Category Archives: Language Issues

The Unexpected Teacher

Please welcome a guest blogger, Mr. George Christodoulou from

As Michael has stated many times, you never know for sure where or when a short-term employment opportunity will unexpectedly appear. For me it happened on a visit to Cyprus that morphed from a brief pleasure trip into a working vacation.  My initial plan was to go for a holiday, but I ended up falling in love, finding a job, and extending my stay to six months. The friendly people and the gorgeous sights grabbed my attention and would simply not let go.

The Picturesque Village of Treis Elies Nestled In The Valley

Cyprus is filled with both natural beauty and old-world charm.  I spent the majority of time living and working in the picturesque village of Treis Elies in west-central Cyprus.  This tiny town is surrounded by mountains, vineyards, hot springs, fruit arbors, and wildflower trails. Near the end of my visit I spent about one week seeing other parts of the island and found that its tourist regions are, like most Mediterranean destinations, crowded, noisy, and similar to other island getaways.  Therefore, I spent most of my time in the regions surrounding Treis Elies enjoying hikes along high mountain passes, long walks through lush orchards, and leisurely meals with friends and family.

Before I went to Cyprus I had been living in New York.  It was a tough employment year, and I needed a break from the stress.   I had been a marketing consultant as well as a part-time language instructor teaching an after-school Greek class in the city.   In Cyprus, I would often while away the hours in my relative’s coffee shop enjoying the sun as it peered through the makeshift grapevine “roof.”  One day a man walked onto the patio and took a seat next to me.  He was the director of a program in the local school that taught English to children in the immediate area. After telling him I was a part-time Greek teacher he offered me a position because of my background in teaching a second language.

Teaching The Children of Treis Elies

Overall, that six month working vacation was an eye-opening cultural and social revelation. Even though I grew up in a home with Cypriot parents, I was fairly ignorant of the culture and mores of my ancestral homeland. My parents had been in America for about ten years before I was born and had started the process of acclimatizing to American norms and behavior.  My Cypriot background, like those of many second-generation immigrant children, was rapidly fading.   Spending a few weeks lounging on a beach could not begin to eliminate that cultural ignorance, but a six-month working vacation certainly would.  The people of Treis Elies, especially the children, took me in and taught me a great deal about their world, a world far more relaxed and  tightly knit than the stressful, anonymous life of a megalopolis like New York.  It was as if I had been transplanted from a large open forest into a tiny garden where everyone shared the same space. Ultimately, as a teacher it became more about what the students were teaching me of Cypriot life than about the English lessons I was giving them.

Sadly, after six months the program closed, and I decided to head back to America.  However, that working vacation experience and my memories of this trip will stay for a lifetime.. I return to Cyprus every so often when I want to relax and see friends and family.  I currently work for OneTravel (a company offering Cheap Tickets) as a travel writer using my life experiences as inspiration for my articles.

I Speak A Little Bit of Japanese, But Not Very Much Turkish!

In early 1991, three and a half years after our Kenyan adventures, Ruth began suffering the initial pangs of travel withdrawal since she had not joined me in Japan–the only time we traveled apart.  We started throwing out options for where we might live and work, and it was my wife who suggested Istanbul, a destination she had dreamed about visiting for years.  (Thank God she had not seen the 1978 Oscar-winning movie Midnight Express describing the experiences of an American tourist thrown into a nightmarish Turkish jail. That movie single-handedly killed Turkish tourism for years.)

However, a working vacation in Istanbul posed a new and potentially fatal problem:  Like Japan, Turkey is a nation where English is neither an official language, as in England, Australia, and Kenya, nor a semi-official language, as in Israel. I could no more assume to walk into a classroom and begin teaching in English than a Ph.D. from China could arrive in the U.S. and start lecturing in Mandarin.  Sure, I could (and did) learn enough Turkish to greet friends, go to the bathroom, and order a shish kebob, but that still left me a long, long way from standing in front of a class lecturing on computer science.

I visited my school library to do a little research on Turkish universities and, to my utter surprise, discovered that the catalog for Bogazici University, the premier technical university in Turkey—essentially, their MIT—stated right on page one:  “The medium of instruction at Bogazici University is English.   Applicants must either have a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score of 550 or they need to sign up for an English language proficiency class.”   Yet another “flashbulbs and trumpets” moment—that one paragraph guaranteed there was at least one school in the country where I could apply.  When I then scanned the catalog of Bilkent University, their second best technical school, I found an identical disclaimer:  “Proficiency in English language for non-native speakers is a must in admission since all departments, except for Turkish Language and Literature, use English as the language of education.”   This fortuitous circumstance repeated itself in virtually all the college and universities catalogs I perused.

The Blue Mosque Built Around 1600. It Is One of Dozens of Superb Sights In The Istanbul Area

One of the unexpected but pleasant surprises encountered during my overseas job hunting is how rapidly English is becoming a global medium of instruction for tertiary (college and university) instruction. This is particularly true in technical fields such as the physical sciences, natural sciences, earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, but it is also becoming more widespread in other quantitative fields such as management, finance, architecture, pharmacy, and urban planning. In addition to Turkey I have lectured in English in Mongolia, Nepal, and Vietnam—none of which have English as an official language.  In Malaysia I attended a graduation address by then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad on the role of English as the lingua franca of science, technology, and international business.  On our drive to the Ngorongoro Crater, described in the post The Most Beautiful Place in the World, I stopped at a remote Rift Valley gas station where a Masai warrior in flowing red robe had set up a souvenir table. I was interested in buying his hunting spear so I dug out my phrase book and uttered in grammatically butchered Swahili, “Nini gharama mkuki?” meaning “What price spear?” He smiled and replied in perfect New Yorkese, “No sweat, man, I speak English. It’s how I do business.”

I don’t share these stories because of any Anglophone chauvinism or deep devotion to my mother tongue. It is simply to convince you not to immediately abandon hope for that dream working vacation in Surinam, Sarawak, Senegal, or Sri Lanka because of any perceived language inadequacy.  Yes, there will be times when the medium of classroom instruction is some utterly incomprehensible tongue.  But there will also be times when English speaking and writing skills work in your favor as overseas schools look to hire native speakers to improve their students’ proficiency. In addition, if your spouse has ESL credentials, he or she should be able to find a teaching or private tutoring position, and might even wind up being more in demand than you!

So, with the language issue essentially resolved, all I needed to do now was find a job.

Skoshi Nihongo de Hanashimas

That month in Japan flew by quickly as all my previous working vacations had lasted at least three times as long.  I spent one week on campus giving talks, observing lectures, and advising students–trust me, I was not overtaxed!  Following these required duties I was given a Japan Rail Pass, a thick wad of yen, and told to spend as much times as I wanted, or at least as much as the money and rail pass would allow, traveling the country learning about Japanese society.  No fixed itinerary, no packaged tours.  Since many American visitors would find this freedom a bit daunting and, given that English is neither an official nor semi-official language, the school offered to provide a student translator/guide/assistant.  However, traveling with an 18- or 19-year old did not appeal to me, and paying their food and hotel costs would significantly reduce the amount of my travel time.  It was then that the wisdom of an earlier decision became evident.

I was selected for the program in July although departure was not until the following January.  (My school was on a 4-1-4 calendar, with January a self-contained four-week semester.  This visit met my teaching duties for that one month term.)  Since I had sufficient advance notice I signed up to take Japanese 101 in the Fall.  While many tourists learn a few simple phrases such as “Good morning,” and “Where is the bathroom?”  I wanted to learn enough to become an independent traveler, even to remote towns where English speakers are few and far between.  I spent four months studying elementary Japanese and reached the point where I was able to tell people a little about myself, ask for directions (and even understand the answer), get a hotel room, and order meals at cafes well off the beaten tourist paths.

A Ryokan, Traditional Japanese Inn, of the Type I Stayed In During My Three Weeks Traveling In Japan

When I departed Miyagi my hosts were nervous about sending me off without a chaperone, but it worked out far better than I could have imagined.   Of course I went to the “biggies” of Japanese tourism–Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima–but instead of staying at a Sheraton, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, I was able to walk into a local ryokan, a traditional inn, book a room, have meals, and enjoy the hot baths, even if the proprietor did not speak a word of English.  Having learned a minimal amount of Japanese allowed me to visit villages such as Takayama, Kanazawa, and Ise without worrying about whether I would be able to find someone who spoke English.  The smiles on the faces of people I met when I said skoshi Nihongo de hanashimas, “I speak a little bit of Japanese,” was priceless.  When I told them Watashi wa kyoju desu soshte Miyagi Kiyuiku Daigaku ni oshiemashta “I am a college professor and taught at Miyagi University” it produced some (albeit very simple) discussions about where I was from and how long I would be in the country.  I know that I routinely butchered the grammar, just as I probably made errors in this post, but it did not seem to matter.  I had made an effort to learn the language, and they were grateful and appreciative of that effort.  Errors be damned!

When you set off on a working vacation I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning a bit of the local language–the more the better.  I was lucky enough to be able to register for a university course at no cost.  If that is not an option then look to a local community college or adult education center.  As a last resort consider Rosetta Stone or a good textbook.   Anything is better than nothing.  (I would love to receive comments from anyone who has studied a language in order to interact with the local community while living and working overseas.  Please share your experiences with our readers.)

I know English is the lingua franca of world travel, and you can usually get by with just this one language in your repertoire.  Learning the local language is not done as a survival skill but as a way to create opportunities to get away from overcrowded tourist haunts and see places and sights not often visited.   Speaking a bit of the local tongue also makes an important statement.  It says that you care enough about the history and culture of your host country to spend some time learning their language, at least enough to interact with locals at an elementary level.   The appreciative smiles on their faces will make it worth the effort, errors and all.

This Was Different But Just as Good

Our first inkling that this second working vacation would be different was at the airport. In England we were met by Imperial College colleagues holding up signs and boisterously welcoming us as we emerged from customs; in Israel we walked off the plane alone and on our own. The second inkling came at the apartment. Although a beautiful two-bedroom in a lovely location, none of our neighbors either spoke English or were willing to try–so much for the “welcome wagon” model we experienced during our London stay. After moving into my Hebrew University office I strolled the building hoping to meet local faculty but no such luck as the halls were eerily empty.

I sat back and asked myself if I had made a big mistake. Had the dream of a second perfect working vacation been Pollyanna-ish optimism? Was this trip going to prove my ideas about traveling on the other guy’s dime all wrong? Fortunately the answer to all these nagging doubts was a resounding “No!”

I discovered that our experience in England, while enormously enjoyable and thoroughly satisfying, had been an anomaly. Deferential hosts eager to bring you into their community are more often the exception rather than the rule. Having local help finding housing, renting a car, and pointing out the best hardware stores, grocery shops, and ethnic restaurants is an unexpected and pleasant plus. More often than not your hosts will be excited to work with you and pleased with your contributions but too busy to act as mentors and tour guides. Colleagues may offer advice about places to eat and sights to see, but they will frequently leave you on your own to implement their suggestions. In some instances neighbors will roll out the welcome mat and become an everyday part of your life. It is far more likely they will be polite, hospitable, and invisible.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem, Just One Of The Many Fascinating Sites In This Fascinating City

What this working vacation in Israel taught us is that friendships do not happen automatically because of proximity—you live next door, you work in the next office. Instead, they grow from mutual, shared interests. If you become active in the local community, in whatever manner you choose, you will meet people and make friends naturally rather than having it be assumed and forced. Even though you may only be in town for three or four months, rather than three or four years, the process of making friends is no different from what you do when moving to a new city in the U.S., except that you must act far more quickly as you have far less time!

Having family members in the host city is wonderful, and having neighbors and colleagues help with housing, banking, and shopping is convenient. However, neither are essential in making your overseas trip a resounding professional and cultural success. Never let a dearth of local contacts in the host city prevent you from having a once-in-a-lifetime working vacation experience.

Now, how to make friends overseas? Next time…