School competition
Learning German Debating Culture

The young people decide themselves about the topics they want to debate.
The young people decide themselves about the topics they want to debate. | Photo (detail): © Jugend debattiert/Hertie-Stiftung

The school competition “Youth Debates” can benefit not only German young people but also GFL and GSL learners. A Berlin pilot project will now be adapted to preparatory and welcoming classes throughout Germany. 

Should every day begin with a German lesson? Should the use of public transport be free of charge? These and similar questions are discussed in the competition Youth Debates, which has taken place since 2001 under the auspices of the Federal President and is aimed at pupils in secondary schools. After appropriate training, teachers receive material to help young people learn to use arguments to persuade others in debate. The best debaters of a school then have the opportunity to take part in regional, state and national competitions.

Learners of German debate at home and abroad

That the format works with more than only native speakers is shown by experience abroad and in a pilot project in Berlin welcoming classes. Under the name Youth Debates Internationally, the competition has taken place since 2004/2005 in ten countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, China, Spain, Portugal and six South American countries organize debating competitions for learners of German. And in the spring of 2016 about 150 pupils from twelve language groups at nine Berlin schools had the opportunity to try the format and vie against each other in a city competition.

Unlike native-speaker participants, second and foreign-language learners learn in the preparatory instruction not only how to find arguments and structure their speeches, but also how to express themselves appropriately in German-language debates. “Vocabulary exercises help learners develop groups of topics. Using indirect speech, they learn to refer to the speeches of others. And cards showing useful phrases, oriented to the levels of the Common European Framework of Reference, convey typical formulations that help introduce sentences or conclude paragraphs”, explains Ansgar Kemmann, project director of Youth Debates at the Hertie Foundation.

Cross-school training and competitions

Now the project is to be extended to GSL groups throughout Germany. Eight federal states, says Kemmann, have already decided in favour of its introduction: “Youth Debates is especially popular in the city states because they have a higher proportion of immigrant pupils and because they can more easily organize joint afternoon training sessions thanks to the shorter distances.” Federal states covering a large geographical area such as North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, which are more likely to have problems with residency permit restrictions in the dealing with young refugees, want initially to focus on a big city. And in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania regional training is planned.

Claudia Häberlein is one of the teachers promoting the project. From 2011 to 2014 she took part in the competition as a GFL teacher in China. Now, in a Stuttgart preparatory class, she has developed a model teaching unit for introducing debate, which she will soon be presenting in teacher training courses. Naturally, she says, it is a challenge for all young people to illuminate a topic from different sides and accept different opinions, and there are places where debating culture does not play as large a role as it does in Germany: “My pupils in China always used to ask me during the search for arguments which one was the right solution. Only with time did they realize that there isn’t one. To witness this thought process was for me an important experience.”

Participation in the competition opens new perspectives

The young people decide themselves about the topics they want to debate. When socially or politically explosive issues are put on the table, a more regulated debate offer more promising conditions than an open discussion. “Many of the refugee pupils come from countries where men and women don’t have equal status. Within a playful and sporting context, it’s easier for them to accept that girls too take the floor and boys listen to them”, says Kemmann.

Youth Debates also provides good preparation for the argument-oriented language exam the “Deutsches Sprachdiplom” (German Language Diploma). But also apart from the exam, the competition can decisively influence the scholastic careers of the participants, says Häberlein: “Often welcoming or preparatory classes are docked at secondary modern schools and in the end everyone is happy if the kids are somehow schooled. Young people who demonstrate particular linguistic and intellectual abilities in the competition may find an easier path to grammar school, and this can decisively influence their future path in life.”

Silva Alsuliman Photo (detail): © Private “In our classes we often have to collect arguments for and against a certain issue. We never did this in school in Syria. So it’s helped that I’ve already learned this in the welcoming class.”
Silva Alsuliman fled Syria to Germany at the age of sixteen, took part in a welcoming class of Youth Debates and then won the Berlin pilot competition. She now attends an 11th grade mainstream class at a Berlin school, where she benefits daily from her debate training.

Ivan Michna Photo (detail): © Private “Thanks to Youth Debates, I had the opportunity to travel to Eastern Europe and make many new friends. At school I profit from what I’ve learned and this will also be a huge advantage for me in my job. The ability to make a cogent argument is invaluable.”
Ivan Michna began learning German in the second grade and then attended a Youth Debates workgroup at grammar school. In 2014 he won the national competition of the Czech Republic and reached the international finale. Now he is studying law in Prague and wants to become a lawyer.

Youth Debates is an initiative of the Federal President and is under his sponsorship. Partners include the Hertie Foundation, Robert Bosch Foundation, Mercator Foundation, Heinz Nixdorf Foundation, the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, and the Ministries of Cultural Affairs and the parliaments of the federal states. Youth Debates Internationally, a national competition in Central and Eastern Europe, is a project of the Goethe-Institut, the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, the non-profit Hertie Foundation and the Central Agency for German Schools Abroad.