This post is coming a little late. With classes starting and with them committee work, things are hopping.
Last week I attended the 24th Mie Prefecture Commercial High School English Speech Contest at the Prefectural Culture Center in Tsu. There was both a recitation division and a speech division. There were eleven speeches and twelve recitations. My job that day was to deliver an address to the audience about speech making and specifically that day's speeches.
The recitations came first. The participants had a choice of five different recitations that they could choose from, one of the choices was The Gettysburg Address. There was a wide variety of preparedness and language ability.
Next came the speech division with speeches on personal experiences and general social problems. Again, there were a wide variety of memorization and linguistic prowess.
The organizers of the event had come to visit me some months ago and asked if I would make a presentation on speech-making. I said that would be great, and volunteered. My presentation was about general language ability and the direct relationship that has with the ability to deliver a speech. The Japan Commercial High School Federation (my translation, couldn't find the English on their web site) suggests that their main priority in offering English classes is for learners to be able to "actually communicate with foreigners." (again, my translation) They suggest that students take proficiency tests to assess their ability and so on, but the main thrust is communicating with foreigners in this "internationalized" world of ours. I will avoid a rant here about how if that is the case then why do they teach the way they do, and will stick to the point.
The literature that they sent out about the event also suggested that the speeches at least would be the students' own work about a topic of interest to them. I patently do not believe that the speeches they gave were their work, but were rewritten, perfected and polished by a gracious teacher or teaching assistant. One example: "Pets are cute when they are little, but the bigger they grow, the more it cost to keep them." Yes, the s at the end of cost is missing, but that could just have been a typo. I don't believe that the presenter could have written that by herself. After trying out a little English with the participants, I'm sure that wasn't written at their ability level.
I began my presentation by pointing out that these speech contests are artificial in many ways. After a real speech there are questions to be answered. After an insurance salesperson's speech on the features of a certain product, the customer asks questions, or at least tells the speaker to beat it. A politician has to face the press or other colleagues about their presentation. In this event, they could say anything and get off scot-free. I suggested that in future events such as these that there be a question and answer session that follows and would force speakers to reveal their actual ability.
After that section I went on to suggest ways that they could improve their language ability by boosting their vocabulary and general skills through extensive reading, and boost their pronunciation through extensive listening and mimicry.
The winner of this contest will go on to the All Japan Contest in Tokyo later this year.