The English learning society’s speech contest

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I’m proud of every one of these kids… even though I’m younger and smaller than most of them myself! (a.k.a. spot the Maria)

At last, I’ve settled into a daily routine that makes me feel comfortable and productive. The down side is that classes start seeming mundane, and I struggle to motivate myself to wake up at 7 am every morning.

Something happened last Saturday that reminded me about why I’m here. After all, it’s such a privilege to do what I’m doing – studying as an exchange student all the way in Japan, learning a new language and getting to know a new culture. It’s hard to appreciate my privilege on a daily basis, when it’s 9 degrees C and raining, and the sky gets dark before 5 pm.

However, last weekend I was lucky enough to be on a panel of judges for Kobe University’s English learning society’s speech contest. I met one of the representatives by chance and was invited as a fluent English speaker to take part in a 9-5 event full of Japanese students my age making speeches in English. They actually had to learn their 10-minute speeches by heart! I’m not sure I could do that in English, let alone in my equivalent of a foreign language – Japanese. The choice of topic was free, which made for some very heartfelt speeches. My favourite has to be the guy who gave a speech on the Japanese azuki beans (the ones that red bean paste is made from). He named his speech “admirable azuki”, kept exclaiming about how much he loves azuki sweets, and popped out a pumpkin and azuki dish mid-speech. Seriously, these people’s enthusiasm was contagious, and I felt like a proud mum even though I only just met them all.

It was also an intimidating event for me, because the other judges on the panel were middle-aged and with teaching experience – and here was I, a mere 19-year-old student! I think I did a good job though, especially with the helpful advice of my fellow judges. The most challenging part was the last couple of hours, when we met each contestant one on one, gave them detailed feedback on their speeches, and advice on how to improve their English. I genuinely begged each one of them to feel proud and to go home and celebrate; it broke my heart to see one of the girls cry in the corridor because she didn’t get a prize. Finally I know how it feels to be behind the judge’s desk – almost as scary as on the stage!

I was soaring home on wings of inspiration. These students reminded me why I myself am learning Japanese: because I love meeting people from different cultures, who are so different from me, and befriending them. I was lit up with enthusiasm for a grand total of two mornings… nevertheless, the speech contest was an important lesson for me, and the routine became just a little more pleasant.

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