An Interview with Vicky Loras

I’ll start out by acknowledging that I’ve never met Vicky and yet through the power of social media, she shares so much of her life.  Native to Toronto, Vicky now lives in Zug, Switzerland where she enjoys all kinds of learning adventures.

Having interactions with her serve as a daily reminder that we live in a big connected world. While I’m accused of always being “on” because I’m an early riser, Vicky is always online and active hours before I am.


Doug:  Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Vicky.  

Vicky: My pleasure, Doug – thank you so much for asking me! I am very happy to be on your blog, which I love reading and learning from.

Doug:  First – living in Switzerland begs this question.  You’re an English teacher – what other languages do you speak?  

Vicky: Well, I am also fluent in Greek, as my parents are of Greek origin and my mom insisted we learn perfect Greek – that went with going to Greek school every Saturday when we still lived in Canada (later on we eventually moved to Greece). I have been living in Switzerland for three years and even though I haven’t actually ever had proper language lessons, my German is good enough for me to communicate on an everyday level. I do tend to speak Swiss German more than High German (the German of Germany). I also speak a little bit of French (but I understand much more than I speak). I am currently on another language learning adventure!

Doug:  What is the language of choice that gets you through the day in Zug?

Vicky: Swiss German – but because I live in Zug, which is a tax haven here in Switzerland, it is rather international, as lots of multinational companies have their headquarters here – so a lot of people also speak English. The problem is I carry my English accent into German, so people are so kind that they immediately switch to English, without my even asking them to! I have lately started asking them to stick to German, because then I will never learn!

Doug:  You work as an ELL teacher in Business.  How important is it to your clients that they can speak in English?

Vicky: The last two years, a lot of English-speaking companies have been moving here to Zug, because of the lowest taxes in the country, as I mentioned earlier. My students are mainly bankers or businessmen, who need English to communicate with their foreign clients.

Doug:  Is the goal to make them completely fluent in English?

Vicky: Most of the times, they need to speak and write in English at a really high level, often learning the respective terminology in English (I have learned a great deal in banking and business terms from them too!).

Doug:  What is your philosophy about teaching English to your clients?

Vicky: That every minute of their time is worth their coming to our classes and that they leave our lessons feeling that they have learned something important. I know that a lot of them sacrifice their lunch breaks or time away from their families during their long days at work. I want them to feel that their time has been invested well.

Doug:  What role does technology play in your teaching?  

Vicky: It plays quite a big role – a lot of my students come to class with their smartphones, tablets and laptop computers. We use them as much as is needed – they use technology to look up words, they bring in articles, they search for things during the lesson that they want to share with the rest of the class. There they take ownership of the lesson, as they start talking (which is exactly what is wanted – I need to be heard as little as possible! They need to do the talking).

Doug:  One of the “funny” things that people with smartphones have is suggestive spelling.  Indeed, there are many websites devoted to images of this.  How does the ELL learner deal with that?

Vicky: Sometimes it can be very confusing for them, sometimes it serves as a clarification or reassurance that they know the correct answer and not the one that comes up in suggestive spelling. Sometimes it also helps them with their spelling, as English can be tricky!

Doug:  Before Christmas, there were many commercials for computer language tutor programs as products that people could buy to learn a second language.  What is your opinion of software like that?

Vicky: Well, the truth is that sometimes software can help them tremendously. I still believe that their learning needs the teacher to be more well-rounded – there are far too many learn-it-yourself, learn-it-perfectly-in-six-weeks methods out there, which rather confuse them than help them and they end up feeling frustrated. If they use them on the side, complementary with their classes and other resources, then I think they can find them useful up to a point.

Doug:  Recently, you attended a conference in Turkey and you shared some beautiful photos from there.  Do you see more visits to Turkey in your future?  Do you speak Turkish?  If not how did you communicate?

Vicky: It was my first time in Turkey, in Istanbul more specifically. Even though I stayed there for only four days and was there for a conference, I managed to get around and see places. I felt a very strong connection to the place. The architecture is amazing and the people just captured my heart. They are constantly smiling and always so willing to help you out! I don’t speak Turkish at all, apart from hello, good morning and so on. I was with other fellow educators and friends there, so they served as translators when help was needed! Overall though, most of the people spoke English – and a couple even spoke to me in perfect Greek, after I shared my origins with them! That is the new language adventure I have embarked on: I am currently learning Turkish with an online program, but will soon start having lessons as well, with a teacher! I am so excited and I am really enjoying it so far.

If all goes well, this year I will be there again twice for conferences again, once in May and then in December most probably. I hope I have many opportunities in the future to see other places too!

Doug:  Sitting here in Canada, it’s easy to see that English is the language to learn and our school system requires a certain amount of French.  Do you have a different perspective living in Europe?  How many languages would you recommend that parents encourage their children to learn?

Vicky: Well, here in Europe it depends on the country. In Greece, for instance, parents insist that their children learn English as a foreign language and then it is usually German or French. Switzerland is a little bit more complicated, due to the fact that it is a country that has four official languages. Here in the German part, English and French are obligatory in school, but Italian is optional. A tiny percentage speaks the fourth language, Rhaeto-Romanisch.

As an educator, I try not to encourage this latest language craze that has taken over some parts of Europe. I believe that one or two more languages on top of the native language are enough. And I always insist that they never learn two at the same time.

Doug:  If you only could speak one language, would you be disadvantaged in Europe?

Vicky: Well, if it were English, no – it is the most widely spoken and learned language here. The most popular ones in Europe, let’s say, are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

Doug:  Do you find that students who know more than one language excel in school?

Vicky: It definitely helps them, especially in higher education, as they can branch out their bibliography even more and read more extensively on the topics they are studying. But I also believe that languages help them in expressing themselves in general, both in writing and in speaking, regardless of the grade they are in.  

Doug:  There must be some things about Canada and Toronto that you miss.  I know I’d have difficulty without my Tim Horton’s coffee!  What do you miss?

Vicky: First of all, I miss my family – a huge part of my dad’s family still live there. I have a lot of uncles, aunts and cousins that I terribly miss. Friends too.

Since you mentioned Tim Horton’s…I absolutely love Timbits and miss them so much! I also love chocolate glazed donuts and honey crullers there! Another thing I miss is the vanilla ice cream at Dairy Queen.

But I don’t miss my favourite newspaper – I read the Globe and Mail on my iPhone every day!

Doug: If you were to open a Swiss newspaper, what would the top educational stories be about?

Vicky: I would emphasize a lot on learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and so on, as I believe they need more delving into. I would also like to mention the benefits of technology in education, when used properly and effectively and not for the medium itself.

Doug:  How far do you have to go from your home to see the mountains that Switzerland is famous for?

Vicky: Not too far. The closest one is about twenty minutes by train. There are such beautiful places in this small country – I feel as though I still haven’t seen a lot!

Thank you for the time for the interview.  It’s greatly appreciated.

You can follow Vicky’s Swiss adventures on her blog at:  http://vickyloras.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at @vickyloras

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8 Comments

  1. Interesting interview, Doug, and I’ll be sharing with my French students (some of whom like to complain about the fact that they HAVE to take French) that in Europe, they could be taking 3 languages, and that would be seen as beneficial. I can also relate to Vicky’s Swiss German difficulties. I used to guide tours in both French and German, and Swiss visitors loved me, because I spoke German with a French accent, and French with a German accent!

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  2. Hello Doug,

    Here again we have evidence that life can be a Disneyland attraction. You are an instructor at my alma mater, the University of Windsor, and Vicky lived in Mississauga, which is where I lived for the first six and a half years of my education. Through the magic of the Internet the three of us have come together. It is indeed a small world.

    Vicky and I have interacted online for a couple of years now, mostly through Twitter, although now that Vicky is finally on Facebook, I think Facebook is becoming the place where we interact most. I finally met Vicky at the Yildiz University 1st International Symposium in Istanbul.

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I particularly liked your question about monolingualism in Europe, “If you only could speak one language, would you be disadvantaged in Europe?” When I was in Turkey I came to the realisation the answer to that question really depends on what one assumes “disadvantaged” to mean. If one assumes that happiness and well being come from membership in the community of white collar middle-class professionals then I would agree with Vicky that monolingualism is not an overwhelming disadvantage to native English speakers. I would also agree that for people belonging to the middle-class in Europe, near native fluency in English would be very advantageous, necessary in fact, if one were not a native speaker of English already, but the interesting thing is that you find many more people than you’d expect in Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere, who do not speak English, and they seem as happy or happier than the guys and gals in the middle class.

    Only one taxi driver I met in Istanbul spoke English well. The security guards at the Akmerkez mall cannot speak English, nor can most of the shop assistants. The only working class people I met who spoke English well were the touts hanging around the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia. Yet, everyone I spoke to in Turkey said that English was necessary. Of course everyone I spoke to was a member of the middle class. As one professor said to me, “you don’t go to university to become a security guard…” Still, I’m willing to bet that even if I’d spoken to working class people, the majority of them would agree that English was essential, because even they think that membership in the middle class is equal to happiness, or at least that’s what they think they think. Of course, we cannot assume that everyone in the working class is unhappy. I would wager that most of them are actually very happy indeed. They didn’t learn English because they didn’t need it. Some of them, those that live in border areas learn other languages, but not English. In India, I met people who spoke many languages, but not English. In Japan, almost no one needs English. Few Japanese CEOs speak English. Few Japanese prime ministers speak English. And please don’t mention university entrance exams in Japan because what they are testing isn’t English. If you are interested in what they are testing I recommend you read an article in the latest issue of The Language Teacher by my friend Melodie Cook (http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/issues/2013-01_37.1) and if you want some background you can read a paper I wrote (http://goo.gl/ReQMa).

    I guess what I’m getting at is that English language ability isn’t the indispensable skill that we are led to believe it is. There are still many people in Canada who do not speak English. When I was in Tahiti I met a couple from Montreal. The wife spoke excellent English with a lovely Quebecois accent. The husband spoke no English at all. I don’t know how these people earn a living, but people of very modest means cannot afford a trip to Tahiti. A colleague of mine from Montreal once told me that the only professions open to monolingual francophones in Quebec were holy orders, medicine and law. Perhaps the Montrealers I met in Tahiti were doctors or lawyers, or perhaps things have changed in Quebec. When I was growing up I was told that I wouldn’t get anywhere in life if I didn’t learn French. My failure to learn French is not the reason I left Canada. Few of the people I grew up with in Canada learned French. All of them have got somewhere in life. Interestingly, many of them were bilingual, just not English and French.

    Still, most people in the world speak two or more languages (http://www.cal.org/resources/Digest/digestglobal.html). I think that this has very little to do with economic need. It has to do with relationships – social, human needs. I have many students who are interested in communicating with people from other countries…if they can do it in Japanese. I’d say that most native English speakers feel the same way. The difference is that few people outside Japan can speak Japanese, while English is widely spoken.

    Hmmm, I’m meandering. I’m not coming to a point. Perhaps best to stop here. Maybe a bit of dialogue will help me discover my point.

    Cheers!

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  3. Dear Michael,

    Thanks so much for the useful comment – it was great to meet you last December! I stayed only four days in Istanbul, but had the same experience as you. Most of the taxi drivers did not speak English at all, except one, who spoke very little, but still tried and was worried too. When I told him that it was ok and he was doing well, he said: “But I must learn English. Everyone speaks now.”

    Thanks also for the link, which I will go and check out now!

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  4. Pingback: An Interview with Zoe Branigan-Pipe | doug --- off the record

  5. Pingback: A Reason to Move to Switzerland | doug --- off the record

  6. Very interesting and inspiring interview! Vicky thanks so much for sharing your experience as a business teacher, actually when we teach for these kind of student, principally business English, we need to be concerned about timing and also engage and motivate them to be and enjoy the classes. When they launch and fell confident in a presentation or video conference , it’s amazing how they want to express their on merits . So proud of you learn Turkish!!! Doug very enlightening interview! Wort reading!

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