“To Discuss is Human”

  • 2014-03-12
  • Linda O’Grady

This was the topic for debate at the Riga Regional Finals of the English Speaking Union (ESU) International Public Speaking Competition on Saturday. I had the honour of being one of the judges at the event which took place in the Great Hall of Rigas Valsts 1. Gimnazija on Raina Bulvaris.

I had had an email from the organizer - an American Latvian lady - a few weeks previously and had jumped at the chance to take part. I was really interested to see the standard of English of the youth of Latvia. I was also curious to see if I really could be the next Simon Cowell. (Experience now tells me that I couldn't.)

The ESU International Public Speaking Competition has been running for 32 years. Currently, the competition encompasses over 40,000 young people in 55 countries across the globe. Recent winners of the competition have included Mauritius, The Philippines, Yemen, Lebanon, South Korea, Malaysia and Australia. Latvia became an official member in 2002 and students from all over the country have been participating ever since. At present, 30 Latvian schools are active members.

Competitions are first conducted in various regions of Latvia, with the winners being chosen to attend the national finals in Riga. The winner is awarded with an all-expenses paid trip to London in May to compete with young people from all over the world. One week is spent there, competing, visiting Parliament, attending a play, and generally, making new friends from all over the world.

On Saturday, 25 students from various high schools in Riga would compete against each other. The speakers had to interpret the topic as creatively as possible, and give their speech a different title to the one given. Each speaker would take the floor for five minutes, with an additional two minutes for questions from the judges and the audience. The speakers had to stand at the front of the room with no lectern, no microphone and no visual aids.

I really doubt that I could have done this at that age – and in a language that is not my mother tongue. These kids had my admiration from the moment I received the rules.

On Saturday morning, I arrived early - and nervous. I had never been a “judge” before – what if I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say, or any questions to ask? I was introduced to the other two judges, a Canadian-Latvian girl and an American-Latvian man, naturally called “Janis”. As it turned out, I needn't have worried about coming up with questions as it seemed that Janis was more than capable of speaking for three.

From the get-go, it was clear that a huge amount of work had gone into preparing the speeches, and that the standard of English was incredibly high. Most of the participants sounded as if they had just walked off the set of a Hollywood movie, but then I suppose that’s where young people pick up a lot of their English these days.

Topics ranged from small talk to procrastination to technology to conflict resolution, and everything in between. Most of the students were dressed quite formally and in spite of this being Latvia, only one student had decided that cleavage were the way to go. My notes on her speech went something like this: “A bit repetitive… BRA.”

For me, even though the speeches were very well-prepared, the “Q&A” segment was what really separated the wheat from the chaff. My feelings were that basically anyone with a decent grasp of the language and a good memory can write and present a speech. The questions section was the eye-opener for me – and yes, I did manage to ask a few.

Most of the students struggled to come up with any sort of coherent or informed answer, and I don’t think it was a language issue. It just seemed that they were woefully unaware of what’s going on in the world, or even in their own country. I asked one student, who had touched upon various social issues in his speech, what he thought were the biggest social problems facing Latvian society.

“Drunks,” was his answer.

Another girl, who had talked about freedom of speech, was asked for her opinion on the lack of freedom of speech under Soviet rule, and how the older generations living here were still afraid to speak out, despite over 20 years of freedom. She looked confused for a moment or two and then asked:

“Are you talking about Vietnam?”

Words failed the rest of us at this point.

Another thing that struck me, was the lack of humor in the speeches. Naturally, it’s not meant to be a comedy show, but a little humor goes a long way when it comes to making a connection with the audience, and achieving what my old pal Simon Cowell describes as “likability.” I think I laughed three times over the course of the 25 speeches.

When all of the speeches were heard, the two other judges and I retired to a room upstairs to select three finalists and three other students who deserved honorable mentions. At this point, I discovered that there is something more painful than watching other people type - watching other people do simple arithmetic.

What should have taken under 30 minutes, took close to an hour so everyone was getting restless by the time the organisers finally got to announce the results. After handing out the certificates, the judges were permitted to give some general feedback, so with a face as red as my dress, I told the sea of teenage faces that a bit of humor and personality never went astray.

Overall, I have to say, it was an incredibly positive experience and I thoroughly enjoyed the day. The standard of English among Latvian young people is amazingly high and this is very encouraging for the future. To the students who are continuing in the competition, I wish you the best of luck.

Last year, Estonia and Lithuania both made the top ten, so hopefully, this year, Latvia can do the same.

The national final takes place on April, 5 and is open to the public. Please, go along and show your support.

Read more from Linda here.

Picture: Three national finalists,jury, Ruta, and Deputy Head of the UK Mission to Latvia Richard Koizumi