SAIS Students Help Judge English Competition

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Photo Courtesy: Logan Pauley

On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 25, we had the opportunity to judge and help moderate Learner English’s second annual English speaking competition. The competition brought 28 local Nanjing students and their families to a major auditorium at the Science and Technology Center of Nanjing University. The competition was a unique experience for us, both as judges, but also as international students having a first-hand glimpse into the intriguing Chinese educational model and how it manifests itself during second language acquisition.

The competition was broken down into three age groups of roughly equal numbers of students: first through third grades, fourth through sixth grades, and seventh through eighth grades. Each group was composed of both male and female students, though there were definitively more male students in each group. The competition began with a fierce spelling completion. Each group ascended the stage, lining up one by one to hold the microphone in front of his/her peers, family members, and teachers. Then, a judge would say a word into the microphone and the student would respond with their idea of the correct spelling. Then, a different judge would say “correct” or “incorrect” into a separate microphone. Following this, the student would have a different word directed at him/her. Each student had exactly one minute to correctly spell as many words as possible.

From the competition’s inception, it became very clear these students had practiced spelling the given words for hours upon hours – most likely in school and at home. The phenomenon of pure memorization was nothing shocking to us – the Chinese educational system is, in many aspects, largely based off of this method. It was somewhat strange, however, to see six year old children standing on a stage, knock-kneed, clutching a microphone as they rapidly shouted, “H-O-R-S-E, horse, B-A-L-L, ball,” all the while looking straightaway as they harnessed their honed memorization powers.

The rest of the competition forced the students to think more critically, such as assessing fill-in-the-blank prompts, choosing nouns or phrases that were ‘the odd one out’, and multiple choice reading comprehension questions. In the final round, the top three contestants from each age group presented an extemporaneous speech to the audience based on a topic pre-selected by the competition committee. In my opinion, this was the most telling about the individual characters of each competitor, as speeches ranged in topic, beginning with the youngest student describing why Hong Kong’s Disneyland is a good travel destination to family picnic festivities and concluding with a more senior student beginning his speech on interstellar exploration by proclaiming, “Space! The Final Frontier!” Each student brought their lively personality to this portion of the completion, and it was a pleasure to see how well each student reacted to on-the-spot nature of this part of the competition.

Yet, the influence of content inculcation permeated the competition; not only did students experience the pressure-cooker of instantaneous response, but questions that required deeper understanding often conveyed Learner’s personal sociopolitical standpoints. A particularly alarming instance displayed a question that read, “Which country is not one of the four civilized countries?” The choices: China, Egypt, Japan, India—India being the answer. The very next question referred to ‘Taiwan Island’ as the answer to “China’s largest island is…”. Another question indicated that given the options blonde, yellow, and white, it was ‘negro’ that stood out.

While such examples may be viewed as inherently controversial from countries where English is the native tongue, such is the problem with language acquisition lead by non-native speakers; although earnest attempts are made to reflect syntax, grammar, and meaning, often times the way second-language speakers phrase sentences or thoughts directly reflects their worldview or ideology. In the case of Learner, an entire company of non-native speakers is producing language learning materials and programming. That is to say, the contest and the method in which non-native speakers teach a given language may actually perpetuate a systematic misunderstanding of the finer intricacies of language acquisition, or may fall prey to implanting personal prerogatives in language learning.

All in all, these few disconcerting instances did not ruin the experience for us—the kids definitely enjoyed themselves, and their English abilities were surprisingly very good. Such an experience lent to our understanding of how cross-cultural conceptions of controversial issues are a particularly difficult issue to assess; with regard to the competition we judged, Learner did not intend to push a malicious agenda (sans the Taiwan question, possibly). Rather Learner projected their understanding of a foreign language by interspersing components of their personal experiences. Although such a practice can bring about considerable issues, it was undeniable that they had, in some regards, effectively taught those 28 students English.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Author’s name Logan Pauley was corrected at 14:00 GMT on 22 November 2015.

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