China Daily’s English Speaking Competition

27 March 2014

Here I am again about to catch a cab to the airport to take the red eye to Amsterdam and then Inverness. I arrived 6 days ago and it seems like weeks.

I was invited out by China’s leading English-language newspaper, China Daily, to help judge the national English speaking competition. The winner of the national competition is going to the international finals in London, in May. I mean, what an event though! There were primary, Junior High, Senior High and College categories, with something like 50 contestants in each final in each category. So, that would be 200 contestants to judge.

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Each contestant gave a prepared speech of a couple of minutes and then had to deliver an impromptu speech, the title of which they were given 10 minutes before they had to go on stage. They then had to answer questions from yours truly and one other of the judges, and this was in front of 100s of students, parents, coaches, tutors, sponsors … you name it.

What a challenge for them. It’s one thing to speak in front of people and quite another doing it in your second (or third) language. The ability to express themselves, the level and accuracy of language was incredible, I was definitely in front of the best of the best. They not only accurately conveyed topics such as pollution, and dangers of social networking, but they did it with flair, eloquence and with no shortage of presentation skill training. I think though some of the training they received included a couple of lessons from the school of overacting. There was gesture, voice projection and over-zealous eye contact aplenty, very much in the style of a sincere politician.

The event was held at Peking University, China’s most prestigious, and what a huge campus it is. It has its own 5 star hotel and 5000-seat theatre, which is where we ended up for the final of the college student category. I was only judging the Junior High and Senior High categories, so was able sit back and catch the last few contestants go through their paces. Then, we had the entertainment. Basically, to allow time for the judges to make their decisions, there was a variety show hosted by a couple of famous TV presenters (apparently). ‘Variety’ is definitely the word, we had magic (at least I think it was), we had karaoke (I know it was) and we had a skit from Midsummer’s Night Dream (An experience).

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There were a lot of prizes and great ceremony made of third place, second place and most promising this, most popular that. The actual winners gave a short speech, but had the least ceremony despite winning a trip to London, a couple of weeks of watching forty in Brazil this summer, a new lap top etc. etc. Later I heard one of the judges talking about one of the winners. There were about 15 winners. So, that’s nearly everyone in the final 16. The winner is called the champion, and there was only one of those, phew, got that now, it was beginning to remind me of my son’s early primary non-competitive sports day.

So, over the 3 days, we had around 200 contestants, out of an initial 4 million that started the competition 11 months ago in schools and colleges at the village and district level. I’ll say that again, that would be 4 million youngsters entering an English-speaking competition in China. Sounds a lot, sniff, but really only 1% of people speaking or learning to speak English, sniff.

It was a privilege to be a part of this competition and to witness first-hand the commitment in China to learning English and the effort that goes into the learning and it was an absolute honour to be one of a panel, ‘judging’ those bright, erudite and ambitious youngsters.

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