English: Speak Up! Have a Voice!

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By Mahtot Teka

“The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public,” said the late actor George Jessel. Public speaking is that nerve-wracking for many people. It taps into a deep well of human anxieties including: fear of judgement; feeling exposed; feeling uncomfortable being stared at by many eyes; and fear of saying something stupid.

Most of these fears are irrational. Unfortunately, your chance of falling victim to these fears might be higher if you are speaking in public in a second or third language and don’t have previous experience of public speaking.

Say you are a newcomer who speaks English as a second language (or third as is my case) and you are expected to stand up in a meeting and express your opinion about a project at work. Generally speaking, your Canadian-born counterparts might do a better job at that simply because they are speaking in their native language. Also, because the Canadian culture encourages speaking while some others may not. In some non-western cultures like mine “silence is golden”. In Amharic we would say “Zimta wark naw”.

Considering the odds against you, no one would blame you if you avoid public speaking altogether. After all, public speaking happens to be the one thing people – regardless of culture or language – fear most.

Or you can learn, try, fail, improve, and eventually become good at it. It is a personal choice. Many people who conquered their fears and become good at public speaking would tell you so.

Some newcomers are confident speakers despite the odds. However, if you identify as someone who breaks into sweat in the middle of a Canadian winter when making a presentation for school or work, share that with people. Someone will most likely suggest joining one of the training programs for public speaking. I suggest joining a Toastmasters club.

What is Toastmasters?

Toastmasters International is a club that helps people improve their public speaking and leadership skills. Anyone can join. Members learn effective ways of speaking in public by practicing speaking through the help of manuals and feedback from fellow members. As the former governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle once said, “Toastmasters is the best and least expensive personal improvement class you can go to.”

Toastmasters International has been around since 1924. It has thousands of clubs around the world. Regular folks and famous people alike join the clubs. William Bennett, Former Premier of British Columbia, is one of the famous Canadians who were members of Toastmasters.

Many people say Toastmasters helped them succeed in public speaking. Chris Mathew, an author and a broadcast journalist with MSNBC once said, “Toastmasters changed my life. They really did. Put me on the stage. I don’t know what I would have done without that positive boost.”

What is in Toastmasters for you?

Public speaking is a great skill that you can use at work, at school, and in any social event. Even though some people seem to be naturally talented in it, it can be acquired like any other skill, whether you do it in your first language or your 10th. Whether you are a newcomer or Canadian born, Toastmasters is a great platform for doing just that. “I think what Toastmasters teaches everyone which is universal is courage; to get up there and take those steps and find your voice and speak. Everyone can relate to that,” says Shahid Quqdri, who has been a member of Toastmasters clubs in Vancouver and Toronto.

Jean B. Moke, an immigrant from The Republic of Congo who is a non-native English speaker, says that he joined Toastmasters club in Toronto to become a confident communicator in English. “Toastmasters meetings are improving my confidence to communicate accurately in the English language. The presentation that I make, the feedback I receive, and the different roles that I fill during the Toastmasters meetings help increase my confidence.”

The newcomer experience in Toastmasters

As a newcomer, you might find extra challenges in Toastmasters than a Canadian born would. Moke says, “They [born-Canadians] know the culture; they have the facility to express themselves with ease.”

Quadri says that recent newcomers tend to be shyer. Being self-conscious about their language skills is an extra barrier for them. For Moke, the extra challenges are “My French accent and my poor English vocabulary”.

Toastmasters International is known for being a supportive environment. Whether it is from the round of applause you get for getting up and speaking or the constructive feedback everyone is happy to give you, in Toastmasters you feel like you are among friends. Shahid says that once newcomer members see, “that everyone is really rooting for everybody else that it is very convivial and sup¬portive environment” then it becomes easy taking the first steps to try and speak in public.

What club members can learn from you

Newcomers are a significant presence in Toastmasters clubs. In some clubs there are more newcomer members than otherwise. That has its many benefits to any club beyond any “exotic” stories you might share; stories such as when you were living in an ancient land called Ethiopia.

For Quadri it is this: “I found that some of the members have reaffirmed that sense of the gift we have [in Canada] in many ways to have the legal right to say anything we want. And to respect that right by trying to speak in the most effective manner, and respectful manner possible we can cultivate at Toastmasters.” He also says that newcomer members offer the challenge to listen with compassion as well as patience because sometimes they are hard to understand. And in Toastmasters, listening is as important as speaking.

Learning public speaking with Toastmasters works. If you really want to improve your skill while enjoying the experience, Toastmasters gives you the opportunity. I am an example of that. I joined Toastmasters before I immigrated to Canada. After a hiatus of two years, I am back on track – learning and enjoying every single minute of it! After all “We learn best in moments of enjoyment,” as Dr. Ralph C. Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters once said.

There are many clubs throughout Canada. Go to Toastmasters International website at www. toastmasters.org for clubs near you.

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