How not to be an alien, the benefits of a fieldwork approach to ELT

How not to be an alien

The linguistic,cultural and educational benefits of learning English abroad.

How do we greet people?

How do we greet people?

When I arrived in England I thought I knew English. After I’d been here an hour I realised that I did not understand one word. In the first week I picked up a tolerable working knowledge of the language and the next seven years convinced me gradually but thoroughly that I would never know it really well, let alone perfectly. This is sad. My only consolation being that nobody speaks English perfectly.

These were the words of the famous Hungarian Mikes György or George Mikes in English from his little book “How to be an Alien” In it he describes his observations of both the English language and the culture he encountered as a journalist when he was there as a young man. In order to write his little book he kept a diary of all the interesting little things he noticed and then turned them into a kind of “What are the English like as seen by a Hungarian”. While the book is fairly dated now it is still an entertaining read and can be a good springboard for discussing how we get to know languages and cultures better.

My own formative experiences of getting to know other countries and cultures

I have often wondered how I myself got into languages and travelling and I can point to two very formative experiences that I had, one at the age of 10 and the other at the age of 16.

School at Sea

School at Sea

In the 1930’s cruises for schoolchildren were pioneered in Britain using troopships that were not used during the summer and in 1967 for the price of £29 then, I was lucky enough to take part in one of these educational experiences. At sea, on the way to Norway we had lessons about where we were going to in classrooms on board ship and when we were in Norway, after being on land all day, in the evenings we wrote up our logs or diaries recording our experiences when we weren’t enjoying Norwegian folk dancing.

For all of us it was the first experience of foreign travel and the educational value was considerable,  we were exposed to history, geography, other religions, bits of Norwegian, the fact that there was another currency, and on some trips, to Egypt for example, children witnessed terrible poverty leading sometimes to life-changing attitudes towards life and the world.

We went in May during term time. I’d love to know now who organised it and how many schools were contacted about the scheme. I went to a little primary school where we had a fairly even mixture of children from working-class and middle-class backgrounds.

S.S. Devonia the ship I went to Norway on in 1967

M.S. Devonia the ship I went to Norway on in 1967

I was only 10 when I went on the M.S. Devonia to Norway and was introduced to Norwegian stave churches and outdoor markets. It was the first time I saw live fish in a tank for sale in Bergen and we were also taken to the composer Edvard Grieg’s grave and his summer residence. It was my first trip “abroad” if you don’t count Wales, and the first time I was made aware of another culture and language.

My German experience

I was just so jealous of Daniela who had one of these and was playing Abba's Dancing Queen on it which had just one the eurovision song contest. Terry Jacks' Seasons i the Sun and Je t' non plus! Ahhhhhh

That ITT machine which I remember playing Abba's Waterloo, Terry Jacks' Seasons in the Sun and Je t' non plus! Ahhhhhh. All hits of spring 1974

At the age of 16 I had the good fortune to spend 10 weeks in two West German families and went to school there and got to know a very different school culture from the one I had been used to, without school uniforms and “sitzenbleiben”, a strange idea for me, that if you didn’t get the necessary marks you had to “remain sitting” and do the whole year again.

In the families I stayed in I saw a dishwasher, a breadcutting machine  and an ITT cassette recorder for the first time, as well as being told to comb my hair properly before breakfast and take my shoes off when I entered the house.

“The families I was staying were both well-off, one a “Zeit reading” forester and the other an architect. I was wowed by machines to cut bread and an ITT cassette recorder. The daughter of the family, Daniela, had got an ABBA tape and the Swedish group had just won the Eurovision song contest with Waterloo. I was so jealous, not of the bread machine but of the cassette recorder. At home we’d only got one of those reel to reel things and this ITT machine looked so cool.

These experiences were the most formative experiences of my earlier years and they raise the question of how we can create experiences for young people which involve engagement with other cultures, learning about them and which in turn potentially lead to a better understanding of your own culture.

With the German experience, I came back not only much better at German, but much more motivated to learn more German. It also whet my appetite for travel abroad in general and I think I can safely say I would never have gone on to study languages at university without that experience. It was a very influential period of my life. On returning my German teacher remarked in my school report: “His sojourn in Germany has added a new dimension to his German studies.”

The role of ethnography in organising trips abroad

Bronislaw Malinowski meeting the locals on the Trobriand Islands , just like our teachers in Devon

Bronislaw Malinowski meeting the locals on the Trobriand Islands , just like our teachers in Devon

Bronislaw Malinowski, who was born in Krakow, is known as the founder of social anthropology. He is also remembered as the father of the functionalist school of anthropology as well as for his role in developing the methods of anthropological fieldwork. Malinowski is famous for his studies conducted among the Trobriand Islanders whose marriage, trade, and religious customs he studied extensively.

We owe a lot to Malinowski and the advantage of an ethnographic approach is that it combines the analytical and the experiential (or the cognitive and the affective). “The ethnographer is participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for a period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available .” (M. Hammersley & P. Atkinson)

We can encourage students and children to do exactly the same thing when they are away somewhere on trips, even trips within their own countries. An application of ethnography and a good teacher can help students to get the most out of language learning and cultural experiences by equipping them with the techniques, support and encouragement necessary for turning a more passive tourist experience into one where they begin to understand the other country, their own country and themselves better.

Aims of organising classes which prepare students for a trip abroad

Increasingly, it is becoming more possible to take students to Britain for short periods and the value of structuring these experiences in order to maximise the learning is enormous. 15 years ago I supervised a student dissertation in the Czech Republic of somebody who took a group of young teenagers to Britain. She saw fieldwork as an integral part of the trip and before the students went she organised 8 preparatory classes beforehand. The aims of the 60-minute sessions were:

* to get to know each other better, to work on building the group and to set up a good working atmosphere (students of  different ages and from different classes were asked to work in groups or pairs that were often changed).

* for the teachers to find out how much the students already know about Britain to be able to work with them on that basis.

* to work on a variety of topics about different aspects of life in Britain (using photographs, articles, magazines for  young British people, extracts of films and documentaries and maps.

* to get the students to think about the same aspects in the Czech Republic and to get them used to consciously make comparisons between the two cultures, as one of the  techniques used for observing and analyzing the target culture.

* to get them used to the habit of keeping diaries (writing a  diary about the seminars, adding pictures or newspaper articles about things concerning Britain).

* to practise doing interviews, helping them with thinking  about the questions they might be interested in finding out once they had the chance to talk to British people.

The three following quotes are from three of the children who were asked about the pre-trip classes during the visit to Britain.

Johana (14): “During the seminars I learnt that I do not have to worry about speaking.

Petra (15): “My father also liked the idea of seminars. So, he decided to give me the money to go to Britain. We had seminars with our teachers and we had a diary and wrote there what we think.

Barbora (13): “I did not know about ethnic minorities living in Britain before the classes we had before we went to Britain and now I know and I can ask people here about them.

While in Britain students were encouraged to keep their diaries, writing down what they were doing, what they saw, who they managed to talk to, what they thought of it and how they felt. Sticking pictures, tickets or drawing into their diaries were welcomed. Every evening there was a 30-minute ‘diary-time’ to note the interesting things they had noticed both linguistically and culturally.

Lollipop lady or is it a school crossing patroller?

Lollipop lady, or is it a school crossing patroller now or not? Ask and find out!

Lenka (15) evaluated the activity: “I have never kept a diary before. I like it, I write what I want.” “On the way to the Victorian Pier, which was our next destination, we saw a ‘lollipop lady. She is a woman and she has got a big sign ‘stop’ and she stands in the middle of the road when children want to cross the road and she stops the cars.”

One of the visits to a school Zdenek describes his feelings in a very imaginative way: “In the morning we visited their assembly. I felt very embarrassed, because all children were wearing uniforms, only our group ordinary clothes.” This is an example of where a child decentres and becomes more aware of their own culture, not so much as an alien but somebody who can distance themselves from their own culture.

My experience with working with Central and Eastern European teachers over the summer

Sharing one language

Sharing one language

Last summer I worked with two groups of teachers from 12 different countries mostly in Central and Eastern Europe in Barnstaple with SOL (Sharing One Language), an organisation founded by Grenville Yeo in 1991 to facilitate more educational experiences both ways between Central and Eastern Europe and Britain.

One of the courses was very much about giving teachers an ethnographic experience of England and getting them to think about how they might structure such an experience for their own teenage students. The teachers ended up talking to lots of people, including lifeguards on the beach, in order to find out more about the local community and the values and beliefs under the cultural iceberg which go beyond what is observable. These structured tasks slowly built up the teachers’ confidence in talking to people and deepened their understandings of the culture in which they were immersed for the 10-12 day period. These were some of the final comments by Alena from Slovakia in the evaluation relating to the usefulness of the activities we had done on the course.

The Croyde lifeguards the teachers interviewed last year, will they be the same this year? This was one of the highlights of our course!

The Croyde lifeguards the teachers interviewed last year, will they be the same this year? This was one of the highlights of our course!

“Talking to people to learn about the local environment, habits, jobs (like the lifeguards). Talking to people to find out what local or national institutions do like the National Trust and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Asking people real life questions such as directions. If I brought my students I’d exploit the time mainly for talking and using English in everyday conversations.”

It can be very useful to get students to ask simple questions like: “What’s the time?” and “How do you get to…” over and over again, so that they hear different variations and accents, all of which contributes to building up their confidence. And of course one of the important aspects of being abroad is to take photographs not only of the famous sights but of signs and unusual things, all of which can be a rich source of debate and language

What does this mean?

What does this mean?


This year I am doing these courses again and on one of the days we will be visiting an art exhibition in Torquay. How many times have you seen groups of teenagers in galleries, bored by the whole experience waiting to get out of the gallery and not enjoying the visits at all? Art offers enormous opportunites for linguistic, cultural and educational development in young people but sometimes we fail to exploit the learning potential in these experiences by not structuring the visits in a way which leads to more engagement on the part of the students with interesting tasks, worksheets and projects in general. This is one of the issues we will be discussing on our visit to the Devon Riviera, together with an exploration of Agatha Christie and her life!

Developing intercultural skills

Developing intercultural skills

In 1998, Uwe Pohl (the guy who I will be working with on our fieldwork course in Devon next week) and I took a group of Hungarian school teachers to Britain to meet lots of people, to take photographs and to get a deeper view of British society with the aim of developing materials back in Hungary and an approach to language learning which is more ethnographic and focused on the community than behaviouristic. We ended up writing a book called “Zoom In”, the aim of which in part was to get students to be both researchers of culture and language and not just behaviouristic language learners. It is based on a thoughtful, cognitive approach to language learning and one which explicity compares the culture the students/teachers come from with British culture in search of deeper understandings, an understanding of cause and effect and a more empathetic view of the world in general.

Typical field work tasks such as exploring portmanteau words with host families

One of the little tasks I will be getting the teachers to do next week will be to explore the word “staycation”. Portmanteau words are a lot of fun, Lewis Carroll developed them, James Joyce turned them into a fine art across languages in Finnegans Wake and they are a characterisic of the changing face of the English language, (e.g. blog, glog, webinar). With “staycation”  it will be good to find out from different people how they would define the word and what they think of it. If it’s used, who uses it? Is it used more in written or spoken English? Is it used more by working-class or middle class people? Is it used more in some regions rather than others? It should be a lot of fun. Curiosity for and exploration of other languages is one of the delights of learning about the world and it is our job,as language teachers, to develop and encourage that same curiosity in our students.

An unforgettable experience

All in all in terms of developing motivation, an ethnographic trip to another country can be an invaluable step in changing somebody’s life for the better, it certainly was for me when I went to Norway and West Germany. I was helped not to be an alien but how to participate in our common European culture in a more equal way and in a way in which I wasn’t saying because things weren’t British it didn’t mean they were worse. I stopped wondering why people drive on the “wrong” side of the road a long time ago! At the age of 16 I was taken to the border which divided East and West Germany.

The tower I climbed when I was 16 and peered into the German Democratic Republic, a country I would find myself living in for 4 years 6 years later

The tower I climbed when I was 16 and peered into the German Democratic Republic, a country I would find myself living in for 4 years 6 years later

Two years after the wall in Berlin was built in 1961, a tower was built in Bodesruh where my host family took me. From the top you could see miles into GDR territory. At the foot of the tower there was a map of the old pre-Second World War Germany, which was later to be partly dismantled, removing the parts that now belong to Poland and the Soviet Union.

Growing up in Wolverhampton, there was no real awareness of frontiers being moved or anger at having lost territories in the past. I had never met anyone who was either angry about or suffering from the lost British territories of the Indian sub-continent. I didn’t know families who had been divided by borders as I became aware of living close to the East/West German border. The day I went up that tower nobody was there to watch me in the way that the world watched when J. F. Kennedy spoke from the balcony of the Schöneberg town hall in West Berlin on June 26th 1963, 11 years earlier. For me though, this was a life-changing experience, although I didn’t realise it at the time.

I hadn’t been aware of the division of Europe, I’d given up History at school at the age of 14 and somehow I felt uneasy about what I was peering into from the top. Walls and fences cut through dense forest and marked the border between East and West.

East Germany was not a part of my families’ world any more but somehow, though, after peering over what some people called the Iron Curtain that day it had become part of mine. For a young guy  just turned 17, that landmark was as important as anything that I had seen in my time away from England so far. It bothered me. 6 years later I found myself living in the GDR as a student in Rostock on the Baltic coast.

If we can structure experiences for our students that challenge their existing ways of seeing the world and motivate them to learn English more then we might achieve more in ten days than in a whole term’s work. Going abroad changed my life for ever and without that experience I certainly wouldn’t be doing the course in Devon next week in the way that I will be doing it and I certainly don’t feel like an alien here in Hungary now!

We’re all going on a summer holiday, although it’s still the case that most people in the world don’t have holidays:(

It’s June 26th today and many people will be packing up for summer now and finishing their courses. Just let me take this moment to say how much I’ve enjoyed writing the blog this year and through it and twitter I feel more connected to the ELT community worldwide than ever before. Thanks to everybody too who has made the time to read my posts.

This is the year I well and truly flipped, as if I hadn'd flipped before

This is the year I well and truly flipped, as if I hadn't flipped before

One of the highlights of the year for me was using a flip camera to interview people at the ISTEK conference in Istanbul this year in the role of roving reporter, and next week in Devon I will be doing the same, interviewing local people to find out about their lives and to listen to the language that they use and encouraging our teachers to do the same.

Finally, Mikes György wrote “How  to be an Alien”, I certainly don’t feel like an alien in Hungary and I hope our teachers don’t feel like aliens in Devon next week, in the end what unites us is far more than what divides us and far more important than what makes us different.

This classic photograph of the Earth was taken on December 7, 1972 by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon. What can you see?

This classic photograph of the Earth was taken on December 7, 1972 by the Apollo 17 crew travelling towards the moon. What can you see?

A week tomorrow I will be swimming in the sea here. I wonder how many of the teachers will be joining me?

The beach and the sea where I will be taking the teachers too next Monday afternoon at Woolacombe North Devon

The beach and the sea where I will be taking the teachers too next Monday afternoon at Woolacombe North Devon

35 thoughts on “How not to be an alien, the benefits of a fieldwork approach to ELT

  1. Hi Mark!

    Well, it definitely is difficult to pick “something” in your blogpost I can identify with because I can basically identify with all you wrote here:) Already Mikes George’s quote exactly describes my first work experience in the UK some 7 years ago. I had my CAE certificate and was proud to be a first year university student. And then I arrived in London and I had the feeling that all my previous studying was useless and I was taught a completely different language or something! But this going to London on my own, not having anything arranged in advance, was a decisive moment in my life. It gave me confidence and what is even more important this UK stay motivated me into getting to know other cultures intensively, this itchy feet syndrome:) I really like what you mentioned somewhere that you cannot really know or appreciate your own culture if you lack numerous foreign experiences. The more I travel, the more I love my own country and our culture as well as the places I discover abroad and people I meet there. I think that this cultural exploring just makes your life more intensive. As for the intercultural experience, I do have one that was really difficult for me and one that is extremely positive. The first one was my study stay in Ghent in Belgium. After 4 months I stayed in this country and had quite a busy social life I must say I don’t have a single Belgium friend. I am not blaming Belgium and its people but I still cannot fully understand this. On the other hand, I spent some 2 months working in the Balkans and I found friends who I consider to be my very good friends. And whenever I go there it always works this way:) My country I would say is somewhere in the middle of these two poles:) And fieldwork tasks with your students? None yet! But I’m sure I will be full of new idea after the course!;) Sorry for writing such a long text:)

    • yes Daniela, I only really started to understand Britain when I started living abroad and the time I really began to understand Britain was when I started going to Ireland, particularly Belfast and Derry. That was a real eye-opener and I think, interestingly, really made me watch my language and choose my words carefully. I no longer find it easy talking about the British Isles, in fact I don’t think I ever do any more, I usually talk about the islands of Britain and Ireland!

  2. “Who forgot to fill the tank, when we’re all going on a summer holiday?” 🙂 Unlike Cliff Richard’s petrol-less bus, our own “tanks” are already reaching the level of topmost fullness and will be rocketing sky-high this coming Sunday. 🙂 As time is drawing near, excitement and anticipation are building up in the greatest proportion. I myself am coming to the UK for the first time (if it weren’t for SOL’s award, I would have probably spent my summer in the confines of my city :)), and to relate to that, I am leaving my own country, Macedonia, for the very first time as well (several family vacation trips to Greece as a child not taken into account). Due to various reasons (financial above all), I have not had the opportunity to travel abroad as of yet, so winning the award last October in Skopje was truly god-sent. In that regard, I cannot say I have experienced anything close or similar to your experiences, Mark, travelling or living abroad, having cognisance of and fathoming the cultures of other countries. I can only speak of how I got absorbed in this game of love and life called English, one I am committed to play for all time, and beyond. 🙂
    English runs in my blood, you could say, as I come from a family of teachers of English, and I suppose that has had a huge effect on me as a child, starting to learn the language from the age of 4 or 5, in a homelike environment rather than a classroom surrounding. Unlike me, my father has had the chance to visit England many times in his youth, and his experience and exposure to the language in a native-like setting had made all the difference for him and the way he saw and taught the language after that.
    As for me, learning and using the language for more than two decades now, as well as teaching it for several years to students of all ages (currently ages 5-11), has been and remains to be an adventure unlike any other. I have learnt a great deal from movies, too (haven’t we all? :)), as well as from a handful of excellent and truly inspirational teachers over time, who have opened wide for me the doors of the world of English, both in language courses and at university.
    Being chosen as the SOL winner from Macedonia for this summer, I am finally able to see for myself what I have only heard from others, the beauty and the incomparability that is the UK. I believe you are not really complete as an English language teacher until you actually visit the country whose language you have learnt to speak, grown to cherish and admire and now transfer all that accumulated knowledge to your students, who are always eager for more. The actual visit to the UK, even a brief one, is the missing piece of the puzzle.
    As for any fieldwork I have (or have not) done with my students, I am afraid it’s the latter. Students have worked on various research projects on given topics, searching for information from their immediate family, friends and the like, as well as using the internet, and presenting their projects in front of the class afterwards, but other than that…
    However, I do hope my stay in the UK will be of immense benefit to me in the sense of learning how to effectively put fieldwork to use for much better learning results, as well as beneficial to me as a teacher and a person in profound love with English in general. 🙂
    So, without stretching this (waaaaay) too much, I will just say I am sincerely looking forward to our time together in Devon. Until then, stay safe and well, Mark. 🙂

    • yeah, unlike Cliff Richard’s bus, my tank will be full when we meet up at Heathrow Terminal 5 on Sunday. Am staying over on Saturday night with an old school friend. You mentioned going to Greece, I hitchhiked to Greece when I was 19 from England and spent 3 weeks there with the friend we are staying with on Saturday night. I have great memories of eating bread spread with honey and tahini for breakfast which is something I sometimes still do now as a result, yesterday for instance! Do you have any food or drink memories of Greece as a child?

      • I certainly do! 🙂 The 20 yearlong political altercation between Greece and Macedonia over our name put aside, Greeks have great food. Right now, only “gyro” and “souvlaki” come to mind. Also, when we went to the beach, we used to eat “loukoumades”, the tastiest donuts I have ever tried! 🙂

  3. This summer school sounds very interesting; the students will surely enjoy it and will benefit much from it. When you are in Torquay, don’t forget to mention Fawlty Towers, the iconic sitcom that can also be a great springboard for subsequent discussion on British culture.

  4. Hello everyone,

    There is something in the blogpost that brought a smile on my face while reading it and made me think of my English experience. I attended a language course in Bristol when I was a secondary school student. I was only seventeen and I travelled to England on my own. There was no accompanying teacher because I had applied for the course advertised in an ELT magazine. I was the first time I had travelled by plane from Ljubljana via Frankfurt to Heathrow and there I took a coach to Bristol. Similarly to Mark’s, my sojourn in England added a new dimension to my English studies and whetted my appetite for travelling.

    I had an unforgettable intercultural experience in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, where I took a group of European Class students aged 16-17 on a two-week international exchange in 2006. By attending school activities and living with Canadian host families, the students not only had the opportunity to improve the knowledge of English but also to live an intercultural experience that enriched and encouraged international understanding.

    An intriguing example of a fieldwork task I have done with my students on our excursion to London was a scavenger hunt. The students had fun building up a scrapbook of London finds, e.g. a Tube map, a one-day Travelcard, a pigeon feather, a plane tree leaf/seed, a photo or sketch of a statue, a photo of them and a famous star at Madame Tussauds, etc.

    Just like Emilija, I am also a lucky winner of the SOL course and I am looking forward to visiting Devon again. I spent a month in Plymouth as a volunteer working on an International Workcamp in summer 1996. Devon is a truly enchanting place. See you there.

    • ahhh, memories of being abroad at the age of 17! I was amazed at afternoon discos when I was 17 living in West Germany.

      Hope you enjoy your own scavanger hunt in Devon Martina. And am sure you will be happy to return to Devon, although this time you will be in North Devon most of the time.

      Bristol is a great city too, built on the back of sugar and tobacco at the height of the British Empire. When we took Hungarian teachers to Plymouth we made sure we visited a very multicultural school in Bristol.

  5. Long before I arrived in England I was warned I wouldn’t know English. Yes, it is true. One of my university professors gave us, the first year students at that time, this warning. Even after your graduation 4-5 years later, he emphasized his dreadful, but fair warning. And the fair warning became “alive, kicking and biting” when I visited Scotland in 2007 for the IATEFL conference in Aberdeen and when a very young girl behind the cash register in a “Poundland” shop asked me if I wanted a bag for my purchased items. She had to repeat her words couple of times before I won the battle with the Scottish dialect. I believe most of the foreign students do not have issues with the Queen’s RP or when we watch BBC or any other TV channel. Nevertheless, the real excitement for me comes from the common people and everyday situations and I expect no less than that. I am sure that SOL team has already prepared plenty of cultural surprises for us and I am eager to go through all of them. Best regards from Macedonia.

    • Hi Marjan.

      I wonder what you will make of the Devon accent. I can assure you it will be easier than some of the Scottish accents you got to hear when you were in Aberdeen. And don’t worry, we have plenty of surprises lined up for you and plenty of time to reflect on them too.

  6. As a student and then as an English lecturer, I had been introduced to many of the issues connected with the English speaking countries, the UK in particular, but it wasn’t until I travelled there — that I gained a better understanding of British culture. It was an excellent opportunity to stretch my imagination outside the box, get rid of bias and expand knowledge of the world. My first time in London was filled with trepidation as I saw what I only imagined or read before. On the other hand it showed weak points in my language acquisition especially in free reacting in everyday conversations but not using formal English.
    I became conscious of the fact how little me and my students are made aware of another culture and language. Mostly we get them busy working on their own or in groups on a variety of topics about different aspects of life in Britain developing the skills to consciously make comparisons between the two cultures. They practice doing interviews, preparing projects on different topics – they do that, even with pleasure! But there is no deep understanding of the meaning of their conclusions, no deep exposing to real foreign life.
    Well, looking forward to getting deep into surprises and seeing you all!

    • Hi Anna,

      yes, stretching imaginations out of the box, getting rid of bias and expanding knowledge of the world is something that we as educators are in a very good position to do with our students. I hope that in the ten days we are together we will be able to get a glimpse, under the iceberg, into the values, beliefs and attitudes of some British people you will meet.

  7. hiya everybody,

    Dragica from Macedonia has been having some problems with the spamword so she’s asked me to put up her post here. Here goes!

    It’s quite a story Mark! And a long one:)

    As for me, I started learning English when I was five. I remember how enthusiastic I was even though the grammar translation method didn’t have much to offer back then. Over the years I think I’ve lost interest and appetite. I’ve always had good grades in English as a subject at school but I didn’t really put a lot of effort in it (except for learning the lyrics of my favourite rock and punk bands by heart when I was a teenager). And it went on and on…It’s a shame as I could’ve achieved much more had I been motivated or inspired. somehow.

    Once u are immersed into something, u realize and feel its importance. IMHO the only way to get people interested in learning a language is natural exposure to it. They need to really feel the need to communicate and to really want to.
    When I first went to the UK for a summer course in 2001 and still a student I realized (FOR THE FIRST TIME) what learning and knowing a language really meant.

    And not only the first time in Britain but I went to Wales!! I mean,I was aware that some people spoke Welsh, but elders presumably not 17 year old school boys on the bus. After the initial shock and confusion I realised that it was “JUST”the dialect. Imagine that:)

    After that, it was a different story. My entire attitude changed. I’ve been in love with the language ever since. And I want to know about it. And experiment with it. And investigate and play with it.

    Throughout the years I’ve attended many ELT conferences and had the chance to meet wonderful people from around the world who shared the same passion: learning and teaching. So I am constantly reminded how important it is to keep updated. In terms of British culture I ‘ve had the chance to stay with and maintain long-term friendship with British people and get an insight into their life. But is their life “typical” i.e. similar to other Brits ? Or are we all different individuals regardless of nationality? I am sure we’ll get to that at the course.I am really looking forward to all the things U Mark and Uwe have got to show and teach us!

    As for fieldwork with ss, we’ve volunteered in a children’s hospital and performed a short English play for them, and we also brought them some posters, and gift bags, with cards written in English. Other than that just regular stuff other colleagues had already talked about.

    I am sure we’ll have some “heated” discussion on certain isssues regarding all the above mentioned.

    Can’t wait to meet everybody and share experience and opinions.

    Dragica, Macedonia

    • thanks for this Dragica and “But is their life “typical” i.e. similar to other Brits ? Or are we all different individuals regardless of nationality?” is something we will certainly touch on during the course as getting away from sweeping generalisations is one of the aims of the course. When we go to Ifracombe you might be able to see where you were in South Wales, if we’re lucky!

  8. Hi everyone,

    It was really nice but also kind of frightening to read your posts. 🙂 It was nice because I can feel that everybody is probably as excited about our time together as I am. I got a bit scared because I have never been to the UK before although I have spent 2 months (a scholarship from my school) in the US when I was 14 but obviously it’s going to be a totally different experience. During those two months I got to know lots of friendly people who treated me with so much love that I didn’t even want to come home (Hungary). My parents were a bit shocked because I didn’t feel homesick. At that time I came back with so many memories and I kept telling people about the things I have noticed were different from our culture. I was full with experiences and memories and I hope that this time it won’t be different except that hopefully I will understand and gain even more as a young adult.
    I’m really looking forward to our course and meeting you all. Take care. 🙂

    P.S. I was extremely happy to read that we are going to discuss and explore Agatha Christie and her life because I am a huge fan. 🙂

    • nothing to be scared about Bea, everybody will be very supportive and interested in hearing about everybody’s stories.

      It’s great you are coming for the first time and based on your US experience it sounds like you will immerse yourself fully in the experience.

      Uwe and I have worked together for many years and really enjoy working with teachers and we are both huge fans of Devon so you will feel our enthusiasm from day 1, well from Heathrow Terminal 5 on Sunday!

      We will hear about Agatha Christie in Torquay. And there is a lovely shop with lots of Agatha Christie things in it, pleny of time for a bit of shopping next Thursday in Torquay and the train journey by the sea is great!

      see you soon


  9. I am afraid I must admit that I haven’t had an opportunity to exchange my experience and ideas with colleagues from other countries, and I’m sure I will benefit from this course, especially by building up my own cultural awareness.
    Since this is my first visit to the UK, being introduced to features of British culture and people from all around the world makes me feel rapturous.
    Can’t wait to meet you all, especially those Croyde lifeguards Alena from Slovakia met 😉
    Milica, Serbia

    • Hi Milica,

      Great you are coming for the first time. And am sure you will have fun with the Croyde lifeguards as Alena did. It was a good moment on last year’s course. On that day we go on the beach, Saunton Sands, where Robbie Williams recorded “Angels” so will be a very enjoyable day!

      • and Dragica what you wrote on the post that I posted for you “But is their life “typical” i.e. similar to other Brits ? Or are we all different individuals regardless of nationality?” is something we will certainly touch on during the course as getting away from sweeping generalisations is one of the aims of the course. When we go to Ifracombe you might be able to see where you were in South Wales, if we’re lucky!

  10. Hello everyone!

    I am coming to the UK for the first time. Tomorrow, at 10.20 I am flying to London. I am very sorry, but right now I am unable to discuss this topic, because I AM SO EXCITED 🙂 My dream is coming true- I am going to London. Mark, I hope you won’t be very sad because I didn’t take part in this conversation, I just wanted to say hi to you all. I’ll be seeing you in 3 days, right? I am sure we will have the best time ever 🙂

    • well I hope you are having a great time in London Ana and taking some interesting photos while you are there! We will be encouraging you to take lots of photos of things which strike you as unfamiliar and different from what you are used to. If you check this before we meet, let us know one really interesting intercultural moment you have had in London, that’ll make up for not taking part in our discussion here! Where are you from in the Czech Republic by the way?

  11. Well, I have a similar experience or better to say inexperience to Milica. I am really interested in this language and culture relation, since very often language and culture are inseparable; teenage students still have a lot to learn about the world beyond their own sphere of knowledge and what I think is the most important is something that Kipling said – you cannot understand your own culture if that is the only culture you know.I am also interested in the sterotypes such as this one -British have a reputation for being bad at learning foreign languages and to what exent learning language and culture may lead to inaccurate stereotyping ( British have tea at 5 ). What are the icons of Britishness? I am sure I will get answers to all these my questions and have a life time experience in getting to know some `real `English language and life.
    See you all soon!

    • yeah Vesna, he said ” What should they know of England who only England know” It’s a good quote and it comes from a poem he wrote in 1891 called “The English Flag”

      “WINDS of the World, give answer! They are whimpering to and fro— And what should they know of England who only England know?— The poor little street-bred people that vapour and fume and brag,They are lifting their heads in the stillness to yelp at the English Flag!”

      We’ll be discussing this concept on our course. Doubt if you will be having tea at 5, whatever “tea” might mean! Really looking forward to meeting up and hope you have a good journey.

      All the best

  12. Hi everyone,
    Once I’ve read all the comments so far, I can say I’m even more looking forward to meeting you all!
    It’s going to be my FOURTH summer in North Devon this year but I can assure you that this fact doesn’t lessen my excitement at all!
    When my best friend and colleague won the SOL prize in 2008 and I spontaneously decided to join her, I had absolutely no idea where we were going and who we were going to meet. I still keep in touch with most of the teachers who attended the course four years ago and Dragica is one of them. The mere fact that teachers like Dragica and I keep on coming back says a lot about the SOL experience.
    Well, I left my heart in North Devon in 2008 and since then I’ve been trying to convince it to come back with me.  Those of you who haven’t been to this paradise on the Earth will see what I mean in less than 4 days.
    BTW, I’ll be the one responsible for the filming of the course with this amazing flip camera you can see above, so make sure you bring your best SMILES with you.
    See you on Sunday!

    • and we’re really looking forward to all the filming Toni! And let’s see how many other teachers lose their hearts in Devon. Am really looking forward to sharing lots of interesting experiences with everybody and creating our best ever language and culture course so far!

  13. Hi,

    I take the view that personal experience from abroad are more useful than sitting in a classroom and listening to somebody talking about something. For example if you want to get to know the lifestyle of a typical British family you have to live with them and spent some time with them doing things which they are doing.
    I attended a course by SOL in February this year and I really enjoyed it. I lived with a British family and what’s even better – I visited a British primary school. The British primary schools are different from primary schools in the Czech republic where I come from. I was surprised how the children were working. They are not just sitting, they are cooperating and that’s very important think. In my country pupils are not so much learning to cooperate. I liked this so much that I had to mention it here.
    Anyway i think that courses like this one are good not only for teachers but also for their students to practice their everyday English, because it’s quite difficult to learn everyday English in the Czech Republic.
    Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday


    • Hi Petr,

      thanks for this, one of the things you will be able to do next week is to get a deeper insight into a British family! They will pick you up at the bus station on Sunday night. Great you visited a primary school in February. Did you meet Fred? He will be coming and giving us a talk next Friday!

      Teaching people to co-operate is so important and I think that as language teachers we are in a good position to do this if we incorporate more project work into the lessons.

      Anyway, looking forward to seeing you on Sunday. Where do you come from in the Czech Republic by the way and…..will Petra Kvitova win tomorrow?:)


  14. Am just putting this up for Ludmila Beracková who is on her way tonight on a night bus to Bratislava from Rimavská Sobota in Central Slovakia. Thanks Ludmila for this in the middle of packing for Devon! Am looking forward to hearing about your 1990 experiences, I was living in the same country as you at that time in Moravia!

    “Hi Mark, I know that it is Friday, two days after your deadline but I want to drop a few lines. I think that every non-native speaker expierienced G Mikesˇ feelings but meeting different cultures is connected with many positives.

    I studied English between 1975-1980 and at that time to meet a native English or American in Slovakia was like to see an alien so you can imagine my “Mikesˇ”feelings when I met first Americans who came to teach English in our school in 1990. It was real “intercultural shock” for both sides.From that time I had many intercultural expieriences at home and abroad and all of them were enriching. What concerns fieldwork, our students participate in essay competitions, Englich Olympiada and we used to participate in a Model UN competition.

    I have to finish because at midnight I am leaving my hometown Rimavska Sobota to take a night bus to the capital Bratislava to catch the morning flight to London. I´ll come a day earlier. Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday. Ludmila

    • and in reply to Vesna’s comment

      yeah Vesna, Kipling said ” What should they know of England who only England know” It’s a good quote and it comes from a poem he wrote in 1891 called “The English Flag”

      “WINDS of the World, give answer! They are whimpering to and fro— And what should they know of England who only England know?— The poor little street-bred people that vapour and fume and brag,They are lifting their heads in the stillness to yelp at the English Flag!”

      We’ll be discussing this concept on our course. Doubt if you will be having tea at 5, whatever “tea” might mean! Really looking forward to meeting up and hope you have a good journey.

      All the best

  15. am putting this up for Lana who had a really interesting story to tell. And the differences between the way people refer to the toilet are also revealing!

    ” Dear Mark

    I have read your blog and must say that I agree with Danijela from the Czech Republic. I had a similar experience when I first came to England as an au pair some 15 years ago. I lived in a posh family in Holland Park in London and at first it was a cultural shock because they were totally different in so many ways.

    When I said I loved Blur, The woman said it was too working classish for her, and the daughter was not allowed to say TOILET but LOO and so on.

    But I grew accustomed to them and loved living there once we sorted out the details to mutual satisfaction. One day the builder came and asked me something. I did not understand a word he was saying. but later my language has improved and so has my self esteem. Since that was a long time ago, I feel the words I used to know are vanishing and I am really looking forward to meeting people from other parts of England and getting back in shape.

    Although I got my Proficiency certificate then, I really need some real time in English with real people. All English teachers should travel and invest in their English because this is the job and pleasure and challenge at the same time that we do and get paid for.

    Best wishes,
    Lana Duka Zupanc

  16. And this is from Nouzha from Morocco.

    First of all your various experiences are extremely interesting and your keen interest in cultural exchange is something I totally identify with.Discovering different cultures and mainly the Anglo-Saxon ones has always been my favorite field of interest.

    I have always loved the English language from a very early age;and I remember that as a very young kid (between 6 and 8)I was trying to say words and sentences that meant nothing of course but which sounded phonetically like English.It was only in High school that my preference for languages and my passion for English became clear.I had a French education all the way through my studies together with Arabic and some Spanish.English was clearly my favorite.So immediately after I had finished High School in Morocco I spent a year in America as an exchange student with American Field Service Program. It was certainly a turning point in my life.I lived in an American family whom I called Mom and Dad ,sister and brother and I really felt they were really my second family; In fact,that was the greatest experience in my whole life;and my American host family is still my dearest family after forty years. When I came back from this marvellous cultural experience I knew exactly what I wanted to do as a career: “Teaching” but teaching “English” as a language and as a culture.

    This is how I went on with my studies in France at the Sorbonne and got my Doctorate there and did research on education and more specifically on adult education and the “Open University” that was my research topic for which I went to Milton Keynes to carry out field study on the Open University. As soon as I finished my postgraduate studies in Paris ,I came back to Morocco and started teaching at the university. I also became the volunteer national director for intercultural exchanges, and so many young people were sent to America as well as to other countries like Spain to benefit from this wonderful cultural experience.

    I’ve been teaching English at the University and elsewhere for more than 30 years now with a special interest in British and American cultures and societies.

    To my mind,Teaching is beautiful, Teaching English is even more “wonderful”.

  17. from Maria in Botosani in Romania in answer to my questions:

    1) 1) Something in the blogpost that you can identify with or relate to personally

    2) 2) A moment in your life when you had an interesting intercultural experience abroad

    3) 3) An example of any fieldwork tasks you have done with your students either in your country or abroad.

    “I am Maria from Botosani,Romania.I’m looking forward to meeting you. Nice to receive your mail.Thank you.Now the answers to your questions:

    1) -The same experience when I first travelled to England-that Idon’t know anything,and I can’t speak English

    2) -the next answer-the same year,the same trip,-my happiness in hearing my own pupils-the 4-th form speaking English fluently

    3) -That’s why when I had the opportunity to travel abroad I let my pupils speak English

  18. Pingback: David Crystal and our collective experience | In your hands

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