Source : The Star online : Wednesday July 14, 2010
By JOHN DORAISAMY
Impromptu speeches and debates can help improve English proficiency.
THE formal school time-table content is quite insufficient to attain all the set aims for language learning. The extra-mural dimension can be a valuable supplement or adjunct to classroom work.
Schools in our country have always had societies or associations that focus on public speaking, debating, mock trials, and choral speaking, to cite some random examples of extra-mural activities involving language.
Good habits of oral delivery mastered at school will be of value to young people. In their adult working years they may have to make formal presentations at meetings, seminars and all manner of negotiations. And in family life there will be occasions for speeches at birthday parties, wedding dinners and various anniversaries. Eulogies at funerals are also common.
Formal occasions require the observance of traditional rules intended to ensure order and discipline. Students will be able to note that at formal events, the casual manner used when chatting with friends cannot be adopted.
Impromptu or extemporaneous speeches are a good starting point. The advisory teacher of the English Language Society can prepare a number of simple, yet interesting topics. The chairperson, always a student-member of the society, will hand out the paper slips containing the titles of the speech. Timing is important. A speaker may be given five minutes to understand the title and to sort out in his mind the relevant points he will cover in his speech. He will be allowed to jot down the points, and to do some arranging of facts and phrases. Some curriculum guides remind us that “short-order talks” are frequently thrust upon politicians, civic officials and teachers at meetings, banquets and public gatherings, big and small. Some training in the art of speaking extempore or listening to such speeches will promote confidence and help to dispel the “terror” or fear element. Students can become surprisingly adept at extemporaneous talks once they learn the knack. And that can only grow out of practice.
When all the presentations have been made, the teacher can make comments on the speeches with the aim of helping students to improve their performance. Correct usage of phrases, exact pronunciation of words, tempo of delivery and audibility of voice must be looked into. The teacher’s attitude is of course vital. To err is human but we can all learn from our own errors and those of others.
What of the topics to be chosen for impromptu or extempore speeches? Generally, topics should be chosen that contain an element of controversy or will stimulate arguments. Local, state, national and world affairs always provide useful ideas or speeches. It does not matter at all if the degree of sophistication is not quite to the adult level. In a multi-cultural society such as we have in Malaysia, topics that may infringe on racial or religious sensitivities are taboo. Here are five ideas for impromptu speeches.
1. Road safety measures need to be improved in our community.
2. All nuclear weapons must be eliminated.
3. Students should be accorded the right to choose their own courses in secondary schools and at university.
4. The abolition of public examinations is not advisable.
5. More professionals such as doctors, nurses, professors and bank managers should be invited to give talks to upper secondary classes.
The time limit set (say five to seven minutes) has to be followed strictly. In our country, speakers, I feel, have too much to say. When the bell is rung, they try to rush through the unfinished portions of their speech. The entire value of the presentation is lost when the bell has to be rung repeatedly, and a recalcitrant speaker has to be literally forced to resume his seat. A wholesome habit to cultivate would be to end any incomplete presentation by saying, “I’m sorry, but owing to time constraints I am unable to complete my speech.”
Good public speakers cultivate the art of rapport or closeness with their audience. There must always be eye contact with the members of the audience. Any speaker who just scans his paper intently and reads out the text, word by word, will not have “sparkle”, the human touch. Humour is a good element but it should not be forced. To add a joke or two as a routine is not advisable.
Regarding nervousness and stage fright, students should be reminded that there are really very few “born speakers”. It is a very common weakness to feel nervous but over a period of time, through sheer practice and perseverance, confidence will replace fear and tension.
Sir Winston Churchill had an anecdote about stage fright. He asserted that he always found it useful to take a hard look at the audience. He would then tell himself, “What a lot of silly fools.” Taking deep breaths and standing up straight also helps a great deal.
Formal debates can provide a good opportunity for some students to speak and for others to learn through listening and observation. Two opposing teams of not more than three speakers each participate. The topic in the form of a proposition should always be clearly worded in the traditional, parliamentary style. An example is: That convicted criminals serving prison sentences should be given more opportunities to learn useful skills.
The main speaker for the proposition speaks first and he is followed by the main opposition speaker. Then it is back to the second speakers for either side and the third speakers conclude the presentations. Each team should meet to plan out its work so that members do not repeat the same points. It will not be too difficult to anticipate what the other side will probably say. In refuting or attacking an opponent’s view, it is of vital importance to avoid harsh or personal remarks. The old-fashioned precept is still valuable, namely, “attack the view but not the person expressing the view”. Also, all utterances should be addressed only to the chairperson. There should be no remarks nor gestures directed at the opposing side. I am sure we want to promote among young Malaysians the cultivation of decorum and good manners in all situations involving public speaking.
Within a school, opposing teams from different forms or houses can compete in debate. Inter-school debating competitions are also useful to foster healthy rivalry.
Advisory teachers should encourage the more enthusiastic students to read anthologies of famous speeches. Political speeches and court-room speeches are plentiful. Good bookshops will have suitable volumes that can be purchased for inclusion in school libraries. Through wide reading, students will steadily add to their stock of new words, phrases and idioms and become good speakers and writers.