August: this month I have…

  • Been recovering from three weeks of fun and teacher training in Kyrgyzstan!
  • Started a new job in Change Management – to be covered on this blog soon.
  • Set up a lunchtime German conversation group with my colleague Rachel, in the hope of putting my language to good use.
  • Eaten some delicious meals at the Chester Arms, the Pickled Walnut, and Manos.
  • Started planning the autumn term at FELLOW.
  • Picked more blackberries than I know how to cook.
  • Met representatives from the University of Oxford to discuss an ESOL project they are planning to support local Syrian and Kurdish communities.
  • Acquired a new housemate!

I went to Kyrgyzstan (part two)

Here’s the second part of a series of blog posts about my teacher training travels in Kyrgyzstan. To read a summary of my trip, click here.

An introduction to Kyrgyzstan

I landed at Manas International airport groggy and dehydrated. Two red-eye flights in a row, plus a mad midnight dash through Istanbul Atatürk airport to avoid a missed connection, had meant little sleep. Plane travel is not my friend: I find it hard to sit still, I choke on the smell of stale coffee, and I really don’t like the food!

Luckily Andy, the volunteer coordinator for the project, was waiting to meet me at Manas International with a bottle of water and conversation to keep me awake. We waited a little while in a small café at Arrivals for one of the British undergraduate volunteers, Rosie, before piling into a taxi and heading to our hotel.

We drove around – rather than through – Bishkek to reach the hotel, so my first impressions of Kyrgyzstan were: dust, watermelons, shipping containers… and Angela Merkel. Dust flying up behind the cars in front of us, children rolling watermelons home along the roadside, shipping containers standing in empty fields, and banners featuring the smiling face of Angela Merkel because she happened to be in town at the same time as us. It was about 10am, and already 30°C.

Happily, Bishkek is a green and leafy city with those broad, open avenues and huge squares that Soviet architects loved so much. When we made it into the city centre later that day, it felt nowhere near as foreign as I had imagined.

Most of our four days in Bishkek were spent eating. Andy took us to Navat, a traditional chaikhana where we ate ridiculous quantities of meat, delicious borsok and fresh jam. We branched out to smaller restaurants where we tried manty (dumplings, often filled with pumpkin or chives) and many questionable types of dairy product. Then on our second day in Bishkek, we were taken to Supara, an ‘ethno-complex’ of yurts and traditional buildings, for our induction with representatives from the women’s NGO Erayim.

The visit to Supara was fascinating: we got to learn a lot about Erayim’s work with self-help groups (micro-financing operations), enjoy a traditional meal, and go on a guided tour of different types of yurts. There are more of these than you might think.

We also played some traditional Kyrgyz games with sheep bones, and did a few getting-to-know-you activities that I did not have to organize! Erayim did a wonderful job of setting up the day, and it was a brilliant way to introduce the volunteers to Kyrgyzstan.

You can see a few photos from the induction here (note the photo of me talking, and everyone looking uninterested!).

And here is a tunduk (the central ring of a the roof of a yurt) for good measure:


I’m (still) here

It’s hard to believe that I haven’t updated this blog in almost seven weeks. And (surprise, surprise) it’s because I’ve been busy. Really busy!

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time getting my head around my upcoming trip to Kyrgyzstan. I feel as if I’ve been planning it for years, and suddenly it’s only a couple of weeks away! The practical aspects of the trip are almost sorted: flights are booked, equipment has been bought, and I’m officially vaxxed to the max. There’s still quite a lot of planning and preparation to do around the teacher training course itself, and unfortunately I have recently received some bad news: two of my teacher training colleagues for the project are no longer able to fly out to Kyrgyzstan. This leaves me running the show! Thankfully, two new volunteers have stepped in to fill the gaps – and I’m so happy that they’re able to commit to the project at such short notice.

This week I’ve finished putting together my activities booklet, and I’ve also sketched out a rough plan of the methodology-oriented sessions I’m going to teach. Once at the teacher training centre, I won’t have access to a computer, printer or a photocopier, so I need to make sure that I have compiled all my materials and emailed them to the office in Bishkek before my arrival. It will be interesting to see how I survive without the internet…

June has also brought some interesting developments on the FELLOW front: we sent one of our committee members to this event in Birmingham, and I had a very productive meeting with a senior member of the University with regard to educational provision for displaced persons in Oxford. I hope that I will be able to share some exciting outcomes from that conversation soon!

Finally, I’ve also made a big professional change: from August, I’ll be taking a sabbatical from the big wide world of ELT and making my first forays into Change Management! I’m really looking forward to trying something new, and I’m hoping to take away some innovative ideas that I can employ in my teaching and training. I can feel a few more blog posts coming on…

Bilingualism and the Brain

One of the best things about living in Oxford is having access to the inner workings of one of the world’s most famous universities, although I’m ashamed to say that I don’t take advantage of this privilege very often.

Last week, however, I found the time to attend an interdisciplinary seminar called ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’. The seminar was part of a series called ‘Brain and Mind – from Concrete to Abstract’, the aim of which is to bring together academics from the sciences and the humanities to discuss approaches to a variety of different topics. ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’ took place in the beautiful surroundings of St Hilda’s College (finally: a reason for me to visit!), and involved presentations from five different academics as well as an interdisciplinary discussion panel. The real draw for me was Dr Victoria Murphy: I’ve heard her speak before, and she has done a lot of interesting research into both language acquisition and EAL (English as an Additional Language). More on that another time, though! Here are a few interesting facts I learned during the seminar:

I’m bilingual!

Or thereabouts… In her opening speech, Dr Kerstin Hoge defined a bilingual person as someone ‘who uses more than one language creatively’ (as opposed to someone who knows a range of lexical chunks, but cannot manipulate that language). I had always considered bilingualism to mean native speaker fluency in two languages, but Dr Hoge pointed out that proficiency can wax and wane (I can definitely attest to that!), and the definition of ‘bilingualism’ is the same regardless of when you start learning the second language.

After brain damage, language abilities return at different rates.

Dr Kate Watkins talked about aphasia in bilingual people following strokes. When aphasia occurs, the two languages usually recover at different rates. According to Pitres rule, the more familiar language recovers first. According to Ribot’s Law, the mother tongue recovers first. A more modern theory is that of dynamic recovery: how quickly and how well the language returns depends on a number of factors, including exposure, age of acquisition, proficiency in the language and the language of the environment in which the patient is recovering.

Bilingualism is a global norm.

Dr Themelis Karaminis conducts a lot of research into bilingual babies, and reminded the audience that bilingualism is a global norm, not an exception. I’m feeling a little less special now…

 The UK has a ‘monolingual mindset in a multilingual world’.

Dr Victoria Murphy presented an overview of EAL in UK schools. She told the audience that in 2014, 19% of primary school students and 14% of secondary school students were categorized under ‘EAL’, and these numbers increase every year. Languages in the UK are also unusually diverse: these EAL students speak over 360 different languages between them! Evidence shows that although bilingualism is a distinct advantage, the UK education system does little to support teachers with EAL students in their classroom, and little to promote and encourage bilingualism.


I think I have at least one more post in me about this seminar – mainly on EAL – so I will leave you to ponder those facts for a while. All in all, it was a fantastic seminar and I am very pleased that I made the time to attend.

If you’re in the Oxford area, it’s really worth keeping an eye out for public lectures and seminars. There are loads out there!

April: this month I have…

  • Laid the foundations for my trip to Kyrgyzstan (read more here!).
  • Attended fascinating lectures by Levison Wood, Sir Barry Cunliffe and Dr Peter Frankopan that have only fuelled my wanderlust.
  • Started a new term at FELLOW.
  • Written an article about the language of space for Oxford Dictionaries.
  • Planned trips to Stuttgart and Barcelona to catch up with old friends.
  • Attempted to catch up on the highlights of this year’s IATEFL thanks to great blog posts here, here, and here. Thank you for filling me in!
  • Joined a French conversation group in the hope of meeting new people and getting some much-needed language practice.
  • Spent too much money on books…

April showers (bring May flowers)

Now, where were we?

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I have updated this blog!

Well, actually – I can. April has been about as unpredictable as the lovely British weather. I spent the first half of the month in bed (or wishing I was in bed) because I was struck down with an unexplained stomach problem that was so painful that I even ended up in A&E! Happily, all is well now.

Personally, it’s been a jam-packed month: I’ve attended birthday parties, hen parties and dinners – and also managed to squeeze in a weekend visiting my grandparents in The North.

Professionally, it’s been even busier. My two main projects are at critical stages in their development and there is plenty of work to be done. I couldn’t even make it to IATEFL this year, which feels slightly shameful as it was only a 90-minute train journey away! Let’s see if I make it to Glasgow next year…

Over the last month I’m pleased to say that there have been some great developments around my planned trip to Kyrgyzstan.

A couple of weeks ago I had dinner with Claire, the UK coordinator of Erayim’s educational project, to discuss plans for the summer. Claire has loaned me some brilliant books about Kyrgyzstan in English, German and Kyrgyz (!) so I have plenty of reading material to peruse over the coming months – along with my trusty Bradt guide, of course!

Claire and I spent the evening talking about the structure of the teacher training course, which I was pleased to learn involves a mixture of grammar, vocabulary, skills and methodology classes. There will be four volunteers running the course, and we will divide the subject areas between us. This is positive news for me (I do love a good reading lesson) – and I was even happier to learn that the teaching day will end at 3pm. This means there’ll be plenty of time for exploring!

I had a lovely evening chatting about Kyrgyzstan with Claire and, as she’s Swiss, I also got to spend most of our time together speaking French!

I’m also making strides in my plans to secure resources for the trip. At the beginning of the month I launched a materials drive (details available on the blog here) to complement the graded readers that have been donated to the project by OUP. I’ve had a great response to my request for donations so far, with international colleagues and some fantastic ELT authors submitting activities to the cause. I’ve even had some people offer to help me compile and edit! I’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which my idea has been received, and I know that Claire has too. Thank you!

Finally – this week I was able to lead my first ever teacher training session! I have co-taught teacher-training sessions before, but Monday evening was my first solo attempt and I was more than a little nervous. I was faced with twelve new FELLOW recruits, to whom I needed to teach basic skills for planning and conducting conversation classes with minimal resources. I also had to cope with minimal resources: the data projector malfunctioned and I couldn’t display any of the sample materials I had prepared. We had to crowd around my tiny MacBook screen instead! Despite the technical issues, I think the session went well and I had some positive feedback from volunteers. Time will tell if they decide to commit to FELLOW, though! One of the favourite resources of the night was 2 Kinds of People: a fun (and stylish) way to get students talking about themselves and their preferences. Good ideas are meant to be shared, but I do slightly regret giving up this one because now I can’t use it at FELLOW for a while! If you know of any other Tumblrs that could form the basis of a good conversation class, you know where to send them…

It’s been a frantic month – and I think this will be the first in a series of posts to get the blog up to speed. Stick with me! And don’t forget to submit your teaching idea for Erayim.

March: this month I have…

  • Considered the cultural importance of handwriting thanks to ‘Who needs handwriting?’, a great podcast episode from Freakonomics.
  • Shared this fascinating simulation of reading with dyslexia with my colleagues.
  • Secured my first donation of books for Erayim!
  • Finished reading my first novel in German (Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink).
  • Done a spot of tutoring… always fun to teach one-to-one.
  • Signed up for One Stop English (a tutor needs materials!) and been overwhelmed by the amount of content available on the site.
  • Attended a fantastic lecture by Professor Nannerl O. Keohane entitled ‘Women as Leaders’ at the equally fantastic Blavatnik School of Government.
  • Tried Gefilte fish for the first time – and loved it.
  • Spent some of the Easter break walking the Thames Path. Recommended!