes potential solutions for this problem and reaches the conclusion that a combination of several mechanisms may be able to mitigate the effects of the native speaker bias.

Opinion Piece

I doubt that a significant number of debating enthusiasts would contest the notion that being a native speaker of English equips debaters with at least an initial advantage over non-native-English-speaking debaters. They can start learning Style, Content and Strategy earlier because they do not have to first pass a rather high threshold of language competency to be able to begin their learning journey, enabling them to reach a level of professionalism that a significant number of non-native-English-speaking debaters may either never achieve, or need a further career in university debating to acquire. It can also generally be said, with exceptions, that the institutional framework for debating in English-speaking countries is different from that in non-English-speaking countries as debating communities are often bigger, better financed and offer stronger support structures. Due to the high prestige that debating enjoys in English-speaking countries, governments or companies there are relatively more keen to fund English-language debating. Through this additional funding, governments hope to encourage more students to apply for spots on the national team and companies hope to reap the reputational benefits of being associated with such a high-prestige activity.

However, native-English-speaking debaters also encounter problems that are specific to their status as native speakers of English. In debate tournaments pitched at beginner to intermediate-level debaters, I have witnessed numerous debaters debating under the assumption that their native tongue is going to win them the debate. This assumption, while not always unfounded, acts as an inhibitor to their personal growth. Furthermore, an important subgroup of native-English-speaking debaters who debate for countries where English is not a native language struggle with the use of scientific jargon and terminology. Native-English-speaking debaters are often accustomed to using informal slang or colloquial expressions. In contrast, those who speak English only as a second or foreign language are more likely to have learnt only formal expressions since most of their encounters with English take place in an academic context. . Thus, while native-English-speaking debaters are theoretically able to express ideas and issues that are extremely complex due to their language proficiency; some, especially beginners, show an unwillingness or inability to use complex language to convey their thoughts on the debate floor due to their long-standing habit of using informal expressions.

Despite being aware of the privileges that native-English-speaking debaters enjoy, some adjudicators may allow the fluency of native-English-speaking debaters to influence them, such that it often translates into the tangible benefit of native-English-speaking debaters being awarded higher points. The impact of this privilege is seen very strongly in the judging category of Style since Style is arguably the most subjective of the three judging areas. The metric of Delivery hence becomes critically susceptible to subconscious influences such as accent, sentence structure or range of vocabulary, which leads to adjudicators confusing these variables with the holistic rhetorical persuasiveness that they supposedly assess.

While the phenomenon described above appears intuitive, I came to the conclusion that the inverse might be true as well, assuming that the two are not mutually exclusive. Briefings before the start of tournaments frequently sensitise judges to the problem of native-speaker biases. In a scenario in which a member of a judging panel evaluates a debate and is keen on avoiding giving undue favour to the team with native-English-speaking debaters, the adjudicator could potentially refuse to award points for Style beyond a certain threshold. That reaction may be traced back to a self-developed system of checks and balances due to a perceived or an actual lack of proficiency on the part of the adjudicator. Therefore, a desire to avoid unduly favouring native-English-speaking debaters, coupled with inexperience on the part of adjudicators, may result in a situation where native-English-speaking debaters are unfairly disadvantaged. Instances of unfair disadvantaging of native-English-speaking debaters, henceforth referred to as negative native-speaker bias, increase in proportion to the awareness of the positive native-speaker bias, with inexperienced adjudicators having a disproportionate impact in increasing instances of negative native-speaker bias. Minimizing education about the positive native-speaker bias harms the quality of judging, thus, striving towards adjudicator proficiency is the only suitable option to reduce instances of the negative native-speaker bias.

First of all, both the positive and the negative native-speaker bias can already be greatly limited when comprehensive judging takes place. This means creating an obligation for adjudicators to substantiate every reason they provide as explanation for their decision. Ideally, adjudicators should substantiate the reasons behind their judgement to a level of detail comparable to the detail in debaters’ speeches. Thus, judges increase the chances for speakers or coaches to point out inconsistencies in the judging as well as allow the judges themselves to realise that they may need to work on their judging and potentially seek help to improve their judging.

The above suggestion still seems problematic in some cases because it again assumes a certain level of experience and proficiency in adjudicators that cannot be taken for granted. As a consequence, during briefings, adjudicators should be made aware of both the positive and the negative native-speaker biases, instead of being told repeatedly about only positive native-speaker bias, which is what I frequently observe. An effective way to do so that maintains the self-learning mechanism of the comprehensive judging proposal is through the adjudication of debate videos featuring native speakers. The most realistic adjudicator trainings should include non-native-English-speaking debaters as well, ideally debaters whose overall performance is either on par with or slightly better than that of the average native-English-speaking debater in the video. This is important as it does not only show inflated or deflated scores in absolute terms, but also points out the relative difference between the native-English-speaking debater’s and the non-native-English-speaking debater’s set of points.

Last, diversity of panels still has to be discussed. While factors such as the level of experience of an adjudicator or their regional origin matter immensely, it is equally if not more important to take native, ESL and EFL status into account when choosing adjudicators. This opinion piece will not discuss the impact native-English-speaking-debaters have on the judgement of native-English-speaking adjudicators, but I strongly believe that the linguistic backgrounds of native-English-speaking and non-native-English-speaking judges differ enough to explain group-specific divergences in debate assessment. This difference, at least when talking about what is commonly called the Western world, often weighs more heavily than differences in core values or specific knowledge that regionally diverse panels face. When one constructs a panel for a debate involving native-English-speaking debaters, it’s worth considering filling the panel with three European judges, out of whom one is a native-speaker, one an ESL speaker and one an EFL speaker, over filling the spots with purely native-English-speaking adjudicators, regardless of whether the purely native-English-speaking panel has sufficient regional diversity.

A sustainable strategy to mitigate the effects of both the positive and the negative native-speaker bias necessarily consists of more than one component and my attempt at creating that strategy should by no means be seen as exhaustive. Most fundamentally, wide-ranging dialogue within the debating community about the well-discussed issue of the positive native-speaker bias has to be maintained while at the same time the notion of its negative counterpart needs to be dealt with more thoroughly, empirically verified or finally falsified.

Author Bio

Laura Alviž (19) is a student of Politics, Administration and International Relations at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany. She has been involved in competitive schools debating through the Debating Society Germany since 2013. She participated in 20 (at the time of the publication probably 21) international debating tournaments, including the World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC) 2015 in Singapore as a debater and WSDC 2016 in Stuttgart, Germany as coach, adjudicator and member of the organising team. She currently coaches the German National World Schools Debating team and runs the debating branch of her university’s rhetoric club The Soapbox.