This is a report I wrote about a week after the tour. It is unaltered bar typo correction and updated contact details.
A brief report on the ESU’s Portugal Tour, 28th March – 6th April 2000 Having been on several debating tours before, but never to a nation that did not speak English as its first language, I had some basic expectations before arriving in Lisbon but was uncertain of details in every respect. I must first confess that prior to departure, I knew absolutely nothing about Portugal. This - something that I imagine might be common to debaters departing for this tour - is quickly remedied by the fact that the tour takes in both the north and the south of the country (and the two are very different). Indeed, I would say that the Portugal tour is an opportunity to get to know the country extremely quickly. Debating The quality of debating we saw on the tour was, without exaggeration, astonishing. This was apparent not only in the show debates in which we participated, where our involvement might be considered to have made us too involved to judge, but also at the trials for the Portuguese teams to attend European Championships. The trials were hosted at the British Council in Lisbon towards the end of the tour, and we had the privilege of acting as a selection panel. At the upper end of the spectrum, the debating we witnessed was not ‘good considering the language gap’ – it was simply ‘good.’ The two debaters we selected for their ‘A’ team was better than many UK/English speaking teams – as evidenced by their later success at the King’s ‘European’ Intervarsity. To be perfectly honest, this was a welcome surprise; to that extent, this was an exercise in exorcising my ignorance. Many of the individuals debating in Portugal are exceptionally talented, debating fluently and intelligently in another language. Here is the flaw, however: we saw little evidence of a permanent coaching system for Portuguese debating outside the capital. Individuals can be good debaters through chance and talent, but there is little encouragement to get them there, or to help them improve once there. Some of this will be naturally rectified with the creation of a Portuguese ‘circuit’, that our hosts were set upon doing as we departed (I should state to the ESU, as I stated to them, that I am all too willing to help in such a project). However, more must be done. A first suggestion would be to attempt to hang on to students that have passed through the (successful) fledgling Portuguese World Schools team and keep them involved: this serves the double purpose of getting some enthusiastic coaching, and having a youth involvement in the teaching side of the programme that might lend it more appeal. A second suggestion would be to enlist the aid of a British or American debater to help, working with the Schools squad (and perhaps more widely) in the run-up to the World Schools competition. It is my understanding that planning for this is already underway. Coaching The opportunity to coach was, on the whole, extremely rewarding. I have coached undergraduate beginners at Cambridge for three years, and this was certainly a very different experience. Amongst students, the range of experience and ability was very large, and if the debaters selected for the tour are interested in teaching (as we all were), this is very enjoyable: the students concerned were eager to learn about the British style and debating more generally, especially at St Dominic’s, the school we visited. A coda to be aware of, however: at two of the venues we attended, the students of the university’s Advanced English class, who had no particular interest in debating, were made to attend by their teacher. As representatives of the British Council and the ESU, we were perfectly willing to carry out such sessions: but this sort of audience – one that doesn’t want to listen to you – is going to take little away from the experience. The Social Side It is important to note two things in the planning of future tours. The first is that the British debaters spend the entirety of the time with the American Debate Team, who are also part of the Portugal tour. The other is that the experience is a 24 hour one: debaters on this year’s tour were housed two to a
room – myself and John-Paul Toner sharing one room, the two American girls sharing the other. This was fine in our experience – John-Paul and I get on very well, and I am used to sharing four to a room on tours – but this is something that ought to be considered in future selections: one never gets away from the group!! As a reasonably social and unfussy person, this was absolutely fine for me, but might not be fine for others in the future: what happens, for example, with a boy/girl selection (again, fine for me, potentially not for others)? As a selector for the Cambridge tours, I am all too aware that whilst social concerns ought not to come in to the considerations of selecting for a debating tour, they always do – this is especially true of the Portugal Tour. Having said that, as an individual I found the experience to have no drawbacks and I consider this intensity to be one of the tour’s strengths. One is made to feel very special by the reception received at the venues and in the debates themselves. On a social level, the hospitality we received was absolutely first-rate, and I feel that the link with the British Council is very productive, adding another dimension to the tour’s treatment and responsibilities. I hope that this continues in the future. The Council’s work year-round enables the ESU debaters to drop into a setup that is already in place, and the task would be immeasurably harder without them, even without all their administrative work for the tour in addition. At every venue we visited, something was prepared for us – a very welcoming fact. We were also lucky to strike up quick acquaintances with Portuguese students, of whom two were assigned to us throughout, being joined periodically by others from specific venues. However, hosts shouldn’t feel that ‘minders’ are required at all times during visits; all too often, these guides are student members of the debating society concerned with other things to do, and our presence is a veiled inconvenience. However, said guides were always pleasant in the extreme.
That is all that immediately springs to mind in the aftermath of an exceptionally enjoyable two weeks. The reader ought to be aware that I have focussed on the things that could be improved as this would obviously seem more useful that informing the ESU at length of what a good tour it is and what a good time is had by the participants – very and very being the respective answers. I’m grateful to have gone. I am perfectly willing to discuss any particular questions about or arising from the tour, and am contactable via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 01284 766337. In addition I offer my services to the ESU for any debating/judging requirements here in the UK.
PS As a result of my participation on the tour, I was invited to act as Chief Adjudicator for the inaugural Portuguese National Debating Championships by the British Council, an offer I was pleased and proud to accept. I returned to Lisbon in May 2000 and the efforts of running a new IV was mitigated by the same solcaes of great company and great port we had encountered on the tour. A write-up of both the competition and the tour are available at www.debating.net/lds, home of the Lisbon Debating Society and an excellent source of information for those thinking about debating in Portugal. Turnout was high and once again the quality of debating was impressive.