Thursday, November 04, 2004

English speech contests

A junior high school English teacher mentioned the other day that one of her students was in an English speech contest near here. Speech contests around this time of year are many, and they are held in different parts of the country. There are a variety of sponsors, and are targeted at a variety of grade levels. This particular contest included a section for junior high students.

She had a problem with this contest because the mother of the winner happened to come from a country where the predominant language is English. (I am withholding the name of the country in order to protect the identities of the subjects.) The teacher said that it wasn't fair because the student who won had an unfair advantage. Two or three years ago, I may have agreed with her. Now I do not.

I think that the competitors in a speech contest should be allowed to compete regardless of their backgrounds. As for the specific speech contest mentioned above, the child who won had been through the Japanese school system, which would give no advantage to either student. With that educational background, that means that the student's family was responsible for her success. I know plenty of multicultural families where the parents speak a variety of languages, but the children know very few. There is no reason to expect a child growing up in Japan to be fluent in English, regardless of the parents background. Multicultural parents does not equal multilingual children. That said, even if the parents value a language other than Japanese enough to make it a focus of their family life, is that a reason for disqualification? No. If it were a baseball game, would the child be disqualified if the father took the child to a batting center everyday? Of course not. That child, with alot of effort and ability, could grow up to be Ichiro. But when it comes to English, that kind of parental interest becomes a cause for disqualification.

I think multicultural, multilingual children should be encouraged to take part in speech contests, because it will raise the standards of language ability. If native-speaker levels of language ability become the norm in speech contests, one can only hope that standards for the whole education system would follow suit.

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