Language experts: a rare breed

I was in Germany last week to present busuu at a conference in lovely Cologne. The conference attendees were language experts who work for large German companies, advising on and implementing language training programs to employees.

It was refreshing to attend a conference which was populated by people who know at least as much – and in some cases a great deal more – than me about language teaching and learning. It’s often oddly dissatisfying to present your product to people who are impressed by the mere fact that a language course can be squeezed on to an app, or that voice recognition technology is a thing that exists. The questions I received were great:  detailed, highly engaged and perceptive. I came away with some useful feedback and recommendations for a couple of books and papers to read – definitely a first.

Back in London, my team are somewhat resigned to the fact that, as language experts in the UK, few people other than polyglots and other language experts are interested enough to engage with our work below a surface level. That’s why it’s so important to have conferences like IATEFL and InnovateELT to attend, and to have a good network of peers on Twitter to share ideas with. The optimist in me hopes that, post-Brexit, there might be a resurgence of interest in language learning in Britain. If you want to make a defiantly pro-Europe move, learning an additional language seems like a good one.

My week in capitalism: Is it like this for you, too?


Came home from work on Thursday evening, lay on the bedroom carpet with the dogs and cried little tiny gasping sobs in between lobbing tennis balls around for my mutts to chase. It’s quite hard to take yourself seriously as a sad person when you can cry and simultaneously wrestle with excited puppies and chuck balls around as they jump up and down with glee. Still.

Why was I crying? I don’t know. It could be because I’d spend the bulk of the week staring at Excel spreadsheets and trying to make business cases for things that I’m honestly not sure can be adequately business cased. How does one predict the dollar outcome of investment into educational quality? It’s a question that’s dogged me for my entire career and one that I veer between taking very seriously (I love a good challenge!) and letting me collapse into utter despondency (It’s not possible! Education should be free!). Sometimes I crave the simplicity that comes from working in sales or marketing. Either you’re bringing home the bacon or you’re not. Pounds and pence are a lovely, clear way of measuring your success at work. The relationship between educational quality and a successful education business is a lot more opaque. You’d like to think there is one, but the closer you look, the fuzzier the picture gets.

Anyway, I might just have been crying because it was that time of the month when I feel sad and helpless for about 24 hours and then pinball right back to feeling blithely optimistic about everything like usual. Still, for that one day each month, whatever it is that’s upsetting me, it feels as though the ancient band aid covering the slowly seeping wounds of society peels back enough for me to see the real horror of the festering mess inside. It feels like the truth, in other words.


On Saturday, husband and I cycled down to our new allotment and spent a pleasant hour or so pottering in the cold sunlight. He dug out a bed and I pruned an unkempt grape vine – something I’d never done before. Pruning any plant requires you first to spend a lot of time appraising your subject, understanding how its limbs work in relation to each other, where there is strength and where there is weakness, where there is potential for vigorous growth come spring. Grape vines are lovely, complex, twisty plants, and although this one was relatively small, it took me a good hour to get it into shape. Husband thinks I prune things much too hard, but in my experience the harder you prune, the happier the plant seems to be. We shall see whether I’m right again in a few months.

Talking about capitalism

On Saturday evening we visited some friends and talked about capitalism. I described my sense of despair on the Thursday, and the others shared similar stories. ‘How much DO you earn?’ asked my friend. I answered immediately, and it felt shockingly taboo but also extremely cathartic to be talking about it. I have a sense, lately, that the normal state of affairs around money is shifting. I feel more inclined to admit when I’m skint, for example, or talk about the credit card debts I have, both with strangers and with close friends. It’s as though we’re looking around, seeing the state of things and starting to ask – is it like this for you, too?

To get things done, first make your work visible

One of the difficulties of working in a tech startup is that the engineering team comes under immense pressure from every other team. Product, Marketing, Content, Finance, BI – all these teams need support from Engineering in order to get features built, get content published, get SEO fixed, get data in front of the right eyes.

My department – the Education Team, consists of language experts, not engineers, and so if we want something technical done, we need to submit that as a proposal during our quarterly planning cycle and compete with all the other teams to get it prioritised. If we come up with an idea or a problem mid-quarter, it’s very hard to get anything done about it, as the engineers are super busy trying to meet their existing sprint goals.

One thing that really helps in getting an idea or fix prioritised is to make it visible to the engineering team. Words are often inadequate for this task – unless the concept is super simple, it’s very hard to put yourself in the shoes of a customer purely by having something explained to you verbally. What we’ve found is that creating MVPs of our own, using the tools we already have and then demoing those to the engineering team visually, really helps to generate empathy, understanding and excitement around building solutions.



As an example, we’ve recently created a prototype for an advanced grammar practice unit. We can build part of this already in our CMS, using the exercise types we already have. But we lacked an exercise type which specifically handled verb conjugation in French and Spanish. We have one that almost worked, but was a little buggy. As soon as we demo-ed this to the company, we had engineers coming to us saying ‘I can fix that exercise type for you so it works in this context’. Suddenly, a problem which had previously been just a bunch of words in a list of problems became something real – an opportunity/challenge. Engineers don’t get excited by long lists of problems (who does?) but they do get excited by problems they can fix or solutions they can build.

It can be very tempting if you work in a tech company to get annoyed or frustrated with engineers because ‘they aren’t helping’. But before we do, it’s helpful to ask ‘are we making our work visible’? Visibility can turn problems into opportunities – something that everyone can get behind.

A good reader does not a good writer make

I’ve often heard it said that a person needs to be a good reader before they can be a good writer – an idea that I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years.

I used to be firmly convinced that it was vital to have read an awful lot of good books (and not a lot of awful books) in order to write well – an idea that I can trace back to Stephen Fry, who asserts the same in one of his early memoirs. It suited my burgeoning intellectual snobbery to believe this. After all, people kept telling me I was a good writer, and I’d read an enormous number of books, including the whole of Anna Karenina – there had to be a connection, right?

But then I started meeting people who wrote beautifully but had read hardly any books. One of the best writers I know is profoundly dyslexic and finds reading painfully difficult. The only work of literature he has read is the first chapter of A Confederacy of Dunces, which is a fine work indeed, but surely not fine enough to turn one into a master of the pen overnight.

My brother, also, has never been a reader. He resisted reading books all the way through school. At one point my mum resorted to buying him the Reader’s Digest as a way of giving him some light reading material (naturally it just put him off even more). Yet when I read his letters and emails I find him astonishingly erudite. His paragraph structuring is superb, his grammar flawless, his vocabulary wide-ranging. He gets firsts in his postgraduate essays, but the only books he’s ever read are textbooks, and those only under duress. It was my brother’s experience that really forced me to reconsider my assumptions about how one gets to be a good writer.

These are just two examples, but I know of plenty more. What these people have in common is intelligence, self-awareness and a love of conversation. My belief is that one learns how to write well through a combination of different mechanisms, not all of which are essential. These include:

  1. By writing. (I’ve been writing recreationally since I was eight, professionally since I was twenty. My early work was pretty poor, and I still have duff days, but I keep on going.)
  2. By being self-critical. I proofread everything I write obsessively, even text messages.
  3. By paying attention to criticism. I work in publishing, so everything I write gets savaged by multiple editors. (This has been very useful, but I remain my own worst critic.)
  4. By listening and speaking. We acquire far more language through these mechanisms than we do from reading.
  5. By reading. Obviously many, probably most, of us can and do learn how to improve our writing through reading the works of others. This certainly applies to me.

So, yes, for some of us voracious reading has helped us to become good writers, but we shouldn’t assume that there is only one way to achieve this outcome, nor should we be pushing kids to read books when they don’t enjoy doing so. As long as we’re engaging them in language through other means (primarily through conversation but any good quality media will also be beneficial), they have every chance of becoming a good writer one day.

Who makes the best language teacher?

Almost sixteen years ago I moved to Shanghai to teach English as a foreign language. TEFL has underpinned everything I’ve done in my work since then and I still think of myself first and foremost as a language teacher.

Quite early on in my first year of teaching I had a conversation with a local teacher, Lilia, which taught me an important lesson. Lilia spoke English flawlessly, with a pure Valley Girl accent, despite being Chinese and never having left China. Everyone who met her assumed she was American Born Chinese (ABC) but, in fact, her English had been gleaned from devoted study and diligent watching and mimicry of American movies.

Lilia told me it was her firm belief that non-native speakers made the best language teachers. I bristled at this at first. After all, I’d been speaking English since I was a child. I understood it inside out. Surely I was the best model for my students? But by then I had also started to study Mandarin and I found that understanding the complexities of both my students’ native language and the complexities of really trying to communicate in an unfamiliar language made me an infinitely better teacher.

So, yes, I found myself agreeing for the most part. The best language teachers are those who not only understand the language they are trying to teach, but who understand what it involves to go through acquiring that language in the first place. I had forgotten the joys and the pains of learning English. In any case, I had had years and years to acquire it, whereas my students had to cram their learning into short bursts of an hour or so a week – not the same process at all.

Lilia was a better teacher than me because she had a much more acute understanding of the struggles her students were going through, and because she provided indelible proof to them that fluency in English was an achievable goal for a Chinese person.

(A version of this article was first published in February 2011.)


What are the real products of our work?

I was on the Northern Line recently, wedged up next to a Brazilian student and a Spanish student. I know their nationalities because I was intently earwigging their conversation and listening to them talk about their respective countries in English.

As a former EFL teacher and a creator of online language courses, I love to listen to people from non-English speaking countries talk to each other. I’m quite far away from the customers who buy the products I work on, and occasional encounters of this kind show me the results of my work. More and more people are communicating with each other in English (far more non-native speakers than native speakers), and it’s nice to feel like a part of that.

The boy and girl I was listening in to were having an animated discussion about soup. The girl came from the far north of Brazil and was trying to describe a local delicacy – a soup made from manioc. She was trying to describe some of the ingredients for this soup, and the plants they come from. At one point she was trying to think of the English word for ‘leaf’. I know this because she could say ‘tree’ and ‘branch’ and was sketching the things you get on the end of branches in the air, and saying the Portuguese word for them. At this point, the bad teacher in me was desperate to lean over and say ‘leaves’ to the two, but having learnt to elicit, not lecture, I held off. After some more thinking, the boy remembered the word ‘leaf’. I did a little somersault of joy inside: English teachers just love it when students come up with the language without prompting.

manioc leaves

Soon after, the girl made to get off the train, but before she did they made a very careful plan to meet up later, repeating the place and the time in English over and over again. They were clearly very keen to see each other again as soon as possible, and I detected perhaps the beginning of something more than a friendship between fellow students.

This got me thinking about the real products of what I do. I tend to think of the results of my work as being more and better speakers of English, but what goes along with this? Business deals and partnerships are forged. Directions to interesting places are given on street corners and in town squares. Hungry people order food. Interested people can read stories and access all kinds of information online. Students at all levels can take courses and grow their knowledge. Friendships are made. Love affairs blossom. Babies are born.

It was nice to be jolted along in that tube carriage, thinking of all the things I’ll never know that my daily toils have contributed to; the real products of my work.

(This article was originally published March 29, 2011.)