Bilingual signs in the Hermitage: Politeness for all?

2016-12-14-16-51-31I am back in Saint Petersburg, visiting my parents for the holidays. Among the many things we have planned to do during my stay was an obligatory visit to the State Hermitage Museum. This museum is truly a jewel in the tourist crown of the city, one of the oldest and most renowned art collections in the world.

Naturally, it is visited by thousands upon thousands of tourists from all over the world.

Naturally, there are a lot of signs in the (perceived) global lingua franca that is English. <– there will be another post on the increased number of commercial signage in Mandarin in the centre of the city.

In any case.

Here we have a sign in the ladies’ washroom. It is written in two languages, Russian and English. The message is pretty straightforward: the plumbing system old and overflowing, no paper should be thrown into the toilet. Ok.

However, a bilingual reader will notice (and someone actually did, hence the question marks in white) that the way the message is delivered is very different in the two languages. The English version reads as a more polite request, adorned with please and thank you. The visitors to the museum are addressed as dear guests. In Russian the visitors are just visitors (посетители). There is not a single please or thank you used, so – while the sign  still reads as a request (not demand) – it is significantly less polite.

There are many studies on linguistic landscape that examine the conflicting role of various languages used in public signage (one of my favourites is Language Conflict in Post-Soviet Linguistic Landscapes by Aneta Pavlenko). So I am pretty sure that colleagues who work on this topic have already written extensively on how different phrasing in different languages constructs the readers and the context of communication. So no deep analysis from me. All I wanted to say is that as a bilingual reader, a native Russian speaker, and a sociologist  I found this sign irritating, confusing but also entertaining enough to snap a photo and share with my friends.

Also, it’s a shame that one of the largest museums in the world can’t figure out how to (or doesn’t bother to) make their bathroom signs consistent.




Eagle by Rick. An inspiration from DUDES Club



Eagle (by Rick)

A lot of people don’t notice how even in a rundown neighborhood,

you can still find beauty

I took this photo at the UBC Learning Exchange earlier this year. It is one of the many photo artifacts from the DUDES Club  exhibition  “Indigenous Men’s Narratives: Reclaiming Our Lives”.  This photo struck me to the core. The words captured my own thoughts on what makes the Downtown Eastside so special.

I later met Rick in May at a community-university conference New Perspectives on Learning in the Downtown Eastside. I told him how much this photo means to me and he told me that maybe it is not an eagle but a seagull in the photo, but that it wasn’t a big deal.

After the conference I went online to learn more about the project that this photo was a product of. I was amazed. Started in 2010 the DUDES Club is a great example of meaningful collaboration, community-led research and activism. Learning about this project gave me confidence to continue shifting the focus of my research from my research interests to what matters to the people I work with. From the website “The DUDES Club provides events and activities that focus on the spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects of wellness in men residing on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It focuses on connecting men with health care professionals and other support services, as well as instilling a sense of solidarity and empowerment within the community.” 

I highly encourage everyone to check out their amazing website here  and read The Globe and Mail  feature on the DUDES Club.

Seniors’ Storytelling Class


                                                                                           All great literature is one of two stories;                                                                     a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.
― Leo Tolstoy

Two weeks ago Learning Exchange’s Seniors Thrive initiative added one more project to the portfolio. It’s called Seniors’ Storytelling Class and its goal is to supplement regular conversation program with speaking and writing activities that scaffold storytelling for seniors who are learning English as an additional language. I am leading the project together with my university buddy Zhaoying, who is a master’s student at our faculty.

We meet once a week for 75 minutes during which we read stories and articles about the value of storytelling, share our life stories, favourite fables and fairy tales from all over the world. After each session participants get a prompt to take home and are asked to write a story based on the prompt. Some stories are five sentences long and some are five pages long! As the project progresses we plan to add multimodal storytelling – pictures and photos to supplement the texts that participants are sharing.

When I was conceiving this project, I found these two resources: a step-by-step guide for teaching storytelling  from Storytelling Arts of Indiana and a curriculum on learning about race and racism through storytelling and the arts from Barnard College. Both resources have served as a great inspiration and encouragement that storytelling is a powerful tool to address complex issues. They show that by recognizing the power of a story and valuing the stories that learners choose to share, educators can not only advance their own understanding of the lived experiences of the learners, but also empower the learners to challenge status quo and create a better future for their communities.

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of creating knowledge and one of the most accessible vehicles to spread this knowledge around. When working with immigrants, especially senior immigrants who harbour myriads of experiences, memories, and testimonies, storytelling becomes a way to value the wisdom that these learners bring to the class. Thus, the learners are recognized as knowers and producers of new knowledge. They shape the progression of the class by sharing their stories and building upon each others’ narratives. Thus, learners take charge  and grow as agents of their own learning.

Our project is in its early stages and we have a long way to go. In the end, we will publish a chap book of our stories and present it along with the photo story of our storytelling journey!

Conference season is here

Spring is conference time. When the flowers begin to bloom, so do the creative ideas that lead to innovative projects! Conftesolerences are fundamental to professional development, especially graduate students who are just entering the field. I am heading to TESOL to present a paper on a research project we did at the Learning Exchange in 2015.  In this talk I argue that ESL programs should encourage peer-to-peer interaction through engaging learners as facilitators in conversational groups.

I am also attending Doctoral Research Forum at TESOL to see fellow graduate students present their work and join mentor roundtables. But most importantly I will see my friends and colleagues from Russia and the US. I can’t wait! We live and work so far apart now, that reconnecting  at conferences is such a rare treat.

Right after TESOL, I am heading to AAAL, another huge conference in applied linguistics. I am fortunate to have Victoria – an amazing scholar and friend – as my collaborator and co-presenter this year. aaalWe will be presenting in the research strand – a new strand that AAAL opened this year. For a long time, as a student I would feel that the research process is a treasure that colleagues didn’t like sharing with each other. It would be so hard for me to find articles/ and presentations that describe not only the results, but the stages, ups and downs of getting to it. That is why I am thankful that AAAL has opened research strand and gave us the opportunity to present our bilingual  interview-based study. Victoria and I interviewed same people both in Russian and English and we will be going through the whole process. I printed 20 copies of our transcripts (hours of transliteration!) and look forward to the roundtable discussion of these data.

Two conferences in a row, double the excitement!

ESL Drama Club: project and enunciate!

With only five weeks to the day of our performance at the New Perspectives on Learning in the Downt2016-03-22 11.19.34own Eastside: A Community-University Conference our club has moved on to active rehearsals.  So today everyone was busy projecting and enunciating.

Tong-twisters are a great way to warm up the muscles and prepare for the long recitals.

To make sure that the actors are heard across the room, we did some projection exercises. This is a great activity for any ESL class, because it helps learners to overcome shyness and encourages them to speak louder and more clearly. To do a projection exercise, choose a shorter tong-twister to start. Try Stupid superstition! it has emotion, some sass and it is also conveniently short. Then, ask the learners to stand facing the wall and practice speaking into the wall. At this stage they need to get comfortable with the text and feel how the sound travels through space. Matt called this stage “bouncing the words off the wall”. After the learners  get comfortable, the next step is to ask them to imagine there is a person on the other side of the wall who needs to hear the tong-twister. So practice, practice, practice.

Interesting thing, once we finished the projection exercise, we all continued speaking as if we were still talking to the wall. So it really works, give it a try!




ESL Drama Club: Rehearsals are underway

Look Matt getting ready for the first big rehearsal and blocking exercises in the Drama Club! Last week we assigned the 2016-03-15 10.28.43roles to the learners and  taught them vocabulary relating to the ten  parts of the stage. All to prepare them for today.

Blocking exercises allow learners to transition from reading the script to being on the stage. We don’t have a stage, but since we will be performing in a classroom, we outlined the floor and made it look like a stage.

Through actors’ moving across the classroom, their characters leave the pages of the script and  come to life. It is very important to add movement to any lesson for many reasons, but for our club blocking has served two purposes. First, it is helping the learners to break away from being overly attached to the pages. Second, it will encourage them to memorize the scripts faster.  The idea of memorizing the play and performing it in front of an audience might be intimidating, so we are trying to set up all our activities to ensure that the learners are confident on the big day of the performance.

Another thing that Matt asked the learners to do was to read their character’s lines at home and imagine what these characters  would look like: what would they be wearing, what props they would need, what emotions they would be feeling. This, we hope, will help learners be more comfortable with their roles since they will have the lead in bringing their characters to life.

In order to make the text of the play more accessible, we encourage the learners to highlight the words that seem difficult and find synonyms that they find easier to read. We are currently on the fourth version of the play and I have a feeling it will be evolving until the day of the performance. We are fine with seeing this play as a living text, because not only it will help the learners to feel more comfortable, but it also develops their reading skills and builds their vocabulary. As a language teacher, I am excited about this outcome of the Drama Club!

Next week we will continue rehearsals, hopefully with costumes this time!