Language learning through public speaking

Chinese university students in a debate, 2011 (Photo by Nikki Feng)

Chinese university students in a debate, 2011 (Photo by Nikki Feng)

Public speaking can constitute an excellent language learning tool, as I discovered through participating in public speaking activities in China. Over time in these activities, participants became better public speakers in both their first and second languages (L1 and L2) AND improved their L2 in other ways.

The public speaking activities I participated in included an adults’ public speaking club, students’ advocacy training and university classes. I joined Beijing Bilingual Toastmasters to develop my Mandarin, other members were learning English. We all had to chair meetings, speak off-the-cuff, evaluate others and prepare speeches in both languages.

Together with others, I also designed and implemented a public speaking tournament at a Chinese NGO. Through experiential activities we trained Chinese university students. Students could pre-select participation in Mandarin or English, and, in practice, were free to code-switch. Finally, I also taught public communication at a Beijing university to one cohort of Chinese students and one international cohort, mostly non-native English speakers. Both groups were required to deliver short unprepared speeches, prepared speeches and debates in English.

Most learners in these activities got nervous about public speaking (myself included). However, our discomfort helped us succeed as uneasiness about public speaking served to channel and divert L2 anxiety. Public speaking helped learners focus on an overarching communicative goal, rather than stalling on every sentence. Particularly with the advocacy trainees, public speaking seemed a challenging step up from other L2 tasks, such that other L2 situations became comparatively less stressful. In my own case, the organisation and rhythm of a speech at Toastmasters kept me from continuously seeking the perfect phrase. Instead, I used my L2 resources better to avoid the embarrassment of failing to make a speech, a prospect that was much more stressful than the discomfort of making a small error.

Public speaking in an inclusive environment

Like with any public speaking activity, some participants dreaded speaking. That discomfort doesn’t necessarily make public speaking bad for language learning. Overcoming a fear or learning something you didn’t realise you could learn are empowering. Of course, public speaking can also be disempowering if it serves to crush the learner’s confidence.

The discomfort of public speaking can make speakers self-effacing, which seems to discourage people from showing off. In my experience, rather than creating competition, which may discourage learners from trialing new uses of their L2, the three public speaking activities constituted highly supportive environments. In particular, the Bilingual Toastmasters Club and the advocacy training tournament were both new initiatives, so each learner was also contributing to getting them off the ground. A common cause can help create an inclusive language environment. As group membership was not reliant solely on  language, learners could practise their L2 without risking their group inclusion. Learners had chosen to join Toastmasters and the advocacy training in order to improve both their public speaking and their L2. Such agency also contributed to the inclusive learning environment.

Moreover, public speaking was being practiced through sequential lessons and with feedback, creating an environment markedly different from a learner delivering a speech in their L2 to a group of non-learners, e.g. at a conference. Speaking to fellow participants, people saw themselves as competent adults choosing to learn a new skill, rather than as deficient learners. They were therefore likely to see other participants reciprocally. The groups respectfully listened, clapped and congratulated each other, offered constructive tips and discussed ideas raised by the speaker, and then had a go delivering speeches themselves. All of this validated each speaker not only as a public speaker but also as an effective L2 communicator. In addition, there was no perfect bilingual taking the authoritative teacher role, so feedback was reciprocal.

Public speaking as a ‘real world’ challenge

Finally, the public speaking activities described here demanded real communication but with low stakes. Using an L2 for ‘real-world’ communication can build communicative skills and develop a learner’s confidence. However, reciprocal public speaking simulates the ‘real world:’ there is no exploitative taxi driver to rip off the learner and no high-stakes assessment. All there is to public speaking in these contexts is a little discomfort which the learner is not facing alone. In this way, public speaking may be a relief, not a threat, to those otherwise learning their L2 outside the cocoon of the classroom.

Author Alexandra Grey

Alex has completed her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney and is now waiting for graduation day! Her thesis is in sociolinguistics, analysing China's minority language policies today with a focus on Zhuang language. She also teaches various subjects in policy development and law at Macquarie University law school, and she was previously a legal researcher and advocacy trainer at a Chinese not-for-profit organization in Beijing, continuing there after a stint with AusAID's Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. Between the NGO and the PhD, Alex studied Mandarin at BLCU and Tsinghua University in Beijing, adjudicated and lectured in debate, and completed her Masters in Applied Linguistics. Alex has written for the Lowy Interpreter, Whydev and The China Beat blogs.

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