SOTY 2014: Student Linguist of the Year has more than just a way with words

By Wong Tsui-kai

To become South China Morning Post Student Linguist of the Year, winners need more than a good vocabulary and some clever dictionary skills

By Wong Tsui-kai |

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Barry Li says modern language is losing its romanticism.

Lots of people in Hong Kong can speak well, but that's not all it takes to win the Student of the Year - Linguist award.

Last year's top linguists, Myranda Lai Wun-chi (English), Jenny Zhang Jiaying (Putonghua) and Barry Li Yu-chim (Cantonese), are all great communicators, help their communities, and know a lot about language. So they were not lost for words when we asked what made them stand out from the crowd.

Myranda pointed to her diverse experience with language. "Other candidates had more impressive achievements in their various fields. While my own experiences were much less remarkable, I had a lot of experience, for example, with literature, debating, public speaking, writing and so on."

Jenny says that preparation helped her, along with her relaxed attitude. "I did not worry too much about the speech, although I was a bit nervous. I acted natural when communicating with the judges. Enjoy the process and don't worry too much about the outcome - that was my attitude."

Barry is clear that his success was not solely his own. "I think luck and hard work helped me more than talent. The support from friends and family helped me overcome the difficulties I felt on the road to self-improvement."

When asked what kind of writing students should concentrate more on, the winners held different views.

Myranda said poetry helps her most. "Poetry really calls for an economical use of language, at least when compared to a 1,000-word essay. Writing poetry calls for the consideration of aspects such as rhyme and meter, and a micro-analysis of language which is less readily available in other forms."

Jenny talked about writing short stories. "There are lots of competitions for other writing categories, but short story writing is the most interesting, and requires creativity, too."

Barry chose literature. "Modern language is losing its romanticism. In classical literature, each word has a much deeper meaning beyond just communicating a message. People ignore the beauty of language."

All of the winners agree that linguists can serve their community well.

Both Myranda and Barry emphasised the power of debate in society. "Debating is a skill which many people think can't be applied to community service. But debating helps students develop an awareness of both local and global issues and critical thinking skills," says Myranda.

Barry adds: "Debating is about opening people's minds. Public speaking and the ability to speak on behalf of others can create consensus and unite people."

Both Barry and Jenny think good communicators help their society. "Language is about communication. One can serve the community by fighting for rights and upholding justice," says Barry.

Jenny says community service often involves interaction between people, and that "language is made for communication. It will definitely help during the process".

The trio offered their final pieces of advice for future contestants.

Myranda thinks it's important to make the most of the opportunity. "Enjoy the experience as much as possible and cherish the chance to discuss what language means to you with the judges because their insights are very interesting and can really enrich your own understanding," she says.

Jenny offers some simple tips: "Keep calm, don't panic. Let your heart do the talking."

For Barry, it's about doing what you love. "Express that passion and interest. No matter the medium, show you are passionate. And don't get theatrical. Keep it simple and don't exaggerate," he says.