About a month ago, I signed up for the 2019 Korean Speech Contest in Malaysia. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. – I’m not a fan of public speaking. I’ve always struggled with stage fright, and I hate the sound of my voice.

I’m writing this to document the experience while I still remember it, and to share it with other Korean learners in the community, in hopes that someone out there will find comfort in my story, knowing that they’re not alone.

So… This is how it went.

Before the Competition

I spent the month leading up to the competition drowning in anxiety. Every night I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling, asking myself why I did what I did. I hate public speaking. I’ve never even done this in my native language, much less a foreign one that I’m not yet fluent in. What exactly was I hoping to achieve, by joining this competition?

I had already submitted my speech, so it was a bit too late to back out. I practiced every day. I conjured up in my head countless ways in which things could go wrong, and in every scenario, people laughed. At me. I memorised so many different versions of the speech just so that I’d have something to fall back on in case I forgot what to say halfway through.

And of course, the night before the competition, I could scarcely sleep. But that was nothing compared to what came after.

The Big Day

I started shaking the moment I walked through the doors.

The competition was held in a small auditorium with no more than fifteen rows of seats. I took a seat in the fifth row, and all I could think about was how apparent my trembling would be, with the audience so close.

There were three categories – beginner, intermediate and advanced. I was in the advanced category, which came last. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I was the last contestant in my category (and the whole competition, basically). My heart sank when I realised I would have to sit through over 30 speeches before I could go up and give mine, which would give my anxiety plenty of time to build. I wanted to get it over with as soon as possible, alas.

As expected, my anxiety got worse as I waited for my turn. My hands were cold and trembling the whole time, and I had to sneak out three times to hide in the bathroom stalls just so no one would see me hyperventilating.

I’d sat next to three girls who came together. They chatted the whole time, giggling and exchanging words of encouragement. Some people came with their friends and family, who cheered them on when it was their turn to go up.

I went alone. I told only a handful of people about the competition and begged them not to come, because I didn’t think I could do it in front of them. While I don’t regret that decision, I did feel a little lonely there.

And then they told us that there would be an impromptu Q&A session after the speech, for the contestants of the advanced category. The judges would ask questions, and we would have to answer on the spot. I started panicking, of course. I could handle casual conversations, but formal speech to a panel of judges, under such extreme stress, and without preparation beforehand?

When we finally got to the advanced category, I was ready to puke. Literally. My stomach started churning, and I knew I needed to get my nerves under control ASAP or I would throw up on the stage. I kept telling myself to calm down, but it wasn’t working.

And then I noticed something. The Korean emcee made a mistake while reading his script. He smiled and shrugged it off smoothly. It must have been his sixth or seventh mistake that day. He’d been making small mistakes since the opening speech and each time he would correct himself and just move on as if nothing happened. Seeing this, I thought to myself, “If a native speaker can make mistakes and get away with it, why can’t I?”

Somehow I found myself repeating that in my head while I marched slowly onto the stage to take my place under the spotlight.

On the Stage

The spotlight was so strong I could barely see anything from up there. The audience was a blur – I found that disconcerting. My mouth started going auto-pilot, reciting the speech as I’d written it, while I searched the white blur for faces, trying to gauge the audience’s reaction. Are they smiling? What are they thinking? Why can’t I see their faces?

And then halfway through, my mind went blank and all of a sudden I couldn’t remember what I supposed to say. I tried to shrug it off, and moved on to what I could remember, making minor adjustments to the speech as I went. I don’t think the audience could tell, but the judges certainly could – they all had copies of my original speech.

When I was done, the judges thanked me for my effort. And then came the question, “Korean drama and k-pop show only the good of our culture, but nothing of the bad. Can you talk about an aspect of Korean culture that you find negative or undesirable?”

I hadn’t expected a question like that. The contestant before me got ‘Why did you decide to learn Korean?’ and the one before her was asked to explain why, in her opinion, that K-pop is as popular as it is. I wouldn’t say those are easier questions per se, but they are much more straightforward in the sense that they don’t require as much tact, which is a pretty difficult thing to pull off in a language that you’re not really fluent in. I started panicking. Should I be honest? Can I be honest? What sort of answer are they expecting to hear?

And then, aware that everyone is waiting for my answer, I said that the workplace culture in Korea seems to promote working overtime, which is a great source of stress for working adults, and that while it is understandable considering Korea has had to grow as rapidly as it had in the recent decades, it is a bit sad… In far fewer words.

I didn’t like how I did at all. I said maybe five sentences, and for the rest of the event, all I could think about was how I wished I’d worded my sentences differently. Provided more elaboration. Or a different, more interesting answer. Somehow my performance for the Q&A session mattered more than my speech – at least, to me. I did okay with my speech. I didn’t stutter, and while I did forget a few sentences, I was able to recover from it relatively smoothly.

But anyone can memorise a script and recite it. Impromptu speaking, though – that’s the real test. And I’d failed it. In my opinion, at least.

After the Competition

I won the 대상 (grand prize).

Yet as I stood on the stage to receive the trophy, all I could feel was shame and numbness. I felt as if I didn’t deserve it. I was still thinking about the Q&A session. Nothing else seemed to matter. All I wanted in that moment was to go home.

I know my disappointment seems vastly disproportionate considering the cause. It was probably my anxiety (among other things) talking, and believe me, I do see how ridiculous it is. It makes me mad, because it robs me of the ability to enjoy something I’d worked so hard to attain.

I could sugarcoat this and tell you that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and that it completely changed my perspective on language learning. That it shattered all my insecurities and I’m now super confident in my Korean speaking skills. But I won’t, because we both know that’s not true.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. At least I lived to tell the tale. That must count for something, right?

And that realisation I had with the Korean emcee – that’s going to stay with me for a while. Now I have something to reassure myself with whenever I get insecure about my speaking skills – anyone can make mistakes. If native speakers can get away with them, so can I.

Would I do it again? I’m not sure. I fell sick immediately after I got home. I had a headache that eventually turned into a migraine, and then a fever that lasted a day. I also lost my appetite, and didn’t regain it until 2 days after the event. Even now, just thinking about that day makes me feel like throwing up a little.

Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. But that’s okay. I’m glad I did it anyway.

9 thoughts on “ My First Ever Korean Speech Contest ”

  1. Despite your feelings of inadequacy, congratulations on winning the 대상! I also have stage fright, although I don’t usually feel like I have to throw up. I just visibly shake. A lot.

    I can’t imagine not only having to wait through all those speeches and then have to have an impromptu Q&A with the judges in front of everyone. Terrifying. I’m pretty impressed with the answer you were able to think of, though. I feel like I would have totally blanked and just stared at them for an awkwardly long period of time.

    That’s the thing about making mistakes. Native speakers make them all the time, and it’s no big deal, but when language learners make them, it seems to be more of a reflection of their inadequacy in that language, rather than just a simple mistake. It makes mistakes much more nerve-wracking for us…

    Like

    1. Thank you for all the kind words! And I agree with you about mistakes and how when language learners make them it seems to be more of an indication of their inadequacy rather than just a simple mistake. I think there’s a point at which you become competent enough in the language that people start seeing mistakes as just mistakes rather than a real lack in language skills, but no one knows exactly when that happens because there is no real way to pinpoint exactly when and how fluency is achieved. Even the definition of fluency varies from one person to another.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I always get nervous with public speaking, especially when you can’t see the audience behind the bright stage lights. I used to force myself to read my poetry in public but now I no longer do. It’s not worth it to feel anxiety and the bad feeling afterwards (self-criticism). I think you did very well, you won, that must mean something! It sounds like you’re overly critical of yourself and that’s why you got so sick afterwards. No one is perfect, so you shouldn’t expect that of yourself. Focus on what you’re enjoying , let the inner critic go, it’s not helpful to you to be so hard on yourself🌸

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I really am too hard on myself – it’s one of my biggest weaknesses, I think, and it’s something I’m working to overcome. I get so caught up in the criticism and judgment that it’s hard to focus on the present, which is arguably the most important and the only thing we have control over.

      Like

  3. Haii there, I actually like to try join the contest too for this year but just for beginner level. BUT, I do not know how to start write my speech script. Would you like to share with me the tips? And can I see your speech script. Don’t worry I am not going to copyright, I just want to make as my reference only☺️.

    Like

    1. Hey! First of all, good luck for the competition! 🙂 As for the script, I would say keep it sweet and simple, because your delivery is more important – they just want to see you recite your speech calmly, confidently and clearly. Also, since it’s a formal event, I would suggest sticking to the formal sentence ending (the ‘니다’ ending), with some 요 ending sentences thrown in. 🙂 Mix the two, but always start with the 니다 ending. It’s also not a super serious event, so if you’d like to make your speech funny, go ahead! Jokes are generally appreciated. But most importantly, have fun!

      As for my script, I’ll send it to you via email. 🙂 Once again, all the best!

      Like

      1. wahh thank you very much for the tips. I will try my best. ouh ya, there is an interview 1 week before the contest. Do I know what actually they ask for? I am too nervous so that why i am think it so much.

        Like

      2. Oh don’t worry about it! I was really nervous about it too, but all they did was call me and ask me to introduce myself (I told them my name, how old I was, and where I was from), and then they asked me how long I’d been learning Korean and whether I’d taken TOPIK. That’s all. It was a very short call ^^;

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s