Photo credit: Landysh Akhmetzyanova
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Are there people who are indeed “not good with languages”? What are the fun ways to learn a language effectively? How to chose the best teacher? An interview with an English teacher and a co-founder of a language school on Skype Landysh Akhmetzyanova.
This time I’d like to tell you a story that is still just beginning. I’ll be doing it of purely selfish reasons: When these people get famous and you’ll see their products all over the place, I’d like to be able to tell you “I told you so!”. I like telling people that.
There once were two girls who, not so long ago, have graduated from a university of linguistics. They used to work as language teachers and freelance translators, but one day, when the freelance site they used raised the tariffs, they decided they had enough.
Have you noticed how many success stories start with somebody having had enough?
So Landysh and Asya, the girls in question, decided to create a website and become at that time two (wo)man English language school on Skype – Lingvistov.
Instead of writing about boring grammar rules in dry academic language, they wrote about 15 most frightening stories in English or the best pick-up lines, recorded audio stories and made their cat explain sleeping idioms on Youtube.
Full Name: Landysh Akhmetzyanova
Country: Russian Federation
Occupation: English teacher, co-founder of a language school on Skype “Lingvistov”
Favorite Quote: “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.” – Ray Bradbury
Instead of going with the standard theme for their website, Landysh, the doodle-artist in the family, created a cyberspace wonderland which, once stumbled upon, you wouldn’t want to leave till you’ve clicked on every button and checked out every doodle. I hope you brought sandwiches!
And instead of making you pay for all that, they made their content free.
This was two years ago. Today, they are 8 teachers and 50 students, planning to one day reach world domination.
Meet Landysh Akhmetzyanova, a co-founder of Lingvistov and its driving creative force.
They say a talented person is talented in every way. Which is absolutely not true. Have you watched TV lately? But Landysh might be a pleasant exception.
You want proof? Here you go! Just one thing: remember, I told you so!
Gill: What was there first: Lingvistov or doodles?
Landysh: I think I’ve doodled my whole life. It’s in my blood!
When I was little, I used to draw small pictures on the walls in our flat. My parents didn’t allow me that at first, but eventually gave up, and I could draw anywhere I wanted.
At university, I made small caricatures of my group mates and teachers. Right before graduating I illustrated a children’s book for a British charity.
So when Asya and I came up with the idea of Lingvistov it was quite natural that we incorporated my doodles to create its unique style.
|Art is the only place where you have the ultimate unrestricted freedom.|
Gill: I know you majored in English and German, but your profile doesn’t say anything about a degree in Art. Have you learned to draw on your own?
Landysh: This story is tragic. I never went to any kind of art institution. My mother had a misconception that all artists are drunkards and good-for-nothing people. Instead, she took me to a music school (as if musicians are any better).
In St. Petersburg my dreams to enter the Academy of Arts were dashed by one professor who said, “Sorry, love, we need artists here. And you’re not one of them.” So I have been drawing and painting since early childhood without anybody’s help or advice.
I read a lot of books on art history because I am fascinated by various artists and styles. Whenever I travel, I spend hours in galleries. My friends just leave me there because not everybody can stand it that long.
For me, art is the only place where you have the ultimate unrestricted freedom.
Gill: Your website is such a magical place, a wonderland of creativity where the content and the graphic elements are in harmony with each other. Even a placeholder for an upcoming shop was created with a lot of thought and heart. Who made all of this?
Landysh: Thank you, Gill! Our lives have been revolving around Lingvistov for the past two years. Every day I draw doodles, write articles, record audio stories. At the moment, I am also trying to make some cartoons. It’s a great outlet for my creative energy.
Some find it hard to believe that this project was made by two girls. They even ask for the contacts of the company who made it for us.
But we have never paid anybody to develop the design or promote us on the web. We wanted to achieve everything ourselves. It is only our web master Anton who helps us enormously to put it all together and make it work. Without him our ideas would remain just that, ideas.
|Knowledge must be accessible to those who seek it.|
Gill: Lingvistov is a very “human” brand. It’s very easy to relate to it. Did you come up with a marketing strategy in advance?
Landysh: We have actually never approached it from the “marketing side”. We just put all our minds and souls in this project. Maybe that’s why people relate to it – because it’s not a cold-hearted money-making company.
You look at other online schools, and they are identical. These pictures of women with microphones and glued smiles drive me crazy! Maybe they attract students better than we do, but we want to be more than just a school of languages via Skype.
We want to make our website a place where people can see that English can be incredibly versatile.
I hate writing boring articles like “Present perfect or past simple?” or “How to make plural nouns”. I write about life-crucial things, like “English Slang from the Big Bang Theory” or “The best pick-up lines”.
Some also suggest we shouldn’t make our content free. I say: why not? Knowledge must be accessible for those who seek it.
The only problem is the nasty people who steal our articles, stories and doodles. Some Skype schools publish them without giving us credit or even claim the authorship.
It really makes me sad, but I’m not going to let it go and will fight for my doodles. I don’t know how yet, but I will.
Gill: Which languages do you currently offer?
Landysh: Until recently, our main target audience were Russian speakers who want to study English. But some of our English-speaking teachers offer professional Japanese, Russian and Spanish lessons.
At the moment we are trying to expand outside Russia. There is an English version of our website now, lingvistov.com, for people from other countries who would like to study foreign languages with us.
Gill: But can a Skype lesson really be as effective as a personal one?
Landysh: Last winter I conducted an experiment: I attended an offline Chinese course and at the same time took German Skype lessons.
The offline course was incredibly time-consuming! I was spending one hour traveling twice a week for a 1.5 hour lesson.
But before leaving the house I also had to get dressed, put on make-up, choose a pair of shoes that would match my earrings, etc. – and this is twenty minutes at the very least (ladies will understand)!
Besides, as I’m shy and polite. I prefer not to interrupt when other people speak. So despite my great desire to speak Chinese, I was spending all this time on lessons where I might or might not say a word.
As for my German lessons on Skype, they took me exactly one hour. I could have my own English lessons and would then spend an hour studying German without leaving my desk to immediately resume my work after that. And as they were tete-a-tete, there was no way out of it: I had to speak German.
So yes, I think Skype lessons are more effective. You’re the center of your teacher’s attention. You have no choice but to speak. There is no social awkwardness, as you don’t even have to use your web camera, and you can take lessons from the best teachers in the world and not just those available in your small town.
|Only a teacher who realizes the difference between your logic and the logic of a foreign language can succeed in teaching it.|
Gill: How do you select your teachers? I know that you are constantly conducting interviews, but only very few get the job. Why is it so?
Landysh: For us, teaching experience of a candidate is not important. Our ideal teacher is the one who speaks perfect English, has university degree in teaching foreign languages, loves doing it, listens well, is empathetic, friendly, responsible and flexible.
People who just speak conversational English and are looking for an easy way to make money will not do. Now you can imagine why it takes so long.
Gill: I noticed that your English teachers are not native speakers. Can a non-native speaker be as good as a native speaking teacher with the same qualifications?
Landysh: We have nothing against native speakers who can teach English, but we haven’t met those who would be able to do it well enough yet.
Ironically, native speakers are like catnip for the students. But most of them are nothing but native speakers and are rarely certified teachers.
For instance, I as a native speaker of Russian speak it incredibly well. I can talk to a foreigner, break his language barrier, but the grammar for me is a mystery – I will never be able to explain the simplest rules of this language to him.
The same goes with most of the native speaking “teachers” we met so far: The only thing they can do is talk and often can’t even distinguish between “your” and “you’re”.
Only a teacher who realizes the difference between your logic and the logic of a foreign language can succeed in teaching it.
Language is not only a communication tool. It’s the logic of our thinking. Something that may seem obvious to an English speaker can be mind-blowing for a Russian person.
While taking Chinese classes, I’ve realized it once again: even the smallest and easiest things are difficult to grasp if the logic of the language is different from what you are used to. And a teacher who can’t see this difference will not be able to help you.
|The progress a student makes depends a lot on the teacher’s ability to motivate him.|
Gill: One of my concerns when I think about a non-native speaker as a teacher is pronunciation. To be honest, I was expecting to hear a Russian accent in your speech. Come on, even the reporters of Russia Today can’t keep up their London accent perfect for more than two sentences! I still can’t quite understand how come your pronunciation sounds so “perfectly British”. Have you lived in UK for a long time?
Landysh: I’ve never been to Britain. I’ve been to Heathrow airport once, but I suspect it’s not the same. However, I am musical, so it is never a problem for me to imitate pronunciation of any language. Thank you for calling it “perfectly British”, but it still has many flaws.
Gill: Is the pronunciation of all your teaches as good as yours?
Landysh: We’ve worked with several teachers and realized that it’s very hard to find a person who combines good understanding of the language, ability to teach it and perfect pronunciation. We once had a teacher with an amazing pronunciation but a horrible personality. Students complained about him all the time, so we had to let him go.
Some of our teachers have perfect pronunciation, some have good pronunciation, but all of them are great at what they do.
Gill: Do you pay attention to pronunciation during your lessons?
Landysh: We correct pronunciation mistakes during regular lessons, but our students can also get special lessons designed to make them sound authentic.
Our approach is based on listening and practicing. It includes individual sounds, but mainly focuses on their combinations (so called “assimilation” – the influence of sounds on one another) and intonation.
We also recommend listening to English podcast, TV programs, or audiobooks. At least use them as background noise. Even if you don’t understand everything, you’ll get used to the melody of the language which will make it easier for you to reproduce it.
Gill: You say there are no people “good with languages” or “bad with languages”, but only hard working or not working hard enough. From my personal experience, I would disagree. I’ve learned German in half a year without attending a language course, but I see other people struggling for years with little progress.
Landysh: Of course, everybody has different abilities when it comes to learning a language. But the progress a student makes depends a lot on the teacher’s ability to motivate him. It’s very easy to say “I’m bad with languages” and give up. Our job is not to let the students use this as an excuse.
Asya often says that we are language coaches, not teaches. And this is very true. For each student, we come up with an individual strategy, create individual course plans and measure the progress on the individual goals.
|There are two conditions of making a progress in leaning a language: system and regularity.|
Gill: Do you have any tips on learning a new language from your personal teaching/learning experience?
Landysh: There are two main conditions if you want to make progress in learning a language: System and regularity.
Dedicate one hour a day to studying a language and turn it into a habit. Analyze your everyday routine to see what you can do. Read the news, books, comics in a foreign language or watch your favorite TV series in English with subtitles, for example.
1. Speak to Yourself
Who cares what people think? Imagine situations, build dialogues with yourself and make speeches. Out loud. Some say shower is the best place to do it.
2. Find a Pen Friend
It’s super easy to find friends on the Internet who speak the language you are learning! Find them on websites of your interest (for example, deviantart.com for art lovers), music or book forums, and social networks (for example, Facebook groups and pages).
3. Write Stories or Keep a Journal
While writing, you will use words and practice grammar. If stories are not your thing, you can describe your day or write down your thoughts. Instead of keeping a regular journal, you can set up an online blog (for example, at wordpress.com)
4. Change Default Language of Your Phone
Surround yourself with the language. Set the language you’re learning as a default one on your devices and social networks. This way you’ll see foreign words so often, there’ll be no way for you to forget them.
5. Talk to Siri
Although it has limited choice of languages, if you’re learning English, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Korean or Chinese, Siri will help you develop your listening and speaking skills and won’t laugh at you if you make a mistake.
|Languages are bottomless. You can learn a language your whole life and still not be sure if you know it.|
Gill: Have you ever encountered any misconceptions regarding learning a language?
Landysh: Of course! One of the biggest misconceptions is that lessons with a teacher alone are enough.
It has never worked for me nor most of my students. You need to work independently. Lessons are good speaking practice and a source of new information. But the main action happens behind the scenes when you do exercises, revise the material, read, watch or listen to something, etc.
Another misconception is that people believe there is an answer to the question “How long will it take me to learn this language?”
Languages are bottomless. You can learn a language your whole life and still not be sure you know it. Also, the time it will take depends on many factors: your abilities and experience, your schedule, motivation, etc.
And the third common misconception is the belief that native speaking teachers are by default better. But we’ve already discussed why I think this is not the case.
Gill: Prior to this interview, I asked my readers whether there is something they’ve always wanted to ask a language teacher. Are you ready for some “questions from the audience”?
Gill: Michelle asks: How do languages come into existence?
Landysh: We can’t separate development of the language from the evolution of humans in general; It didn’t just “pop up”.
Our modern languages originate from a number of so called proto-languages and used to exist in the form of dialects. At some point in the past these dialects became too different from each other and evolved into independent languages.
As for the origins of proto-languages, there exist many theories, but all of them are based on assumptions.
Some scientists believe that early words were imitations of nature sounds. Some think that languages came to being because mothers had to communicate with their children.
There are theories that languages developed from gestures, as it was impossible to always use hands to communicate (in the dark, for example).
There are also some constructed languages that were supposed to become universal and be used to achieve understanding between nations, like Volapük or Esperanto.
|The hardest part of being a language teacher is to find an explanation that works for a particular student.|
Gill: Natty asks: Sometimes when I speak Swedish, a lot of English words come out and my English is getting worse and worse. Is there a way to avoid this “semilingualism”?
Landysh: I’ve noticed that the more you learn both languages, the less problems you have with switching between them. In order to keep your Swedish and English on the same level without mixing them together you have to spend equal time mastering both: read, talk and write in them both as much as you can.
Gill: Maria asks: Has it ever happened to you that you felt being a multilinguist is a weakness?
Landysh: I remember how once on a trip with a tourist group I immediately regretted mentioning to my fellow-travelers that I spoke several languages. They didn’t stop asking me to name every object they saw in English or German, which was really annoying!
But to be honest, I have never considered being a multilinguist a weakness. It helps me during my trips and at work.
Most importantly, it adds to the quality of my life: I can enjoy literary and cinematographic masterpieces in their original language and talk to people from different countries learning about their lives and culture.
Gill: Asya asks: Does your ideal boyfriend/husband have to be multilingual? If yes, what languages are a must for him? Hm, I wonder who is this Asya! (laughs)
Landysh: Multilingualism is not listed among my requirements to an ideal partner. It will be great if apart from his native language he also speaks English (and statistically speaking, the chances are not bad). But it’s not necessary.
Gill: Amanda asks: What’s the hardest part of teaching a language? Is it frustrating or exciting? Do the students usually enjoy it or not so much?
Landysh: The hardest part is to find explanations that work for a particular student.
It amazes me how different our thinking is. As a teacher, you have to know how a student’s brain works, find a way to explain things specifically to him and adjust your lesson accordingly.
Teaching is a very individual process and requires a teacher to also be a psychologist. Besides, lessons must not only be understandable and useful. They also must be interesting.
I do everything to make the lessons enjoyable and effective, and as far as I can judge, my students enjoy studying English.
|While running a business together, it’s important not to think selfishly and to remember that you’re equal.|
Gill: You founded Lingvistov together with Asya whom you knew from college. How is it to be not the only one in charge?
Landysh: Our relationship is based on the idea that we’re creating something serious which both our future lives depend on. We respect each other – this is the most important thing in our business relationship.
We discuss everything. I need to know everything she knows concerning Lingvistov and vice versa. So we write to each other 24/7. That’s how we achieve transparency.
It’s important not to think selfishly and to remember that you’re equal. We are hard-core communists in this regard! So when I take care of a business matter, I know that both Asya and I will benefit from it. And if you trust each other, this strategy really works.
What I love about Asya is that it’s impossible to throw her off balance. I am the emotional one. She is sensible and cool-headed. We balance each other out.
Gill: Asya once said that your plan is the world domination. Something tells me she was not joking. What plans do you have for Lingvistov in the nearest future?
Landysh: Oh gosh, where to begin? We are very serious about Lingvistov. It’s our life, so we are planning to work hard to see it succeed.
Right now we’re going to freshen up the design of the website. We’re opening Lingvistov online store, where people from all over the world will be able to buy our exclusive merchandise: T-shirts, mugs, magnets and notebooks with doodles as well as illustrated books and language video courses. We will also widen the choice of languages and add more convenient payment options.
Besides, we are now creating a small social network within Lingvistov where people from all over the world can share their experience and expertise. It will be only accessible to our teachers, students and those who we personally invite.
We also have other projects in mind, and I think we have everything necessary to fulfill them: great team, creativity, strong will, and, most importantly, constant support of our students and viewers. They read our articles, comment, share them, and tell their friends about us. What more can we ask for?
All the pictures in this article have been created by Landysh Akhmetzyanova. They are the intellectual property of www.lingvistov.ru and are protected by copyright. For more pictures, see www.lingvistov.ru/doodles