It’s English-speaking season!

JISHOU, HUNAN — Along with rains and peach blossoms, April here brings another spring event, the undergraduate English speaking contests.

As I did last year, I have served as a judge for several college contests, including my own college’s, and will of course judge the university finals next month. It’s a task I both enjoy and dread, because quite frankly it’s not that easy to be a judge for these things.

Case in point: my college had nearly a dozen sophomores participate in our competition, from which we judges had to choose two to represent the College of International Exchange next month. The criteria include the usual for public speaking — content, argument, stage presence, eye contact, inflection, diction — but also pronunciation, intonation and grammar. After all, these students are speaking a foreign language.

We found six who we judged as competitive, but could not narrow them down to two. Some had good public speaking skills, but their spoken English was lacking in some ways. Meanwhile, those who had very good spoken English lacked some public speaking skills.

What a headache!

The university, and the provincial and national contests, all include a three-minute prepared speech, a question-answer session, then a two-minute impromptu speech. Last year, there were questions on the impromptu, also, but I hear that section might be eliminated.

Given the number of students in our college competition, we decided to just require a prepared speech and to ask one question of each contestant in last week’s first (and we thought final) round. (There were also a dozen freshmen in the contest, to give them some experience.)

Well, that scheme was not all that successful, since we three judges could not settle on two final winners. So today we invited the six finalists to give us two-minute impromptus.

Almost the same results. We all agreed on one clear winner, a student with excellent English pronunciation and intonation but some weaknesses in public speaking. But choosing number two was not so easy. As you might expect, some students can deliver great prepared speeches, but have trouble with impromptu speaking. (Chinese students excel at memorizing things, since it’s a requirement of their education from primary schools, not to mention having to memorize thousands of characters just to read a newspaper or a book.)

Should we go with the student who quoted President Obama and referred to current events in her impromptu, but has relatively poor pronunciation? Or go with the student with very good English speaking skills, but is rather shy on stage? What about that one, who is very well-spoken, logical and animated, but has only one gesture while speaking? Or the one who is perfectly at ease in front of an audience, but has pronunciation and grammar problems?

In the end we settled on a contestant whose strengths lay in public speaking and quick thinking, but with some pronunciation issues. So, we have two representatives whose skills complement each other.

After some experiences judging, I can tell that foreign teachers and Chinese teachers have different criteria when they judge these things. The Chinese teachers focus on the spoken English part primarily, putting less emphasis on the content of the speech and the stage presence. Meanwhile, since I can more easily measure contestants’ accuracy in reproducing English, I tend to focus on the “big-picture” qualities: content, argument and stage presence. So, my scores tend to be widely divergent from my Chinese peers’.

The university competition will have seven judges, including me and the other foreign teacher, David. The provincial contest will have about the same composition.

Last year’s university competition was a bit of a fiasco, since none of the contestants understood the impromptu topic. It wasn’t a question, just a title, and overly vague at that. It made judging that aspect of the contest that much more painful, since no speaker did a very good job.

Public speaking is not easy, and for a lot of people, the prospect of speaking in front of an audience is terrifying. Factor in speaking in your second (or third) language and then not comprehending the speech topic, and you can imagine how those students must have felt.

So, I admire any student who is willing to stand in front of judges, peers and teachers and deliver an address in another language. It’s something I mercifully never had to do when studying Spanish or Portuguese. And I told my 27 students who risked losing face in our college contest that I was very proud of them, if only for their efforts. As someone who used to be in that “I’m terrified of public speaking” category, I know exactly how many of them felt on the stage. (One girl was almost close to tears, so nervous she was, but she was a trooper and in the end did a pretty good job.)

One result of these contests (and a conversation with one of my sophs — coincidentally, a finalist in our contest) is a new feature of my oral English classes: team impromptu speaking. I tried it last week, and both I and the students liked it. I divvied the classes up into teams of three or four, and gave each a question. They had 10 minutes to prepare their answers, and one member had to deliver their response in front of the class. I put the scoring criteria on the board, and awarded a prize to the winning team. (I owe one group ice cream, though.)

I can’t take credit for the concept. I’m sure other teachers have done something like it. But I was very pleased at the reaction I got from students, who said it was “meaningful.” That is high praise, so I am planning to try it again. I want my students to speak English in class, and so far, this seems to be the most effective in achieving that goal.

While judging English speaking contest can be a bit tedious, it does have its rewards — ideas for my classes and a better appreciation of my students. It’s not such a bad job.

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