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September 1996 - Issue No. #24 (p.15)

Communication through Debate

Summarized from an article which appeared in the Summer 1996 IATEFL Global Issues SIG Newsletter

by Wang Qun

Qingdao University, China

I have been teaching English at universities in China for 16 years and am happy to see many drastic changes taking place in my country. Among these changes is a growing awareness in the English teaching profession that English learning should be seen as a medium for communication, a way of exchanging ideas about what is happening in the world. Therefore, the teacher's job is to "ensure that students effectively acquire a foreign language while empowering them with the knowledge, skill and commitment required by world citizens" (Kip Cates 1994).

As a classroom teacher, I have found English debate is a very efficient way to motivate students in learning and using English, and to help them to be aware of world problems and their social responsibility as conscientious world citizens.

Debate topics we have done with our students can be categorized as follows:

  1. Problems Worldwide (drug-taking in sports, environmental protection, racial & sexual discrimination) and nationwide (urbanization, tourism development)

  2. Government Policies (e.g. open door to the outside world, one-child family plan, education system)

  3. Attitudes to Life (e.g. money as a driving motivation)

  4. Personal Relationships (children's independence, freedom of dating)

The problems discussed during debates trigger students' awareness of the responsibility shouldered by their generation as a member of a family, a specific community and a citizen of the nation and the world. Apart from learning to master a foreign language, they learn to think seriously about how to deal with today's rough world and what contributions they are obliged to make.

One example is the debate about protecting the global environment. Students came to realize that the environment is not a simple issue which can be easily solved by an individual or the government, but rather needs the commitment of the whole world.

Another daring action taken during debates is to comment on hidden phenomena in the country, such as racial and sexual discrimination. Although these two problems are international and appear much worse in some other parts of the world, people in China sometimes do feel their existence.

The main complaint raised was the unpleasant experience the girl university students had when job hunting. They were frustrated by the fact that priority was very often given to male applicants by potential employers, even though the female applicants were more qualified. The most important thing is to adopt a positive attitude towards these problems, let more people know the seriousness of the situation and urge the authority concerned to do something about it.

Through my experience of organizing debate activity, I feel that it is vital for teachers to provide students not only with opportunities to develop their language competence, but also opportunities to develop their sense of social responsibility.


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
E-mail: Work Tel/Fax: 0857-31-5650