FEATURE: English, a passport to success

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) – As English proficiency continues to be a ticket to opportunity for Chinese students, a national speaking contest provides a platform to excel.

Twenty-year-old Chen Qiyu stood center-stage, holding a crystal trophy, a certificate and a bouquet in her arms. The cameras lingered, dazzling with flashes. A continuous volley of applause swept through the large audience as she was crowned the champion of this year’s 21st Century National English Speaking Competition.

The March 26 contest was a satisfying finale for Chen, who has engaged in public speaking since the age of 10-half of her young life. While standing on the stage, she remained calm but felt a little disoriented. What would be her next step?

“Up on the stage, people see rosy images of winners surrounded by the spotlights,” she says. “In real life, they are all ordinary students who still need to decide what to eat at the canteen and to meet school assignments’ deadlines.”

However, Chen felt inspired as she watched previous winners such as Liu Xin and Xia Peng, who have become elites in different professions, sharing their experiences from the stage.

“From their paths, I see more gateways and possibilities, which makes me think my future is promising,” she says.

Over the past two decades, millions of talented students have taken part in the 21st Century National English Speaking Competition. This year, the contest attracted over 100,000 college students and 700,000 high school and primary students around China.

The competition is a stage to showcase contestants’ English-language proficiency and ability to think in-depth about different issues. Meanwhile, the skills and experiences they gained from public speaking will benefit them greatly for the rest of their lives.

Straight to academia

Back in 1999, senior student and business-English major Zhan Cheng represented Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in the fourth national competition.

Zhan saw public speaking as an integrated skill that demands long-term accumulation of knowledge as well as short-term preparation.

“Actually, each day you spend on campus is a preparation for expressing yourself on the stage,” he says. “So when I stepped on the stage, I had already prepared for it for around three to four years.”

Even so, he made several revisions on his prepared speech. And even the night before the competition, he practiced making an impromptu speech for that part of the contest.

Zhan’s long-term commitment to public speaking won him third place in the national contest. Later he gained an offer to stay on campus to be a teacher and public speaking trainer after graduation.

This year, Zhan was back at the competition again-not a contestant but a judge. The professor and vice-dean of Guangdong University of Foreign Studies observes that professionally he has benefitted quite a lot from public speaking.

“Public speaking has enabled me to make a successful transition from a college student to a teacher,” he says. “It also helped me to morph from a university professor to an interpreter specializing in different areas.”

A big part of Zhan’s current job is related to interpreting. He says that a good interpreter also requires mastering public-speaking skills, so that he or she can convey messages more effectively in a cross-cultural context.

Zhan encourages his students to engage in public speaking. “Even if you don’t participate in the speaking competitions, it’s still important to learn to be a better speaker and communicator,” he adds. “If so, no matter which career path you take, you are more likely to be successful.”

Expanding horizons

Rick O’Shea, a Beijing-based US writer, conceptual artist and freelancer, has been involved in the competition for around a decade, working as host in the competitions. He thinks participation is the key.

“Any kind of national English-speaking competition in China gives people something to work for, something to look forward to,” he says.

This was certainly true for 25-year-old Communication University of China graduate Chen Jiehao, who became the grand champion in 2012.

Chen Jiehao was exposed to the 21st Century English National Speaking Competition when she was in primary school.

Back then, she lived in a southern Chinese city which didn’t offer adequate English-language learning resources. But from watching the CDs of the previous competitions, she got to see some of the top young public speakers in the country.

“Seeing them makes you feel there is a possibility that your English can be as good as theirs,” she says. “It also gives you a direction to learn English and a goal to pursue.”

She later participated the competition’s high school and college categories. This took her to Hong Kong, Macao and London, where she saw peers from different backgrounds leading different lives.

“Since childhood, this competition allowed me to see or mingle with the cohort who excel in English,” she says. “From them, you see a variety of possibilities opening up in front of them, which enables you to see things much further yourself.”

Chen Jiehao has developed an abiding love for telling stories about China. She says: “I have always been hoping to raise some different voices about China.” Motivated by this, she jumped into the media industry after graduation. She now works as a researcher at The Economist’s Beijing bureau.

Key to better careers

Since its founding in 1996, the 21st Century English National Speaking Competition, sponsored by China Daily, has attracted more non-English majors.

In the past two years, University of Macao international relations student Li Shanshan and Shanghai Jiao Tong University medical student Zhu Xue have won the competition.

The 2006 winner, Cao Feng, now a 30-year-old lawyer who works at US law firm of Paul Hastings in Shanghai, was a law-school graduate from Tsinghua University.

Unlike other contestants who had participated in various English-speaking competitions before college, Cao attended his first contest when he was a freshman.

To enhance his public-speaking skills, Cao regularly sought advice from his teachers as well as spending spare time practicing his presentation skills. “I practiced (even while) biking to school and taking showers,” he says.

According to Cao, even though English majors have certain advantages, non-English majors can stand out on the stage, if the contestants can offer something from their respective fields.

In 2006, Cao became the champion of the 11th 21st Century National English Speaking Competition, the first Hong Kong resident to claim the title.

He says winning such English-speaking competitions can help contestants later in the job market. “Winning the competition itself demonstrates certain abilities,” he says. “It can at least get the contestant job interviews.”

Some other winners from the competition gained offers or internship opportunities in Cao’s current company. The 2011 champion, Xu Jiru, is a colleague.

Sponsored by his law firm, Cao is expected to enroll at Harvard Law School to study LL.M. (Master of Laws) this fall. He will continue to work for Paul Hastings after graduation.

This year’s competition also attracted a number of non-English-major contestants like Cao.

“I was thrilled to see that many non-English majors demonstrated strong skills in public speaking,” says Mu Zhouqing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ deputy division director, English division, department of translation and interpretation.

“Over the past two decades, the 21st Century National English Speaking Competition has made contributions to improve college students’ English language proficiency nationwide.”