William & Mary Chinese studies students recently swept up gold, silver and bronze awards in a Chinese speech contest the university had never before entered.
Colleen Mulrooney ’19 took the gold, Caroline Lebegue ’18 won the silver and Alexandra Bate ’18 was awarded a bronze on Nov. 1 at the 2015 Jiangsu Cup Chinese Speech Contest at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The contest, cosponsored by a number of university Confucius institutes and the Jiangsu International Cultural association and exchange center, has existed as a regional competition around Washington since 2011. This is the first year William & Mary was invited to participate in the contest, which is open to intermediate to advanced Chinese language students who have not lived for more than two years in China.
William & Mary sent videotaped speech samples from five students, three of whom were chosen as finalists, more than any other university.
“I told my students, ‘You are already successful because you entered the final round,’” said Peng Yu, the Chinese studies lecturer who coached them. “We had a big team. Big universities, like UVA, Georgetown, the University of Maryland, they only had one or two students. We had three.”
All three undergraduate students had studied in China in or after high school, and they called upon those experiences in crafting speeches themed around learning Chinese.
In addition to the prepared speeches, the contestants also had to answer trivia questions about Jiangsu Province. But the hardest part, they said, was an extemporaneous speech they had to give on the spot. They chose topics at random out of a hat and were given just five minutes to prepare before they went before the judges, who later asked questions. Yu said the extemporaneous speech and answers to the follow-up questions put William & Mary over the top for the judges.
“It was beyond my expectations,” he said. “The gold awards were really divided between George Washington and UVA for the last two years. But this year we took the grand prize. I’m very proud of our students.”
William & Mary’s Confucius Institute helped defray transportation costs for the students to attend the contest.
“When people learn a foreign language, especially an Asian language like Japanese or Chinese, they have to make connections with it in their daily lives,” Yu said. “Otherwise what’s the point of learning that language? These kinds of events really give them an opportunity to connect things – with each other, with their own lives – and to demonstrate what they’ve learned.”
Starbucks as cultural touchstone
Overall point winner Colleen Mulrooney ’19, who plans to declare a Chinese major, spent the summer of 2014 in Xi’an.
“Despite the fact that we were in this city with all of this history, everyone in my group would get excited every time we saw a Starbucks,” she said. “I think it was a familiar setting, where we could sit back and reflect on everything we had learned about China. We would go hang out, but instead of talking about the U.S. iTunes top charts, we would be speaking either English or Chinese and talking about what food is the best in this one street market, or where we went over the weekend. But that could have been a Buddhist temple, rather than a park with our family. [For us, Starbucks] kind of changed when we were in China.”
For her improvised speech, Mulrooney offered the advice she would give a Chinese friend planning to study in the United States. She explained the differences in restaurant etiquette as well as transportation laws (pedestrians having the right-of-way in the U.S., for example). She also insightfully noted that the denominations of American coins are too subtly marked for foreigners.
“If I hadn’t been to China before, I would have been at a disadvantage with this, because studying abroad forces you to notice these things that are different,” she said.
She added that the contest itself didn’t feel competitive. “We all understood that everyone was nervous and wanted to do well. In that waiting area before everyone gave their speeches, people were mostly helping each other, listening to each other practice, looking over the different trivia facts together. It was a really cool learning environment, the stressful little waiting room.”
Mulrooney, who was the most nervous of the three W&M students, was surprised by the win. “The success is owed to Professor Yu and the time he put into us,” she said. “I’m really grateful to him for that.”
Being one of the two gold prize winners, Mulrooney would normally be awarded the opportunity to complete two years of graduate studies at Nanjing University. Because she’s a freshman, she and Yu are negotiating an alternate year at Nanjing.
On Chinese reality TV
Biology major Caroline Lebegue ’18 based her speech around accidentally ending up on Chinese television. She spent the 10 months between high school and W&M studying in Changzou.
“It was great and crazy and exactly what you’d want from study abroad,” she said.
Lebegue said her teacher in Changzou taught her and the other students a Chinese song and dance, which is not unusual in foreign language learning. But Lebegue noticed that the teacher didn’t just teach the song and dance and move on. Instead, she drilled the students on the routine, over and over.
“And then she sent us to this professional dance instructor. We’re like, this is really weird. OK, sure whatever. We’ll learn this dance really well, I guess.”
Then two Chinese journalists came to interview them and film a day-in-the-life segment and it was from them the students learned they were going to be competing on television. Think “Dancing With the Stars,” but with non-native speakers who had to sing, too. Despite the shock, Lebegue and her classmates won the contest.
“My point in the speech is that if we hadn’t been in so deep, we might have chickened out,” she said. “Because our teacher had basically weaseled us into this competition, we were forced to have this experience where we had a lot of pressure, but we came out of it realizing we can really do this stuff.”
Lebegue is planning to use her winnings from the silver award to study at Nanjing University this summer.
Alexandra Bate ’18, a Chinese studies and international relations double major, remembers the moment she realized she wanted to be fluent in Chinese.
“I was speaking Chinese with a native Chinese speaker,” she recalled of the high school study abroad trip. “I wanted to be able to talk one-on-one with Chinese people and learn more about their culture and experience life through that lens, rather than having to use a translator. In my speech, I talked about how powerful language can be in communicating with people, learning about other people and expressing yourself.”
She later had that experience stateside, in an eight-week Chinese language immersion program, during which students weren’t allowed to speak any other language.
“That was definitely the turning point for me in being able to talk to native speakers,” she said. “Now I can definitely hold a conversation with a native speaker. They tend to talk a little bit clearer and slower when they are talking to foreigners, but still, I’m definitely on my way to being fluent.”
Bate was already planning to study in China for her junior year, but she hadn’t yet settled on which area. With at least part of that year covered by her bronze award winnings, she’s now planning on studying at Nanjing.“I’m really happy William & Mary gave me the chance to do this. I’m thankful to Professor Yu for setting all of this up.”