I was delighted by the presentations of the finalists in the 2nd annual Stories of China Retold in English Challenge, which this year had over 170,000 contestants. It was obvious they were passionate not just to learn English but to use it to share with the world China's Story—the China Dream. Although I only saw the finalists, in my eyes, all 170,000 were winners.
Some challengers asked for suggestions to improve their English or to do better at next year's challenge, so I offer 10 simple suggestions, beginning with three Tech Tips for English.
Tech Tip 1: Grammar check.
As David Symington has said, grammar is not the top priority in telling China's Story. You'll win your audience easier with an ungrammatical but passionate story than with a grammatically perfect but dull recitation.
斯明诚老师说得没错：讲好中国故事，语法并非头等大事；即便不合语法，你要是能把故事讲出激情来，也比语法严丝合缝的“唐僧念经”更能抓人。But if you’re going to memorize something you have written, at least use a simple spellchecker. Otherwise, rather than improving your English you may be reinforcing and entrenching your errors, and written errors become spoken errors.
By the way, my spellchecker just found 5 errors in this document. :(
Tech Tip 2: Record your voice!
Cell phone recordings of your English not only aid in memorization but also help you hear and correct mistakes and improve tones and cadence.
Tech Tip 3: Daily Dose of Dictionary!
From my youth, I've loved browsing dictionaries to see how words originated and how variations are used today. A phone dictionary is a fun way to learn and remember new words, phrases or usages, and many programs also provide sample sentences with the words.
If a picture paints a thousand words, body language paints 10,000. Research shows that most of our communication is conveyed through body language—especially our facial expressions.
1. Smile—but not nonstop!
A smile may convey not just happiness but also that you are relaxed, which helps relax the audience and raise their receptivity to your message. Conversely, an unvaryingly serious expression may convey that you are tense or stressed. Do not smile nonstop, of course! Last year, a girl grinned as she shared the Covid death rate.
Do not smile nonstop, of course! Last year, a girl grinned as she shared the Covid death rate.
Think in advance what facial expressions will be appropriate for different segments of your story and practice conveying happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, doubt, relief, regret, seriousness, etc. And while you're thinking ahead, consider your tones.
English, like Chinese, has tones, although in English the tones convey emotions (urgency, anger, fear, delight, doubt) rather than change the word's actual meaning. In the China Story challenge, some contestants used the same tones or, almost as bad, the same practiced set of tones. Tones, like facial expressions, can powerfully reinforce your words—or detract from them if used incorrectly.
So as with facial expressions, review your recitation's emotional words, phrases or topics, and practice using tones you would use in real life—although it is challenging to act naturally in unnatural situations.
3. Body Language———Naturally Unnatural.
In addition to facial expressions and tones, use hand gestures and your body.
One contestant stood rigid the entire time, hands glued to his sides as if at attention. I expected him to salute the judges.
Another adopted the Xiamen Airlines stewardess pose, with both hands clasped before her, though at times she raised her arms like a Quanzhou marionette on a string, and then dropped them limply to her sides as if her strings had been cut.
As with facial expressions or tones, plan in advance to use simple gestures to reinforce specific words, emotions or actions. One of the best gestures I saw in the event was a girl using one hand to "sprinkle" spices on her food. It was so natural, visual and appealing that I could almost smell the bowl of noodles in the other hand.
Don't overdo it, of course. Melodramatic mannerisms may be more distracting than none at all. Be natural—although acting natural is easier said than done.
Even after making hundreds of TV episodes, when a director tells me to "just walk naturally," just knowing that I'm on camera makes it difficult, even though I’ve had six decades' experience at putting one foot before the other. Only a few months ago in Beijing, a director called for a break, and then filmed me as I walked back to the starting point. It was perfect—but only because I thought the camera had been turned off and I wasn't thinking about walking naturally.
And even as it’s hard to "act naturally" on camera, it's difficult to be natural on the unnatural environment of a stage. When telling your story to family or friends at home, you can easily deliver an Oscar-winning performance, but once on stage, you're like a Quanzhou puppet with knotted strings. So what's the answer?
Even Oscar winners who have been idolized in one film have been ridiculed as utterly without talent in another. Acting natural does not come naturally—even for the stars. The only solution for them, or for us, is practice, practice, practice. And as you practice, seek feedback from friends so you don't just reinforce habits you should change.
My suggestions above were geared primarily for formal English events. To improve daily conversational English, I also suggest:
1. Ask questions!
Someone said that dialogues are in reality only two-way monologues, because people do not listen to each other. To speak better, learn to listen, because it helps you know your audience better, and what to say or not to say. You may also learn new words, phrases or insights to help with that specific person or event.
2. Learn a little, use it a lot!
Too many people burn out attempting too much too fast, but language learning is a marathon, not a sprint.
So my most useful insight from graduate linguistics was simply "learn a little, use it a lot." After all, if you learned just one word a day, that's 365 words in a year. I learned Chinese (and also Turkish) like a child, learning one simple word or phrase a day, and like a child, I boldly practiced it on every person I met—which brings me to the next suggestion: open your mouth!
3. Open your mouth!
Language learners the world stress reading and writing but fear making mistakes by speaking aloud. Never fear! Foreigners appreciate you learning their language, and even if they do laugh at a mistake, it is not malicious but good humored because we all make mistakes.
That is how we learn.
Just reading and writing will never improve oral English because oral English is physical, not just mental. If you don't exercise your mouth, tongue and lips, you may master the vocabulary and still not be able to speak. I know a respected Sinologue in the U.S. whose written Chinese is better than most Chinese. He even reads and writes ancient Chinese. On paper, he's brilliant—but he cannot carry on even a simple conversation in oral Chinese.
4. Cheat Sheet Strategy!
Before meeting a person or attending a meeting (or an English challenge), think about what you may discuss, make a list of useful words, and practice them in advance. Then you can more easily and naturally alter your familiar sentence patterns to fit the new situation and better impress a new boss, teacher or girl/boy friend.
The cheat sheet strategy may even help with an English recitation or challenge. Jot down key words and corresponding facial expressions, tones, hand gestures and body movements, and review them beforehand so that they become second nature.
Of course, use this sheet only before the event, not during it, unless you write it in tiny print on your wrist and pretend you are checking the time.
Good luck with your English!
Though luck, of course, has nothing to do with it. The key to oral English is practice, practice, practice.
Since I moved to Xiamen University in 1988, I've known uneducated adult Chinese in their 40s who could only speak Minnan dialect. Yet over time, through sheer persistence, they not only learned Chinese but some English as well. If they can do it, so can you.
I look forward to seeing you at next year's 3rd Stories of China Retold in English Challenge!