Friday, 28 August 2009

A tale of inspirational aspirations...

Our guest blogger this week is Mark Caven, author of 'The Lowdown: Improve Your Speech - American English for Chinese Speakers', which launches today.

Recently I was invited to give a seminar on English Pronunciation for a group of students taking the International English Program at New College, University Of Toronto. A recommended summer program if anyone is looking, by the way... When I work with large groups at universities I am always intrigued by the variety of reasons the students have for being there. Different ages, different nationalities, many away from home for the first time, all majoring in different fields, it takes a real level of commitment not to be distracted by the summertime fun, big city, atmosphere and get the most from what your program has to offer.

The day of my seminar was warm and sunny. You could honestly say it was the first summer's day after a depressingly long stretch of rain. As I looked up at the cloudless sky, I thought to myself: there goes half my audience. I then arrived at New College to be greeted with the news that today was in fact a free day, and my seminar was the only session booked! I smiled and thought to myself… if only two show up… I promise I will make an effort to teach those two more in two hours than perhaps they’ll learn for the rest of the course. I went into the lecture hall and set up my presentation and waited. At five minutes to the appointed hour a very nice young lady from Korea arrived. At three minutes to the hour a very nice young lady from Japan arrived, then… nothing. The three of us sat in this large room and waited. Suddenly a member of staff popped his head round the door and proclaimed “This is the slowest bunch we’ve ever had. They are late for everything!”

I decided to stick to my promise and have these two young ladies speaking perfect English in no time. I abandoned my formal presentation, and began to work with them, explaining how the key to speaking any language clearly is learning how we form sounds. After about fifteen minutes the door swung open and five more students arrived. I welcomed them, and did a recap to bring them up to speed. Five minutes later another ten arrived, and I quickly gave another recap, as I could feel we were on a roll. In the end I had to give three more such recaps, as the size of the group continued to grow and grow. It was an extremely interactive seminar and I was able to work round the room unravelling some of the challenges people face when trying to speak English, but what impressed me most were the answers to my question “Why is it important to you that you speak English clearly?”

Experience has taught me that some students who enrol in English programs are only there because they need the credit, and it’s easy to spot the ones who thought it was a good excuse for a holiday abroad - while others can be almost resentful, feeling they shouldn’t have to improve the way they speak, and it should be up to the listener to make the effort to understand them as they are. Well - late in arriving this bunch may have been, but they made the effort on the nicest day of the year, with no other classes to attend, for the simple reason they aspire to be the best they can be. Without exception they were passionate that speaking English well is an important key to achieving greater opportunities in their future. That’s not to say they thought it was fair or they were happy about it, but they each agreed that English is still regarded as the common language of communication, and being able to speak clearly and proficiently offers them a door to greater freedom in life. They were enthusiastic and intelligent, and helped to turn what might have become an anti-climatic event into an inspirational one. Now if we could just teach them how to set their alarm clocks... - Mark Caven

Mark Caven is the author and presenter of 'The Lowdown: Improve Your Speech American English for Chinese Speakers' and 'The Lowdown: Improve Your Speech American English.' Mark is also the director of the Perfect English Speech program.

We'd love to know: Do you think it's important to speak English clearly?

Friday, 21 August 2009

Running through my mind...

My partner Ali last week wrote about how she gets her best ideas when she’s asleep – and I’m sick with jealousy! I only wish I could get my best ideas while I’m snuggled into my memory foam mattress (if you don’t have one, go and test drive one RIGHT NOW! You won’t look back.).

But I’m afraid my best ideas come to me when I’m running. Which means they don’t come to me all that often!

And I call it ‘running’ because it makes me feel rather sporty and athletic, but actually it’s more like ‘waddling at speed.’

When I was a kid, I ran around with the best of them – but once I hit puberty, that all came screeching to a halt. I couldn’t get out of gym class, but somehow I managed to avoid actually running all through junior high and high school.

I am lucky enough to live near what is arguably the most beautiful of the London parks, so a few years ago when my husband persuaded me to head over there and have a stab at a gentle jog, I thought ‘Why not!’

Of course I soon discovered, ‘why not.’ It was HARD! And I was hopeless! I’m not built for running. I’m built for shopping. But the husband refused to give up and patiently coached me through running 10 steps, then walking 10 steps and so on. I remember when I could run 50 steps! I was so proud.

I must’ve looked like nothing on earth. I remember puffing and panting in my husband’s wake, like a fat little pilot fish in the wake of a sleek porpoise, when we passed a beautiful lady in full African dress walking in the opposite direction. She looked at me pityingly, and said kindly, ‘you go, girl!’ It then dawned on me how very, very pathetic I must’ve looked…

But I persevered. And I’m happy to say that on a good day I can now waddle at speed for 40 minutes without stopping!

And as if getting sweaty, red-faced and frizzy-haired and being sneered at by gangs of teenagers wasn’t reward enough, I found something interesting: sometimes problems I’d been struggling with became crystal clear. I’m not sure why, but when I have no distractions (except the sound of my desperately labored breathing!), the repetitive action forces my mind to cast about in desperation for something interesting to think about – and it’s astonishing how often solutions to problems or new ideas pop up, seemingly out of nowhere.

So whenever I’m stuck with a problem – maybe there’s something wrong with the structure of our Creative Content scripts, or I just can’t figure who would be the best voiceover for a particular project – I slip on my running shoes.

But when all is said and done, I’m still jealous of Ali – I think I’d rather be sleeping than sweating! - LK

We’d love to know: What do you do when you’re ‘stuck’? How do you find inspiration?

Friday, 14 August 2009

Let me sleep on it!

Have you ever wondered if insomnia can sometimes be useful?

I know this sounds really odd, but bear with me! I’m not sure if it is just me, but I seem to have my best ideas in that blurry moment between sleep and waking… that tough moment when you can literally feel yourself struggling to open up your eyes to face another day.

Sometimes I wake up around 3 or 4am - usually because my cat, Shortie (who is a little on the overweight side) sits on me - and an idea will suddenly pop into my head with such ease I can’t really believe it’s happened.

I know it’s really because our brains are so amazing: they work all night, filtering out the rubbish from the previous day and are busy filing away anything useful, so that when we wake up our minds are all fresh and shiny and raring to go - as long as we don’t have a hangover that is!

Just this morning it happened again. I woke up because the dawn chorus was blaring out in stereo through the open bedroom windows and I nailed down an idea that has been bubbling away for a special promotional offer we want to do around one of our books…more on that story later.

I really should keep a notebook and pen by my bed to jot these ideas down so I can go back to sleep without worrying I’ll have totally forgotten it by morning!

Lorelei is now so used to this odd quirk of mine that when she needs me to come up with a solution or an idea for a project we’re working on she orders me to go to sleep and is even threatening to get me a supply of sleeping tablets to boot!

Please tell me I’m not the only one this happens to or I‘ll start feeling a bit of a freak? -AM

We’d love to know: What are the best ideas you’ve ever had while you were asleep?

Friday, 7 August 2009

Changing Direction

This week guest blogger, 'A Simpler Life' co-author Annabel Shaw, talks about a change of career...

I am often asked about why and how I came to change from working as a psychologist to working as a radiotherapist and what I've found is that each time I am asked this question, I come up with a slightly different story. Sometimes I explain my decision to re-train at the relatively late age of 42 according to who it is who's asked. Sometimes it all depends on how I'm feeling. I have three stories; a short uncomplicated story, a more complicated version, or the very long and difficult to follow because it's not yet worked itself out yet story - which is the story I hardly ever tell.

Of course there is some truth in all the versions.The short story goes something like this: "Oh, I get bored very easily and I was bored with psychology(!) and wanted to learn something new. I liked the idea of physics because I'd never studied it before and radiotherapy involves a great deal of physics. I also liked the idea of learning about cancer. Oh, and I wanted to help people."

The medium length more complicated version is less facetious. In this version I talk about wanting to change from dealing with purely psychological problems to problems that are more concrete. I talk about being fed up with 'psychologising', where one never knows if what you're doing is any help at all, and wanting to do something where the outcome is verifiably beneficial. Treating someone with a potentially life threatening cancer offered me the kind of instant, positive feedback that research psychologists hardly ever experience. In other words, I wanted pay-back. Selfish, I know.

The much longer and more difficult story includes all of the above, but also talks about the cancer scare that brought home to me that there were greater things to worry about than my own naval gazing had ever suggested. Experiencing the shock of a possible cancer diagnosis, undergoing all the tests, and re-tests, becoming aware for the first time of what is involved in cancer treatment and, for me especially, recognising the efforts of the staff who helped me through the process - these were all important factors in my decision to move from one form of 'helping others' to another.

So where did the wanting to help others come from? Selfishness again, I'm afraid - "It could be me - therefore I must help!" Of course my background in psychology was very useful - but not for the reasons most people think of first. I needed my psychology to help me deal with what I thought would be my biggest problem - my advanced age. Yes, I know 42 isn't very old, but it definitely feels old when my fellow students and later my work colleagues were often not much older than my children. I needed all the help I could get from them. And I got their help. Not once did they ever make me feel uncomfortable because of my age - or as one colleague said, " If you catch me asking for advice about zimmer frames, just hit me!".

I never hit her - but that's only because I don't agree with hitting children... - Annabel Shaw
We'd like to know: Have you ever changed career? Why?