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Reaching New Heights in China

Students Alex Keogh and Brendan Bakker win awards at an international Chinese language competition.

Alex Keogh and Brendan Bakker pose together in front of a green mountain range in Guangxi, China. They wear yellow shirts with name tags in Chinese.
Alex Keogh and Brendan Bakker at the Chinese Bridge language competition in Guangxi, China
Photo by Brendan Bakker

English and Mandarin Chinese represent the top two most widely spoken languages in the world—meaning that if you speak both, you open the door to communication with billions of people around the globe. To encourage Mandarin learners to continue developing their language abilities, the Chinese Bridge Association holds an annual language competition. In the final round of the 2023 competition, Alex Keogh (Chinese and Psychology ’26) and Brendan Bakker (Mechanical Engineering ’25) won prestigious awards while they represented BYU in China.

Before boarding an international flight to participate in the final, Keogh and Bakker had to make it through local and national competition rounds that tested their language skills. The national round in Washington, DC required a speech presentation and a talent showcase. Bakker performed a Chinese tongue twister for the showcase, recounting the names of several hundred foods by memory, and Keogh performed a Chinese song. Keogh won first place at nationals; both students qualified for the final international round.

The international competition was broadcast in gameshow style on the biggest television network in China, and viewers worldwide could submit votes online for their favorite contestant. Competitors presented speeches, wrote essays, answered questions about Chinese history, gave cultural performances, and more. In one event, competitors sampled fruits and conversed in Mandarin while cameras recorded their interactions. Viewers particularly loved Bakker, who won second place in the popularity contest, receiving over 50,000 votes in just one week.

The competition took place in Guangxi, China, near the Vietnam border. A total of 138 student competitors from 120 different countries gathered in the stunning Guangxi region to showcase their proficiency. Notably, BYU was the only school to send two students.

Opening ceremonies, which were held in Beijing, kicked off the competition with the theme of “one world, one family.” Keogh participated in these ceremonies after Chinese Bridge officials selected him to represent the student competitors and present a speech in front of a group of attending international leaders. Keogh says, “I got to talk about building bridges of understanding across cultures, and building global worldwide friendships. And it was really an honor to be able to kind of extend that hand of friendship to government leaders from around the world.”

Keogh went on to win the Best Performer Award, which he explains is a loose translation of the award’s actual title. The direct translation is “Most Elegant Demeanor Award,” but Keogh humorously explains that "in the United States, ‘elegant demeanor’ maybe doesn't mean the same thing that it does in China. What it means is that, when you’re presenting yourself, you’re able to connect with the audience, whether you’re performing or speaking.” Keogh also placed in the top 15 competitors overall.

In addition to competing, Keogh and Bakker spent time sightseeing with other participants and visiting famous landmarks. Bakker says, “I was just sort of in disbelief, because I’d never been to any Asian country before, let alone China. It was a really unbelievable experience at first.”

As a result of their involvement in the competition, both students received partial scholarships to Chinese universities of their choice. Keogh hopes to use the scholarship to study cross-cultural negotiation with the goal of eventually becoming a university professor. Bakker hopes to use the scholarship in pursuit of a career working with Chinese manufacturers as an engineer.

Both Keogh and Bakker have found that their education in Chinese has opened their eyes to new opportunities and perspectives. To fellow students, Bakker says, “If you are considering studying a language, I’d say definitely go for it. If you put effort into it, it pays off tenfold, hundredfold.”

To learn more about Chinese Bridge and view highlights from this year’s competition, visit their website.