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English speech contests

empty auditorium

I have a new policy regarding English speech competitions (actually it’s an old policy, from earlier in the year) and I just wanted to make it public here along with the thinking behind it.

On many occasions in the past I have helped out with English speech contests and similar competitive events, as a coach, a judge, and even an organizer (the Miyagi Skit Koshien). However, I have never been completely comfortable with them, and recently have even begun to find them harmful.

I don’t believe competitive events are helpful to most language students. Yes, they can encourage students to spend a lot of time practicing, but the practice as it stands is not particularly useful (memorizing and repeating a speech ad nauseam). The winner-take-all nature of most contests is positive for the student that wins, and mostly negative for all the other students.

The sheer arbitrary nature of the judging decisions can make this worse (I have been on judging panels where students were disqualified because their school won the previous year, because it would be bad to give prizes to two students from the same school, or because one of the judges didn’t like the subject matter of their speech).

Add to this the strong suspicion I have that almost none of the students are writing their own speeches (and even if they do, they have no chance of winning), the disappointing contrast between the students when they are on stage giving their polished performance and after the event when they can’t seem to string two words together in English, and the slightly racist policies that bar students with non-Japanese family members (even non-English speaking ones!) from taking part and the whole circus just starts sitting wrong with me.

Finally, I don’t actually enjoy judging speeches and recitations. Some of the speeches can be interesting, but the pressure to rank the competitors and think of something intelligent to say in the final remarks takes away a lot of the pleasure.

Due to all of this, and because I haven’t found that taking part improves my life in any way, I will no longer be accepting invitations to be involved with competitive English events of any type.

However, I would like to see non-competitive events, like performance evenings or talent shows, become more widespread.

What do you think? Am I being too hasty in dismissing English contests?