The Children’s International Speech Contest, held Saturday in Tokyo, was unique in that its participants also experienced beforehand various programs promoting cross-cultural understanding.

In the event’s second year, 39 children from elementary schools introduced themselves in English and delivered speeches on their assigned countries in either Japanese or English.

Ideas learned through experience, rather than from books, are an important element of a speech, said Madoka Soma, a representative of Somos & Co., the event’s organizer.

“Conveying those (experiences and ideas) is fundamental to a speech and will be a necessary skill for future leaders,” she said.

Soma, who has worked as a spokeswoman for a major automaker, saw some Japanese, including herself, having a tough time when making presentations in English because they lacked the language skills and experience in delivering speeches.

“People need to start doing (presentations) from their early childhood,” Soma said, adding she hopes to hold the contest again next year.

Before the speech contest, children attended several sessions to get hands-on experience on each assigned country by visiting embassies and interacting with foreign students studying in Japan.

On July 24, children and students from overseas were brought together in Tokyo by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The foreign students, all in high school, helped the children hone their self-introduction speeches in English.

“Does anyone know English?” Soma asked the children in Japanese, and several raised their hand.

The children peered around and seemed nervous at the beginning, but as the session moved along they buckled down and concentrated on crafting their speeches.

Tatsuya Yoshida, 8, from Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, said he wants to be a pro baseball player in the United States.

“When I talk with other members of the team, I will need to use a foreign language,” he said.

Extremely nervous about the contest, Yoshida added he finds English letters and pronunciation difficult.

Embassy visits were among the opportunities to explore their assigned countries by becoming “mini ambassadors.”

One such visit was Aug. 20 at the Tunisian Embassy.

Among the questions asked by the kids and answered by officials were “Do people eat fruit in Tunisia?” and “Do children living in the desert go to school by riding on camels?”

“I am glad that I could find out what I did not know,” said Chisaki Arai, 8, from Niiza, Saitama Prefecture.

Participants also tried cooking Tunisian sweets — dates stuffed with almond paste — with the help of embassy staff.

Maher Trimeche, first secretary at the embassy, was amazed by their eagerness to study his country.

“Their questions are very clever,” Trimeche said. “After today, I expect that they will be interested by Tunisia as a country and also some other parts of the world.”

The speech contest, supported by The Japan Times, was held at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in Fuchu.

“I want to become rich because I want to buy everything,” one participant said in English.

“I want to be a pilot of international flight. I want to go to other countries,” said another, also in English.

Some demonstrated belly dancing, others performed karate or sang the song “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

The contest was divided into three levels according to the students’ English skills.

Yuto Tomuro, 11, of Nishitokyo, won the top prize in the elementary division.

Tomuro said he practiced looking into people’s eyes while delivering a speech. He also cooked Tunisian cuisine at home. “I am glad,” he said of the honor.

His mother, Mina, 46, said he wasn’t good at English.

“It was meaningful that he took a challenge and he conquered his inferiority complex regarding English,” she said. “It made him become confident in himself.”

Kaede Negoro, 9, of Koganei, Tokyo, won the top prize in the advanced division.

“When making my presentation, I was really nervous and thought I wouldn’t make it,” Negoro said in Japanese afterward. “When my name was called, I was happy.”

One of the judges, Minoru Naito, a lecturer at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said he was impressed by the speeches.

“Everyone has practiced really hard and made wonderful speeches,” Naito said. “I want children not to forget about their curiosity of the world and convey (their messages) in their own words.”

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