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Harness the competitive spirit

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

My example below could fit the college application essay prompt "Write on any topic you like" or "Tell us anything you think we should know"

Some don’t last when it comes to language learning; others show unwavering determination. It should be understood that language learning is a years-long, if not life-long endeavor, but one can take advantage of a variety of unique opportunities to accelerate learning. Competition can be used in such a way.

I taught exam preparation for TOEFL at a cram school in South Korea in 2010 and 2011. High school-aged students would study there all day through their summer vacations, each day taking a full practice test. Middle school-aged students at the school prepared for a speech competition organized by the school.

At their ages from 11 to 13, these middle school students were able to dramatically improve their pronunciation, and thereby improve their confidence through the speech competition. The texts of the speeches were pre-selected but unique for each competitor. In general, the content of the speech was inspirational. Besides my work with the students preparing for TOEFL, I helped to prepare the younger students for the competition, in which the speeches were used to judge accuracy in pronunciation and memorization, and individual post-speech interviews were used to judge their fluency.

I helped to prepare the competitors by recording myself read the speeches onto portable cassette recorders. These recordings were used to aid memorization and as examples of native pronunciation. The page-long text was not easy to memorize, but most students did a wonderful job doing so.

The most remarkable aspect of the competition was that the students were able to transform their pronunciation in English to near-native pronunciation.

Every day leading up to the competition, students would have the opportunity to rehearse their speeches with the teachers at the language school. They would practice from memory and, when having forgotten a line or word, receive prompting. Slips in pronunciation would also be corrected, and corrections would be repeated until said accurately in connected speech.

The strategy worked very well for all students but one. On the competition day, the competitor who had won the previous year was unable to recite her speech. Perhaps, her overconfidence had led her not to give adequate time to memorizing the text of the speech. On stage, she forgot the words of the text, and when she came for her fluency test, she was in tears.

As I had been conducting these interviews out of earshot of the stage, I did not know why she was crying until later. I tried to console and give encouraging words. I offered not to continue with the interview questions. But, she wanted to complete them.

Afterward, I was told by the organizer, “She should be crying, she forgot her speech!” Suddenly, I realized how serious this competition had been for the kids and their families.

When our expectations of ourselves are high, we are highly motivated. But these must be tempered with realistic expectations and the understanding that language learning is a long journey with many peaks and valleys.

Although I haven’t been a competitor in this type of contest, I can attest to the challenge posed by endeavoring to learn a second language. I moved to the USA with my parents from Colombia when I was two years old. I learned a bit of Spanish growing up by talking on the phone with my dad’s side of the family, and I studied Spanish at school from 6th grade to 12th grade, finishing with the Advanced Placement Spanish Literature class. I then continued with literature classes at Wesleyan University. Despite the time I had devoted, I wasn’t able to understand TV in Spanish easily (at a comprehension rate above 80%) until I lived in Colombia for an extended period of time when I was 23. It was only until I had lived there over four months that I could understand Spanish spoken at full speed without difficulty.

At 25, I could learn Korean rather easily, but after two years of casual study, I had only reached a pre-intermediate level. However, with Vietnamese, which I began at age 30, I have had a much more difficult time. Over five years, I have only become an intermediate user, often struggling to be comprehended.

Comparing my experiences with the three languages demonstrates what a daunting task language learning is. I had eight years of formal education in Spanish followed by two years as a teacher, whereas my attempts at studying Korean and Vietnamese produced mediocre results.

To conclude, achievement in language learning can be felt when we are understood by our interlocutor and when we can enjoy media without aids. But, let’s not forget that competitive spirit and personal drive can accelerate acquisition, and demonstrating our skills develops confidence, which in turn propels further study.

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