Friday, 12 July 2013

Duelling speech contests

I'd love to enter a Japanese Speech Contest. I'd get to try something new, force myself to use the language in a way I'm not accustomed to, and just plain see where I'm at, like a Prime Minister testing the confidence of the populace by calling an election in mid-term. Well, I entered one, but they only accepted five people, and I wasn't one of them. Maybe the content was too abstract, or they didn't appreciate the style I constructed. Maybe I messed up the paperwork, or made an insufficiently compelling case for myself. Or, you know, maybe I've been put on a blacklist for the sexual harassment thing. To be fair, I have no idea how they selected the contestants.

The eligibility rules were a minor clusterfuck of “buts” and “provideds” founded on the abstract that you could only enter a contest whose language you did not speak natively, which initially sounds quite obvious, but one of the many language epiphanies this ryuugaku has granted me is a somewhat vaguer understanding of what the hell a “native speaker” is. (What, could Mother Russia enter a German contest?) The Europeans are unilaterally denied on the basis of their English being too strong, which is like disqualifying a would-be sprinter for running too fast, but that's how it goes, I guess. So to keep them out, they decided to institute this rule of “residency,” so that only residents of Asian countries can enter the English, and those of anywhere outside Japan can enter the Japanese...which led to an idiotic loophole in which a Brazilian girl who's lived here for six years could not test her Japanese, in which she is proficient, but was let into the English, in which she can barely make herself understood.

The Europeans were not pleased. She won, too. And then could not make an acceptance speech, because memorizing three minutes for the contest was one thing, but saying a few words off the top of her head for thirty seconds was beyond her.

The judges always come up with questionable choices anyway. I learned early that fairness has no place in this arena. Obviously when the outcome is entirely dependent on human whim nobody's going to agree with the results 100% of the time, but I imagine things might be different if there was only a single judge instead of three. Though it's probably too much accountability to put on one person, I have a sneaking suspicion that when judges have to determine a winner by consensus, they may differ on who was best...but they're willing to give first place to somebody that all of them agreed was good. In other words, rather than give a standout performance, you have a better chance of winning by performing competently in kind of a mediocre way. Which is shit, frankly, but that's the performing arts for you.

I was a little bit anxious to see Insufferable Dumbass get knocked down a peg, and boy did he ever. “I have this problem, I always have to be the best,” he told his parents over Skype, because he Skypes with them like every fucking day. This was news to me, because I'd always assumed he must be aiming for the opposite. Anyway, he genuinely believed that he might win, which is pretty incredible, though I certainly didn't want to see him crash and burn; he's actually an extremely kind, generous person. He's just irritating. And extremely young for his age. And louder than most battlefields. Also there's the fact that he's fucking stupid. I mean really fucking stupid. Anyway he stuttered and mumbled through his train wreck, and for a moment I thought he would burst into tears right there on the stage. He disappeared for a couple of hours afterward. I would feel bad, but I think the wake-up slap probably did him good. Tiny Korean Girl came second.

I was quite unimpressed to see that the number of spectators more than doubled after the intermission. In other words, a gigantic crowd of Japanese people came to watch just the English portion. In fact, even a couple of the English contestants didn't show up until it was their turn to go on! Come on, guys. That's a little fucking disrespectful. We stayed to watch yours, you should come to watch ours.

Worse, one of the English contestants cut his own legs right the hell off. He submitted an energetic, elegantly enunciated, well-structured speech about a two-month ryuugaku he'd done in New Zealand. He talked about some of the differences in socialization, how New Zealanders will take any opportunity to strike up a conversation, and how he was always made to feel like he was an individual before he was a foreigner. Good stuff, delivered in an engaging and interesting way. But then he dropped the bomb: “Of course, people in New Zealand speak only English, so if I had a problem, like when my gas got cut off, no one could help me. So I had to rely on myself.”

OK, fair point. Would have been a lot better of one if he'd said “Of course, very few people in New Zealand speak Japanese,” but unfortunately, I think he'd truly never considered that people from English-speaking countries might be learning some language other than English. After all, all white people speak English and only English. Didn't you know that? I thought everybody knew that. Also, everyone not from Asia is white. He still could have recovered, but when people find themselves in a hole, some don't know when to stop digging, and some requisition a backhoe.

The speeches were all followed by a handful of questions from the judges. The purpose here is partly for them to clarify and inquire, but more importantly it's to test the speakers' ability to formulate a response extemporaneously. In this case, he actually cut off one of the judges in the middle of her question, answering, “For example, I have to use English here, because you can't understand Japanese.” He had no way of knowing that this particular woman has been here for over twenty years, lives Japanese, and works as a professional translator. Her response was justifiably curt: “Yes, I do.”


“But actually,” she continued, “I was going to ask you what advice you would give to your New Zealand friends if they were to come to Japan.” The look on his face said it all. People do that? Eventually, he managed to spit out one final facepalm: “Well, I would advice them to learn Japanese customs, like eating with chopsticks, or taking shoes off for coming inside.” The judge was Canadian. Whatever the other two may have thought, I am quite sure she had already decided to torpedo him at this point. I certainly would have. He did not place.

Interestingly, the two sets of judges handled Question Period very differently. For the Japanese it was like – holy shit, you guys. You've spent years learning this language. You've come all the way here to improve your abilities. You have formulated a speech and delivered it in front of an audience largely composed of native speakers, and now your every mistake and insufficiency is going to be brutally scrutinized. Here, have a couple softballs to hit out of the park. You've earned them.

The English, though, was: We are going to test the living shit out of your English skills today. Then sacrifice your immortal souls to Belial and personally feast on your bones.

To my delight, pride, and, to be honest, genuine surprise, Shiga made it into the top three. He earned it. I listened to where he was at a month ago, and I thought, buddy, you're going to do a great job...and you're going to get destroyed. But he smashed my expectations. He spent day and night practising his speech, in his head or under his breath, translating every moment of transit time and other wasted hours into an opportunity to get that little bit better. He had me record myself reading his speech, as you do, and listened repeatedly in an effort to nail down the intonation and delivery. He checked in frequently to have me adjust and refine his pronunciation. And it paid off! Maybe I should lean on him for a cut of the prize money.

Just three days later, I went in to watch a Recitation Contest. Since I'm not a buin, and a 4kaisei at that, I was in no way required to attend, but I wanted to show my support, especially since it was to be one of my last chances to see the English Club all together. The concept is to take a short excerpt of a famous speech, in this case Obama's “Yes we Can.” and have fifteen 1kkaisei each perform it for the assembled club. All of them. The exact same speech. Over and over again. Any speech contest involves a certain degree of downtime and boredom, but this one was downright stultifying. However, it was no doubt a good chance for the younger students to get a feel for the competitive format and atmosphere without having to tangle with content generation, an additional layer of nuance and difficulty.

For me, I think the most important thing is rhythm and flow, the ability to draw the listener in and hold their interest, which is probably, at the end of the day, the single most important communication skill after “making sense.” Pronunciation is another level down, but while very few people will ever completely erase their accent, the ones who sound the most fluent are those with the most natural intonation, pronunciation being what it may. As for the speech itself, I feel that structure and a good hook are worthy of scrutiny, but the subject is immaterial. Last comes speaking skills such as eye contact and gestures, because I feel that, while certainly important, they are not what's being tested. In contrast, one judge asserted that speed and pacing were the most important, while the other was all about the pronunciation, because, she said, “If we can't understand you, there's no point,” which was not only assholish but ironic, since she kept saying “pronounciation.”

Because nearly every active member made a showing, it was fun to watch the social dynamic, too. The participants were off to the side, while the 60 or so 1kkaisei gathered in front, backs straight, respectfully attentive, silent as the grave. The 30ish 2kaisei, behind them, were much the same, if a little more relaxed about it. The 15 or so 3kaisei were mostly in charge of running the contest, while the rest sternly monitored the action. Finally, I sat at the very back of the room with the one other 4kaisei. We lounged around haphazardly, chatted at inappropriate times, and were generally just carelessly disruptive in an attempt to keep ourselves entertained. And of course we did, because who the fuck's going to tell us not to? The 3kaisei? Not if they know what's good for them.

The kid I've been coaching didn't place, but I thought he did very well, and I would have put him in second myself. He was a little down after “losing,” but I kicked his ass about it, reminding him that the most important thing is improving and doing your best, and placing is just a bonus. He responded really well to that, and now he's already getting pumped for the full-on Speech Contest in October. Oh to be 18 again. Meanwhile, both first and third place were from my section. Conversation, fight!!

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