Toastmasters and the English Language - A Level Playing Field

The writer has seen many changes in four decades with Toastmasters

Joining Toastmasters for the first time in 1972 in New Zealand, and being a member in New Zealand and Australia, Tom has noticed many changes in Toastmaster membership.
Joining Toastmasters for the first time in 1972 in New Zealand, and being a member in New Zealand and Australia, Tom has noticed many changes in Toastmaster membership.

Toastmasters is now a huge multi-cultural organization

We Toastmasters are members of a multi-cultural organization. Today we have clubs in over a hundred countries and this is beginning to bring up increasing language problems. I am writing here of our use of English as our base Toastmaster language.

Language becoming an increasing problem throughout Toastmasters

There are already non-English speaking Toastmaster clubs which hold their meetings using their own, native tongue. Here in Australia I have noticed increasing problems as many people from non-English speaking backgrounds become members. English is, of course, used in Australia. Yet, for more and more of our members, the language they learned as children was not English. This can sometimes have a deleterious effect on the quality of our meetings.

It's hard enough if your English Language is adequate

How difficult, then, is it for the person whose first language is not English and who is struggling.  If it fair on both that member and their club?
How difficult, then, is it for the person whose first language is not English and who is struggling. If it fair on both that member and their club?

An adequate understanding of the language is pre-requsite

I know this sounds racially prejudice, and I hope the message contained here is not interpreted that way. Put bluntly, the quality of a meeting depends upon a number of factors. Probably the first is the sense of goodwill and camaraderie within the club. But there are other important aspects. The ability to learn and understand is prerequisite. I suspect that in clubs where the greater percentage of people with really difficult to understand voices (pronunciation, enunciation, dialect and word placement) are at a disadvantage as far as learning is concerned.

This fellow may be confident, but he's not a Toastmaster

Leaning on the lectern is a 'no-no' in TM.
Leaning on the lectern is a 'no-no' in TM.

Let's be clear: Toastmasters is not an English Grammar School

How many times have you heard a visitor from a non-English speaking background say “I came along so I could learn better English?” Toastmasters is not an English Grammar School! TMI objectives are not that of teaching the English Language.

Toastmaster Competitions

Then we come to the matter of Toastmaster competitions. These are supposed to be delivered in the English. This puts the person born without that language at a significant disadvantage in the competitions TMI so strongly advocates. TMI regulations state that each club should endeavor to hold four contests a year. These contests are to include the main International Speech Contest. Most clubs adhere to these requirements, putting up contestants for the International, Evaluation, Table Topics, and the Humorous Speech Contests – all to be delivered in English. They have to be in English if contestants are to have any hope of advancing to Divisional, District and the final playoffs, which have traditionally been held in the United States of America. And let’s face it. Grand Final audiences are comprised mainly of people whose first language is English. I’m talking here of easy-to-understand, pleasant-sounding English.

Fear gives way to confidence, then competence and, eventually, excellence

But there is no quick fix for becoming an excellent public speaker.  It is a lifelong project.
But there is no quick fix for becoming an excellent public speaker. It is a lifelong project.

We admire courage and applaud the person who persists

Coming back to the clubs themselves: It goes practically without saying that it takes guts to attend a Toastmasters club for the first time. We all know how nervous we were. For the person who is not really conversant with English because this is not their first language, it is that much harder. I think most Toastmasters acknowledge this. We admire such courage.

When all are from the same background, confidence in not saying 'the wrong thing' is there

However, in an audience comprising many different nationalities it become clear to a speaker that not everyone will understand what is being said.
However, in an audience comprising many different nationalities it become clear to a speaker that not everyone will understand what is being said.

However, it is possible to have too many from non-English speaking backbrounds

On the other hand, there comes a time for a Toastmaster who was born into the English Language, and who has for years enjoyed an ease of homogeneity, who suddenly find him or herself as one of a minority in a club - now filled with people struggling with English - to decide it’s just too much. For him or her it’s now difficult deciphering what members are saying. Quite often the whole club dynamic has changed. The atmosphere is not the same. It’s no longer the fun it used to be. Not surprisingly, the member thinks, “Well, it’s time that I changed clubs.” Or, worse. “I think I’ll just give it away.”

One language for all is wonderful - but in Toastmasters, is it practicable?

There are obviously positive and negative sides to this question of Toastmasters adherence to English being its base language – it’s only language, in many instances. And it is not a problem just limited to Toastmasters. For example, the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) has it. So, too, I’m sure do many international organizations. But as far as Toastmasters is concerned, there are certainly disadvantages to maintaining the status quo for many of our newer members.

Is there any way of leveling the playing field? Any way of making it better for everyone? I cannot think of any answers to this particular language dilemma. Perhaps you can.

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Pennypines profile image

Pennypines 3 years ago from Mariposa, California, U.S.A.

It is entirely possible that English was not my first language, because I was born in Japan and we children spent most of our time with the hired help. However English was the language used in my home as well as in school, although we were required to learn French from the first grade. My grandmother who dominated the household, was very much a purist, refusing to allow us to mix languages. In addition she tried to teach us our native tongue which is Armenian. It turned out to be altogether too much of an overload for young minds to absorb.

In order to be a good speaker it is essential to have a wide vocabulary and with the exception of English, in this I cannot claim full ability. I do find if I prepare well in advance, learn to speak slowly and pronounce properly I can speak with authority. A good way is to practice aloud with a tape recorder running.

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