Asking the right questions

On Saturday, I had to judge a speaking competition. It was paid (albeit pretty poorly), but as with many things here, I did not get much information in advance, until the night before. The 23rd China Daily “21st Century Coca-Cola Cup” National English Speaking Competition, Regional Final – Beijing, was held at my university. 31 students delivered two speeches – one which was prepared (all on the same topic), and an impromptu speech, which they had 20 minutes to prepare. There was a choice of 38 possible topics which they could speak about. I was informed the night before that there would be seven judges, but only five would be actual judges. The other two (including me), were ‘question masters’. The event was organised by 21st Century English Education Media and an American editor from there was the other question master. His task was to ask a question about the prepared speeches; mine was to ask a question about the impromptu speeches. Neither of us had to judge the speakers at all, we simply had to ask the questions.

This was easier said than done, especially for me. I was given the list of topics when I arrived, about 08:30, and the event started at 09:00. So I had half an hour to think of 38 possible questions relating to the topics. However, sometimes students deviated slightly from the topics, so I was supposed to ask them a question about what they said. Moreover, some of the topics were, to say the least, difficult or unusual topics to think of suitable questions about. Added to this, was the structure of the day, which did not work in my favour. The speakers would go onto the stage one at a time, give their prepared speech, then their impromptu topic would be announced, they would give their impromptu speech and then answer the question on the prepared topic, before they came to my question. If their impromptu speech was short and their answer to the prepared topic’s question was also short, I had to scramble to think of a suitable question. More often than not, I also had to repeat the question, sometimes twice, because the students did not understand me.

Although it was not what I would describe as ‘fun’, and I was glad when it finished, I had nothing better to do on my Saturday and it was interesting to see how well – or not – their spoken English was. In terms of prizes, their were twelve third-prize winners, ten second-prize winners, eight first-prize winners, first and second runners-up and then the champion. The champion, first and second runners-up and the top two of the first-prize winners qualified to go through the the semi-finals in 2018.

I had said in advance I did not want to give a speech, although I was a little sceptical as to whether I would end up actually having to say a few words anyway, but thankfully I didn’t. All in all, and with a free lunch as well, it wasn’t too taxing, though I wouldn’t want to do it again any time soon!

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