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How and Why I Did a Speech Contest in a Language I Don't Speak

Our lives are like sailboats. We set a direction and we go that way. Before I started my Erasmus exchange semester in Krakow, I only wanted to set one clear direction : I would seize every opportunity that comes my way. This direction in my sailboat brought me to the Toastmaster's club and got me to participate in a speech contest in Polish against native speakers. 

One month before leaving Toulouse, I put a piece of paper up on my wall to remind me to say "Yes!". It was a reference to the Jim Carrey film Yes Man, a silly but inspiring story of a man who is put in a trance and has to say yes to every opportunity that comes his way. This might seem outlandish. However, we all probably turn down interesting treasures of opportunities all too often. 

There's a voice in my head that sometimes complains a lot about a lack in my life of different things. Why don't I travel more with friends? Why am I not invited to all these fun events? Only to then realize that I turned down these same things I complain about not having enough of in my life. This behavior to me seems even more ridiculous than any Jim Carrey film I saw. The only reason I said "No" to so many invitations was because I put my comfort before everything else. "Well, not anymore,"  I told myself. 

It was the day before Valentine's Day, and I had just spent a week pretty much alone in Krakow. I arrived before all of the other Erasmus students and classes had not even started. I decided to go to a Toastmaster's event which is an English public speaking session I found on Meetup in order to meet new people. When I arrived, I was told I could give an impromptu speech that same day. I said, "Yes." I talked about my romantic life for three minutes. It felt exhilarating to be so vulnerable. That day, I won Best Table Topic Speaker. I felt like I changed. My sailboat was conquering new seas. 

At the end of the event, a guy named Damian mentioned that there was a Polish public speaking contest lined up. I didn't know more than a handful of words in Polish at the time. I could barely read Polish. I just knew I had to try and see if I could sign up. Wouldn't that be a great story to tell my grandchildren? When I said I wanted to sign up, I was immediately asked, "Do you even speak Polish?"  I replied, "No, but if there's at least two weeks before the contest, I know I can prepare a speech." I don't think they knew how to react, but they said it was possible. 

Some people may think this is crazy, but the people who know me well, know that I've been doing this kind of stuff my whole life. In Canada, I competed many times in regional public speaking contests in French, my third language. I was an experienced public speaker with multiple award-winning speeches in high school including a silver medal in regional finals. 

Now that I had officially signed up, I needed a speech. My initial plan was to write one out entirely in English and then to translate it in Polish with the help of native speakers I met on a Facebook language exchange group. However, I was really busy at the time, but I was meeting native speakers for coffee quite often. I completely made up the speech off the top of my head as I met these people. I would ask them to write in Polish what I was saying in English and I then proceeded to come up with a speech spontaneously. After five such meetings, I almost had my speech. I just sent a conclusion in English to one friend to translate the final part of my speech. The speech was finished. 

I now had a week to memorize the speech with comprehensible pronunciation. I met pretty much those same people and practiced reading my speech aloud. At home, I rewrote my speech by hand to help with memorization. On the day of the speech contest, I had only memorized two thirds of the speech. I felt quite nervous, but confident I would be able to memorize the rest. Meanwhile, I had been talking about this contest to all of my friends and I was receiving a lot of support. This motivated me to work hard on delivering the best possible speech I could. 

While walking to the library where I was supposed to give my speech, I experienced my first heavy snowfall in Krakow. I was unprepared and was completely soaked. My feet were wet and freezing. At the same time, I was listening to a recording of my speech while walking. My nerves went through the roof when I realized that I didn't memorize the speech well enough. I emptied my mind and focused on the words. This was by far the scariest public speaking event of my life, because if I forgot a phrase, I could not improvise. I spoke almost no Polish.

When I arrived at the event, I could not even understand when they introduced my speech. My friend Szymon who came to support me told me to stand up. I stood up, walked on stage, and started talking. Then, it happened. I forgot my entire speech. I blanked out and froze knowing that I couldn't continue. Luckily, I had a back up plan. I pulled out the piece of paper from my pocket and continued the speech. As the speech progressed, I felt more confident and inspired myself. The speech ended in lots of applause and congratulations. It was over. I got second place by default and it still felt amazing. I was proud of myself for participating and for managing to give a speech in a language I don't even speak. 

Steve Jobs once said that if you live each day like it's your last, some day, you'll most certainly be right. I can't say I always go full carpe diem, but I would like to. My sailboat's set in that direction. Let's see what seas it conquers next. 

Here's the video of the speech : 





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This is FLUENT IN FOUR

Hello,

Welcome to the FLUENT IN FOUR blog for my web series.

Today, I officially reveal my goal of learning Polish, my fourth language, fluently in four months during my exchange semester in Krakow, Poland.

I will be recording this entire journey for you to enjoy in a YouTube web series (click here for the channel). I will be publishing links to my episodes on this blog.

There will be two episodes every week.

I will be posting more details after the launch video which will be published this Monday.

This is a project I have been planning for months and I can't wait for you to join me for four months of me POLISHING MY POLISH!

Sincerely,
Stefan Nesic
Creator of FLUENT IN FOUR