Language-Based Privilege In Speech and Debate

Athena Tian | 8/12/22

The long-lasting benefits and perks of adolescents participating in forensics and speech and debate activities are championed among the community and beyond - critical thinking, argumentation, adaptation, public speaking, confidence, interpretation, communication, analysis, collaboration, and arguably the most important of them all - lifelong memories, friendships, and networks. But for almost 5 million K-12 students and potential members of the speech and debate community nationwide, this reality faces the barrier of lacking English as their primary language (DeLollis). For those wishing to engage in an activity which is rooted upon a masterful foundation of the English language and the manipulation of words into coherent phrases, evaluating their meaning in context, and using English words and phrases to develop defensible arguments and artistic interpretations, possessing any external evidence that English was not the first language they learned inevitably adds a challenge that is comparable to asking a plant to grow without its roots.

Each one of these students, at some point in their lifetime, has dedicated themselves to the challenge of attaining proficiency and fluency in the language which is widely considered one of the most complex languages in the world. Yet even with a consummate arsenal of vocabulary and contextual language understanding, the experience and subsequent benefits of speech and debate remains a far-fetched dream for ESL students who were introduced to English of varying ages and circumstances.


Competitors that are typically encountered at common entry-level forensics tournaments are diverse. They vary in their competitive events of preference, appearance, gender identity, ability level, opinions, age, socioeconomic status, and purpose in joining the world of forensics. Even more diversity is evident within the field of judges, ranging from reluctant and unknowledgeable parents to former nationally recognized competitors and everything in between. However, most, if not all, share one trait in common: native or bilingual fluency in English. They utilize this skill to their advantage, which is evident by the fast-paced, culturalized, and nuanced conversations between teammates and competitors alike during rounds, awards ceremonies, lunch breaks, and communication with other competitors and judges. Judges’ paradigms are read to competitors in fast-paced English so as not to delay the round, all while containing sophisticated English terminology and descriptive terms. While competing at tournaments and observing competitors remains one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent mechanism of learning and progress in speech and debate, especially for students who do not have access to advanced and modernized coaching, ESL students face limitations even in this aspect as fast-paced interp scripts and the increased popularity of progressive debate and spreading severely hinder their ability to interpret their competitors words and pick up on the details of their performance.

It is a widely trusted scientific consensus that in the majority of cases, if one has attained or retained a foreign accent later than the age of 12, it is nearly impossible to eradicate the presence of that accent in their everyday delivery of the English language (Great Speech). Meaning that in high school speech and debate competitions, there are inevitably some who have retained an accent from their primary language. While the presence of a slight, yet still incomprehensible accent in verbal communication does not interfere with a competitor’s ability to craft and deliver compelling arguments or performances, the presence of a foreign accent does interfere with the ability of such competitors to gain admirable ranks and respect from judges and peers alike.

The initial bias against foreign accents and those who have noticeably learned English as their non-primary language is derived from the fact that people perceive those with foreign accents as “outgroup” members and instead choose to engage and network with more “ingroup” members,” and a gauge for whether or not someone is familiar and part of an individual’s inner “social group.” This alienation is exacerbated by the very fact that the “social group” of speech and debate kids is indeed rooted in an activity which judges one on their ability to convey ideas and arguments fluently and masterfully in English.

Empirical data demonstrates that intuitive bias against people speaking with foreign accents is not a concern single to forensics. Another industry which is rooted in public speaking and persuasion - the marketing and sales industry. While debaters work relentlessly to sell their argument to their opposition and their judges, studies have shown that the American populace rate their counterparts, salespeople, as “less knowledgeable and convincing” if they have a foreign accent (Lev-Ari). The same can apply for judging ballots and results at speech and debate tournaments. While the tendency of the judge, particularly that of an unknowledgeable or “lay” judge, may rank a debater or a team more favorably due to their physical appearance or appearance of confidence has been widely known and discussed within the world of forensics, the disadvantage faced by a debater with strong arguments - potentially outweighing those of their competitors - has gone largely unnoticed despite the significant increase in ESL students in the states where speech and debate is most prominent. The only thirteen states in the nation in which ESL speakers occupy more than 10% of the statewide population (National Center for Education Statistics) account for 38% of the top 100 schools ranked by the National Speech and Debate Association Membership Database as of August 2022.

It seems like a perfect match. Speech and debate provides ESL students and the diverse communities around them to gain skills and knowledge in language and culture, while ESL students bring dedication and unique perspective to the world of forensics. Despite this, with a universal necessity of parental involvement in speech and debate, whether it be coaching, judging, taking time off from other duties to accompany their student to to tournaments, the reality that ESL students likely have parents who are not as comfortable with advanced and rapidly delivered English as their counterparts poses a significant challenge for an ESL student to even making it to competition in the first place. And those who do manage to capitalize on the opportunity to attend speech and debate competitions are then unable to immerse themselves in the experience of friendship building, having fun, gaining feedback, and receiving the ranks that their skill and dedication truly merits.

So how can the speech and debate community extend its welcome to international students and English language learners alike? There are three steps to helping ESL students achieve excellence in an activity that reaps invaluable experience and skill-building through the usage of the English language.

The first step is to get ESL students involved in the activity and community. With a widespread belief that there are no competitive prospects for them in an activity which has high demands for language and speaking skills, ESL students often seek alternative opportunities and are nudged away from the world of forensics. In resolvance of this stereotypical limitation, schools and debate programs, coaches, and team officers alike must help to engage ESL students in forensics. Outreach could help students recognize their potential within the various competitive events in speech and debate, and recognize the long-term benefits of speech and debate participation beyond competitive results. Competitors at tournaments can aid the cause by not only being respectful to peers who possess foreign characteristics, but actively engaging them in discussions, activities, and notification of opportunities alike.

The second step is to allow ESL students to get involved in the activity. Whilst higher participation rates will result in a higher demand for resources, more organizations, volunteers, teammates, and alumni stepping up to volunteer their time to judge on behalf of students and giving constructive feedback aids both the ESL student and the ever-evolving forensics movement. More tournaments being organized or shifted to an online format could lead to more flexibility in allowing organizations such as Equality in Forensics and geographically-distant friends to serve judging obligations that would otherwise be one of the primary concerns of ESL students hoping to gain the valuable experience of speech and debate.

The third step is allowing ESL students who are involved in speech and debate to be rewarded for their efforts and skill. The disproportionate power of judges and their perception of foreign accents and students who demonstrate English as their non-primary language may not ever be completely eradicated, but can be alleviated. In order to keep forensics tournaments in operation, it is imperative to continue utilizing the service of gracious volunteer judges. However, often,, such unqualified and “lay” judges are known to assign ranks on the criteria of perceived confidence and appearance, as opposed to the strength of the argument or performance, and the results of ESL students can be significantly hurt by unqualified judges who may ignore the quality of the ESL student’s arguments or performance in favor of a faster-paced and knowledgeable native-speaker. This barrier can be partially addressed if a round’s judge(s) were given a copy or outline of each speaker’s argument or script prior to the beginning of argumentation. This idea has already been presented as a means of reducing inaccurate results originating from unknowledgeable judges and inherent disparities in demographic and appearance of competitors, but it can also help judges of all levels and tournaments better follow and understand, evaluate, and constructively give effective critique to students who may possess a foreign accent or difficulties in presenting in the English language.