Speech Contest

An article from the Vientiane Times, Monday April 2, 2007.

A big step in the right direction

Luang Prabang English Speech Contest

On March 11, 2007, five young Lao speakers expressed themselves fluently in English to an attentive audience in the lobby of
“@ My Library”, a space devoted to independent learners in Luang Prabang.

The five speakers expressed their love of their hometown, the theme for the speech contest. The three judges agreed that all speakers did well and deserved to be called winners, but chose to award the first prize of cash and books to Mr. Sainithar Soukhaphorn, a teacher of English at Teachers Training College, Luang Prabang. With two years of experience of teaching at TTC and years of hard study, he delivered a dynamic speech impressing the listeners with his fluency and clear pronunciation. He spoke of the famous attractions of his rural hometown on the outskirts of Vientiane and how the smell of fermented fish sauce always takes him back. Sainithar commented, “This experience will help me with my own teaching in the classroom. I can use what I learned here to pass on to my students.”

Winners of the speech contest holding certificates

Among the audience was an American volunteer who praised the young speakers. “I had thought that in general Lao people are not used to expressing their personal thoughts and emotions. I was impressed how they spoke from their heart.” Sansany Keosavanh, a second-year student at Xai Pattana College was especially expressive when describing her hometown. “When I close my eyes, I can remember the sights, the sounds, the smells, tastes and feel of my hometown and I don’t feel lonely anymore.” She spent a considerable amount of time working on each gesture, voice inflection and facial expression. The result was a moving performance.

Mr. Seangpheath Southnavong works as a regular staff member at “@ My Library” and in his speech, compared the anxieties of city life with the peace of mind he can enjoy in his hometown. “Some day I will be back and watch the rice dancing in the fields again.”  His dream is to farm and raise animals in his Khamu village so that his daughters will have more chances to be educated.

This small group of speakers was diverse. Though Ms. Sansany was the only female speaker, a Khamu and Hmong speaker could relate their own unique experiences. Mr. Keng Lor Xiaying came dressed in a special Hmong costume. “These clothes are used on special days and this is a special day.” He spoke of the unique religion, language and clothing of his village and expressed his confidence and pride in his ethnic background. He told the audience later, “I was nervous, but very excited and happy to have this chance to speak.”

Mr. Viengsavanh Ouansavad, a student at the law school in Luang Prabang took a literary approach and captured the audience’s attention with his skilful use of language. “Every second and every minute passes like water flowing, and we can never go back to the same place.” He spoke of his own personal goals and his determination to return to his parents and his hometown but only after reaching his goals. This speech contest was one big step in that direction. “I won,” he said, smiling and clenching his fist in victory after finishing. He knew that the competition was not between people, but a competition with himself. It was about overcoming fears and taking a big step to make dreams become real.

The speech contest was the first of its kind in Luang Prabang and was consistent with the goals of “@ My Library” a place that has provided an important space for learning for the last four years. It operates on private funds and donations and is run by Carol Kresge. She has created a space that is not just about books, but a place that is supportive to the individual challenges that learners in Northern Laos face. “By encouraging creativity, curiosity, thinking and pride in an environment that is fun, we empower people to pursue their interests and realize their dreams.”

Carol has set the stage for expanded learning, making events like this possible. The speech contest was also supported by the three judges Thomas Knoechel, Phouttana Sengsourigna and Renee Swire. The speakers were supported with coaching by Nina Carter of AusAid and Martin Momoda, an American volunteer. Nina and Tongchan were Master of Ceremonies for the evening. Mua Li sang Hmong songs he had composed himself and afterwards cookies and punch kept the enthusiastic audience chatting about until late. Technical staff included Yachengly, who recorded the event on video so that this cooperative event can be reviewed in the future.

The five speakers, however, deserve center-stage. “They will go far” was the comment of a long-term English teacher in Luang Prabang. With the first step made in the right direction, anything is possible.