Improving English, One Speech at a Time

Toastmasters Clubs increase confidence, clarity when English is a second language 

Edie Chung giving a speech at the Blue Devil Toastmasters Club. Photo by Marsha A. Green.
Edie Chung giving a speech at the Blue Devil Toastmasters Club. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

Yichun Chung practiced her speech six times, but as she stood at the podium, fearful thoughts of garbled grammar and mispronounced words made her mouth go dry. 

Recalling instructions from the Toastmasters International handbook, she took a deep breath, fastened her eyes on a friendly face and launched into her speech during a recent Toastmasters meeting on campus.

"Hello, my name is Yichun, but everyone calls me Edie," she said. "I'm joining Toastmasters because I want to improve my English."

Duke hosts three Toastmasters International clubs that meet at varying times and locations to help individuals improve their leadership and speaking skills. Each club also has a handful of members who, like Chung, come specifically to practice speaking English as a second language. 

Chung, an auditor in the Internal Audit department at Duke, began studying English in Taiwan at age 13 and has lived in the U.S. since 1993. She joined the Blue Devil Toastmasters Club last summer, three months after starting work at Duke because she wanted to improve her pronunciation and grammar and speak English as fluently as her American-born children. 

 "In Taiwan, we learned English just by memorizing words, not by practicing talking," she said. "Toastmasters is a safe place for me to practice and to get good feedback."

Members of Toastmasters receive handbooks that help them learn speaking and leadership skills one step at a time. For example, the "Competent Communication Manual" focuses on issues such as how to organize a presentation, how to use body language, how to persuade others, and how use different vocal tones for the most impact through preparing a series of 10 short speeches

In meetings, two to three members offer prepared speeches, while others take leadership roles, including the toastmaster (the emcee for the meeting), humorist, timer, speech evaluator and "um" counter.

"That's the hardest role," said Chung. "I never focused so hard on listening before. But now I am much more aware of my own speaking habits."

PRATTically Speaking Toastmasters Open House

The PRATTically Speaking Toastmasters will mark its second anniversary in March and invites members of the Duke community to celebrate. A special event will be held from noon to 1 p.m. March 25 in room 222 of Hudson Hall.

Guests will be able to meet Toastmasters from all three clubs on campus and learn more about the various roles in a Toastmasters meeting. Cupcakes and refreshments will be served.