UWRF student earns second victory with powerful speech in Japanese

Posted May 3, 2016

For the second year in a row, a UW-River Falls student has received the Japan Airlines Award for giving a speech in Japanese during a regional contest in Chicago.

Kevin Leor, a junior French and Spanish major originally from Mexico, is fluent in seven different languages. He won the 30th Annual Japanese Language Speech Contest.

Leor said that he thinks of learning new languages as a hobby.

“You learn not just the language,” Leor said, “you learn from other cultures and you learn to appreciate other people’s perspectives, and that’s what my speech was about.”

Leor’s speech focused on the topic of sexual orientation and how people in the LGBT community from Mexico may fear that they won’t be accepted by their families. The speech triggered an emotional response from the audience, which included Leor’s mother visiting from Mexico. Leor said that, after not looking at her for the entire speech, he had to stop three lines early because he noticed that his mother was crying.

“I couldn’t finish it,” Leor said. “I forgot about everything, and then I was like, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do this,’ and I said it in English.”

Other audience members, including one of the judges, approached Leor after the contest to tell him how much they liked his speech. As he was leaving the building, a woman tapped Leor on the shoulder and said that she recorded parts of his speech to show her son. Leor said that made him happier than he was about the possibility of winning an award.

“I felt really good. I felt like I made a change,” Leor said. “Even if I didn’t win, I would be way happier with this outcome.”

The Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago sponsors the contest, which took place on March 26 of this year, in an effort to promote learning Japanese in the Midwest. Instructor of Japanese Magara Maeda said that she has been encouraging her students to participate in the contest for years, but students have not done so until last year.

Maeda said that students typically speak about topics like Japanese culture and their own experiences with their host families, so she was not sure how a topic like Leor’s would be received and felt moved when she heard that it had seen such a response. She said that Leor’s speech was a success both because of Leor’s ability to give the speech and answer questions in Japanese and because of the message behind it.

“That was really amazing that, in the foreign language, he did it and touched the native speakers’ heart, so I think it’s a great accomplishment,” Maeda said.

Learning about other languages and cultures, Maeda said, provides an opportunity for students at UWRF to question their own cultures. She said that she encourages students in her classes who question why things are done a certain way in Japanese culture to ask themselves the same thing about their own. On a campus like UWRF, where some students come from rural Wisconsin towns and have never been out of the country, Maeda said that this is particularly important.

Last year, Leor won the contest with a speech about violence in his native Mexico, according to a UWRF press release. Leor said that he will likely compete in the contest again next year, even though he will be finished with his Japanese courses.