Speech Contests

The summer holidays are coming and what that means for quite a few students across the land is that they will begin to practice for upcoming English speech contests. I have mixed feelings about these contests. I like the fact that the kids are motivated enough to try to speak English in front of an audience, I like the fact that many of them are able to demonstrate excellent pronunciation and intonation skills to their parents, and I don’t mind too much the fact that their speeches have more often than not been translated into perfect English from their own Japanese by teachers and hence consist of sentences they couldn’t possibly hope to construct on their own. At least they are usually the kids’ thoughts and if it is really more of a pronunciation and intonation contest than a speech contest then so be it.

No, all of that is okay. What I really don’t like about the contests, though, is the fact that for whatever reasons, many years ago, a Japanese person got it into his head that any speech in English must be delivered with an accompaniment of ludicrously over-the-top hand and body gestures, and somehow the notion stuck. Now, if somebody mentions in a speech that they like soccer they can only do so whilst miming taking a kick at a ball, someone who talks of monkeys in the zoo will do so with one arm scratching an armpit and the other the top of their head, and anyone expressing joy or sadness will make sure you understand by throwing arms aloft and beaming like a fool with an erection or turning down their bottom lip and trailing finger tears down their cheeks. It is as though they have been choreographed by the world’s most literal interpretative dance teacher.

Throughout Japan, English speech contests are held for junior and senior high school students and these contests have been plagued by such cringe-inducing antics. I get the feeling, however, that the tide is shifting. As more and more native speakers have been used as judges at such competitions they have been gently suggesting that these gestures are neither natural nor necessary, or have perhaps made their feelings known by hooting with laughter at the utter ridiculousness of the windmilling freak on stage. Some students and their teachers have begun to take note and I think more normal presentation techniques are beginning to find their way into the prizes at such competitions. I hope this is true anyway. Moving your hands is fine. Full on mime is not. Remember, the point of Marcel Marceau was that he didn’t speak. You do.

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