About a month ago a colleague of mine asked me if I would be interested in participating in a speech contest. It was one of those things that I couldn’t really say no to even though I had no interest in actually doing it. So in the end I reluctantly agreed.
The theme of the contest was “the key to success”. My speech had to be under three minutes. Other than that I had free reign. But really my halfhearted attempt at writing about success took a back seat to the cultural experience of being able to participate in and observe an English speech contest in China.
The competition was this past week, and there were a number of things I noticed about the difference in speech style between the Chinese and foreign participants. Generally speaking, the Chinese participants seemed to favor a much more formal style of speech while the foreigners seemed to prefer a more relaxed style.
To start with, a majority of the Chinese speakers began with an introduction along the lines of “Dear ladies and gentlemen, honored judges, I’m happy to stand before you today and give my speech.”
On the other hand all of the foreign participants I saw launched right into the meat of their speeches as soon as they were on stage. I think this might just be an instance of a cultural custom that doesn’t translate literally into another language.
Another difference I noticed had to do with body language and movement on the stage, but also with the same formal versus informal divide.
The foreign performers all tended to stroll around the stage or pace back and forth while talking. When they used hand gestures they were thrown around loosely in a willy nilly kind of rhythm.
The Chinese contestants were much more likely to stand still in the same place throughout the duration of their speech. When they used hand gestures they looked very choreographed and were kept in rhythm with the words they were being spoken with.
About a week before this contest my girlfriend Alana and I were asked to judge an English speech contest for the students at the school where we work. We got to listen to speeches from about 30 students in third to sixth grade.
Thinking back on it, the students all had the same speech and movement tendencies as the teachers did in our contest (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree I suppose).
It was interesting to be able to compare these different styles side by side, and it left me wondering as to the causes. Is it simply a cultural difference in the way speeches are delivered?
Or is it reflective of the difference in learning styles in the two languages? Chinese tends to rely on memorization and repetition (for learning the characters, which are not phonetic) whereas English works more on spelling and sounding out words.
Or could it be the difference between speaking in your native versus a second language? You can ramble and ad lib more in your native language while a second language would require more rehearsal, and maybe some physical cues to help you remember lines.
At the end of the day everyone was awarded a first, second, or third prize. Myself and one of my colleagues got a second prize while another colleague got a first! We all got a little gift bag with a thermos and inflatable travel pillow (my true motivation for agreeing to participate).
There were two things about the competition that I thought could have been done better, especially since the Chinese teachers I was there with seemed to take the competition pretty seriously.
First was that no one actually knew what criteria we were being graded on. It would probably be beneficial, especially for nonnative speakers, to be aware of the relative importance of content, pronunciation, etc.
Second was that we were never told our scores, only what place we received. In the spirit of improving the contestants English and speaking skills, I think it would be helpful to know what areas we could use a little work on.
In the students competition that I judged at all of the judges were given a rubric with categories like content, pronunciation, grammar, stage presence, etc. which all had relative point values. I don’t know if the students were informed of the criteria beforehand or even if they were told their scores afterward.
All in all the competition was an interesting experience. It left me with some questions about public speaking in different cultures that, in order to find the answers, I’ll have to do a little searching.