There’s an annual English speech contest for junior high school students held in the Yokohama area and last summer I was asked by the Japanese English teacher at my school to help proofread and edit a couple of speeches the two contestants, a 3rd year and a 2nd year student, had written for the occasion.
“Sure…sounds like fun.”
I didn’t know what to expect. Some of my students’ English levels are rather high but due to peer pressure or modesty they dumb down during classes. These two contestants, however, had essentially written their speeches in Japanese, fed them into a translation platform like Excite’s, and handed me the original Japanese versions along with the gibberish that Excite had upchucked. With some effort and using the Japanese version (and my dicey ability to read kanji) I was able to ferret out of this disgorged verbiage the gist of what they wanted to say, and most of it was pretty good.
The 3rd year had written a speech about respect for the elderly and the 2nd year had written about the problem of bullying in Japanese schools. Both utilized personal experiences to illustrate the issues and were able to arrive at their conclusions without deviating too much from those issues. I polished them both up a little but I pretty much stayed true to the student’s original style, voice and message.
“Here you go,” I said and handed the speeches to the Japanese English teacher. She was thrilled.
“Wow, these are really good. Perhaps we’ll win this year!”
“Have you ever won?”
“Oh, no! Not since I’ve been here, and that’s four years…” she said with a little disappointment. “Will you do me another favor?”
“Can I record you reading the speeches naturally so the students can study the recording?”
“Absolutely.” I am usually pretty agreeable at work.
After lunch we had gone into the audio room and I read both speeches, enunciating every syllable as clearly as possible and timing it to keep to the 5 minute length as directed. This was a couple of weeks before the contest so the students would have time to memorize the speeches and study my intonation and pronunciation.
2 weeks passed, and the big day had arrived. I arrived at the auditorium timely and as I entered the lobby my two students rushed me at the door, surprising me.
“Hey! Y’all ready?”
“Kinda,” they both said but I could tell they were ready. Japanese always play down confidence. Less is more, I guess. But if you know the person you can usually see the real person behind the act, and I knew these two girls. They were ready!
The lobby was packed with students from various schools around Yokohama. The students were either huddled close to their ALTs and Japanese teachers, or their parents, or off in corners mumbling to themselves and fumbling with the scripts in their hands. The anxiety in the lobby was palpable and contagious. I hadn’t felt any way about the contest until that moment, but the energy in that waiting area sent a surge of competitiveness through me.
I imagined that this was a Golden Gloves tournament and the other ALTs were Gus D’amatos and Mickeys and their students young Mike Tysons and Rocky Balboas.
My two students weren’t looking to me to give them similar treatment, though. I didn’t know this at the time but I would later learn that they had memorized my words and practiced their delivery many times over. Every night they pored over my revisions and dissected their meaning. They’d come that morning as prepared as they could possibly be, confidently armed with opuses written by none other than the only and, therefore, the greatest native English speaker they’ve ever known.
I took my seat beside the Japanese teacher and we listened to speech after speech…some were pretty good, some were really good, and others…others were alarming. Even the Japanese teacher noticed the difference. Her face said what I’d mumbled under my breath: Oh shit!
One girl had taken to the stage and held forth for the longest 5 minutes in the history of recorded time about the necessity of worldwide nuclear disarmament, detonating words like proliferation, ballistic and deployment in the ears of all the friends, parents, supporters and teachers that filled that crowded auditorium when ban, policy and treaty were sufficiently, in my opinion, resounding, if not too-too. I’d peeked at the judges, a panel consisting of both Japanese and foreign members, hoping to see dismay signaling a pending disqualification. But, there was nothing of the sort. They simply listened and took notes, wearing stony, unreadable expressions.
“She was very good,” The Japanese teacher understated. I nodded with a growing suspicion something was amiss.
Another girl came up a little later and started jawing about the green house effect on the global climate. Not the way a 14 year old would talk about it but the way a college student might. A very persuasive native English speaking future cum laude college student, I should say.
“She was…” my co-sufferer had begun, but couldn’t find the words.
“Yeah, if she gave that speech at the UN the US might seriously reconsider ratifying the Kyoto Accord,” I joked.
During the speech I kept thinking she must be kikokushijo (a returnee) from an English speaking country (and judging from her rhetoric but lack of strong accent probably Canada) because there wasn’t much katakana pronunciation in her speech. Native Japanese tend to change the pronunciation of English words into sounds easier for them to pronounce, as do most countries, but she had delivered words like deforestation and environmentalist like she was born with a silver Webster’s Unabridged in her mouth. But, maybe the ALT that had obviously written the speech was Canadian. And if they’d instituted the same practice of listening to the teacher’s recorded voice as part of their training then that would explain some of it. Nevertheless, I knew the contest was lost even before my students had taken to the stage.
I knew something else, too: Next year, my Rockys and Iron Mikes won’t be aiming to just go the distance. They’ll be going for blood. Little Miss it’s America’s fault the polar caps are melting walked away with top honors, and my two students walked away in tears. They won’t next year, I’d told myself. Not if I can help it.
Fast forward to today.
I’ve spent most of the week Obama-izing the speeches of my two aspiring champions. Obama had “Yes We Can!” My students will have something just as catchy and poignant and, with any luck, not only will they walk away with top honors, T-shirts will be embossed with the slogans I’ve given them uncovered hidden deep within their words (-:
The contest is in early August.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the speeches I’ve composed for them edited of theirs: (The student wrote a speech about receiving an education on warfare from an American Marine)
The first thought he shared with me was this: That during wartime many otherwise unthinkable choices and sacrifices become commonplace. For example, sometimes parents have taken the lives of their own children in order to prevent them from suffering or falling into enemy hands. I was shocked to hear this. It made me sad. I could not imagine a world where parents cannot protect their children, but war forges such a world. I remember thinking those parents that choose to do such a thing are really ruthless. But are they? I wonder what I would do if I were in their shoes. What would my parents do?
Actually, the students’ original speeches were pretty good so I can’t take the credit. I just laid the polish on a good deal thicker than I had the previous year. Seeing that this contest is not only a battle between the students but also a battle between the ALTs, I just decided to get out of the foxhole and get in the war.
I’ll let y’all know the results after the contest. Wish us luck!