I had one clear goal after the 14-hour return flight from Shanghai last December: keep learning Chinese. I hear stories all the time about people who lost all their language growth after coming back to the states. So when I heard about a local Mandarin speech competition for second-language learners, I decided to give it a shot—I didn’t realize it would turn into a 3-month journey.
The Confucius Institute, the Chinese government’s cultural arm in other countries, hosts the International Chinese Bridge Speech Competition. It is a speech competition for college and high school students to encourage and promote the growth of Chinese language learning across the world. OU has its own branch of CI that hosts a local version of the speech competition.
For me, public speaking in Chinese was a big gap to cross. I am almost three years deep into language studies, and it is only in the past six months that I achieved social fluency. I knew that it would take a lot of after-hour work to write, edit and memorize a speech—but the goal is to keep pushing the barriers of what I can use my Chinese to do. So I signed up and decided that, win or lose, it would be well worth the time investment.
It took 20 hours to put together everything for the competition—writing the essay, getting the essay slashed with a red pen from my Chinese teacher, re-writing the essay, memorizing the essay, and putting together a video showing off a “Chinese talent.” In March, I suited up and headed to the competition. I competed against Oklahoma students from OU, TU and ORU—and somehow, I took 1st place.
Here’s where the stakes raised. The next round of competition was in Dallas, TX and I would be competing against winners of similar competitions across eight states. The competition included an all-expenses-paid weekend trip to perform in front of representatives from the Chinese government. 1st and 2nd place from that competition would go to China for the international quarterfinals of the competition. I was given a personal Chinese coach and told to come back with a better speech and a better talent. At this point, I was out of the rookie league.
The practice for this phase of the competition intensified. I went through multiple editions of my new speech with Chinese teachers, CI staff and my coach. I spent my nights memorizing Mandarin pop songs and taking 9:00 PM phone calls from my coach (try speaking Mandarin with a bad phone connection). It gave me more than a couple headaches, and as the regional round of the competition quickly approached I was uncertain what the experience would be like.
The Dallas experience started Saturday 9:00 AM in a cramped car with my coach, a CI staff member and her husband, and ended 9:00 PM the next day. I spent the entire weekend using my Chinese to network and meet students and teachers from across the nation. I sang Mandarin pop in front of the Chinese government, and ate some of the best Chinese food I have had since I came back to the states. I felt like I was at the Chinese equivalent of a pageant.
Snagging 3rd place meant the competition ended for me in Dallas. While I will not be going off to China for the international quarterfinals, I logged 50+ hours of intensive studying to push forward my Chinese. Not only can I now deliver speeches, but also my tones and conversational skills are immensely improved. The coaching and support I received from OUCI and my coach and professors totaled almost as many hours as I spent in class this semester studying Chinese.
Writing, memorizing and delivering Chinese speeches is hard, and I still have a lot to learn—but this definitely will not be the last time I do it. There are some thrills in life that cannot be replicated, and one of them is singing Mandarin pop to the Chinese government.
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