Japanese course in Tokyo: blog entry #2

Hello world!

I am currently writing this entry while on a Shinkansen (Japanese Bullet Train), and boy has it been an adventure! I was waiting in line to get on, thinking that since someone was in front of me, there was a rule that you had to wait until they said it was okay to enter the train. Apparently he was just waiting for the next train. So, I missed my train by one second – literally! Fortunately, the staff at the station was very understanding and told me to go on the next one, which would arrive 6 minutes later. I’m now on that train, and it looks like I’m getting to my stop earlier than before! So I’m happy to say that I’m still looking forward to an awesome weekend with some friends that I made on my first trip to Japan.

I’ve been going every weekend to the Cat Café and let me tell you that it really makes the homesickness hit me less. It’s relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve also gotten really good at metal games. This is a big thing in Japan. You put a metal coin into a slot and aim it to get more coins out. Meanwhile you get chances to earn more metals and even a jackpot every now and then. My friend and I have won the Jackpot four times already. All the Japanese stare at us when we do because it’s weird to see a foreigner who actually knows how to play.

I’ve also had fun at the local Mai-Dreamin Maid Café. In case you don’t know what a Maid Café is, I’ll explain. It’s a restaurant-type place that has lots of cute food and all the workers (except those at the bar) are dressed up as lolita maids. Before you eat or drink anything, you “bless” it to make it yummy. It’s all very adorable. Usually the regulars are older Japanese men and the occasional foreigner – but they’ve come to recognize me as a regular too. It’s quite expensive, but lots of fun. It’s a great way to practise Japanese too!

In class, I’ve learned a lot. I now know how to speak informally with friends. When I came I could only speak very formally, so it’s useful. I can’t wait to show my friends what I’ve learned. I also have learned around 130-140 kanji, although I’m not perfect at all of them.

Today I say good-bye to one of my good friends, Jose. He’s from Spain. On Thursday we had a final going away party (although there were many before this). Our teachers even joined us! Can you imagine having beers with a professor? In America that’s kind of taboo, but apparently here it’s okay. It was really fun, and also helped a lot with my speaking. It was almost like I got free one-on-one time with my teachers. I could ask them questions if I didn’t know a word and got to know them a little better.

Anyway, Happy (belated) Thanksgiving!!

Dana is studying Japanese in Tokyo with Cactus. Cactus offers language courses in over 30 languages, in 60 countries and 500 destinations worldwide.

Dana wrote about her initial impressions of Tokyo when she first arrived, and we will be posting another blog entry by Dana at the end of her course. For anyone thinking about taking a language course abroad, this offers a unique insight into life in a foreign country, including the fears and excitement that come with a long-term course. Thank you to Dana for contributing to our website!

Image: The image at the top of this page is of a polaroid that Dana was given at the Maid Café, with Dana on the left and one of the bartenders (who likes to be called “Hisama”) on the right.

German course in Vienna: settling into a new life abroad

Moving to Vienna was a sudden decision, prompted by my husband’s job offer there. German was always an option at school which I chose not to take, believing that Spanish and French would be more useful to me in the long run – a choice which has paid out as I found myself living first in Spain, then France, and more recently in Mexico, due in these instances to my own work prospects.

Now, though, I don’t have a choice. We arrived here in Vienna about 1 month ago, and although the majority of Austrians speak good enough English to make me wince with embarrassment at my own linguistic deficiencies, I still can’t imagine living in a country where I can’t manage the basics, whether it’s asking for bread in the Bäckerei, or getting a different size pair of shoes.

So here I am back in language classes, studying German at the partner school that Cactus works with in Vienna. We have a nice small class of 10 students, and lessons are from 9.00 to 12.15 every day (except national holidays, of which there are unfortunately 2 during my 2-week course).

Each day the classes are divided into 2 parts – for me the first part is grammar for 1 ½ hours with Sabrina, and then conversation with Verena, also 1 ½ hours. It’s intensive, but good, as I feel myself improve daily and build confidence with basic sentences and ideas. German isn’t easy, but it’s not the nightmare I’d imagined either, as a lot of vocabulary is similar to English, so with a good amount of guesswork I can get by. I look forward to classes every day, as the other students are nice, and I feel like I’m in the middle of the group – not held back, but not holding others back either.

And we have a nice social scene too – out to the local wine bar one night, and a tour round Stephansdom (the main cathedral) on another day. There are also waltz classes and a day trip out of the city to look forward to – we’re kept busy whether it’s for study or pleasure.

Students are here for a variety of reasons, as we find out in the first class. A Japanese student has just got married to her Austrian boyfriend, and they plan to live here, so she needs to be able to survive, just as I do. We also have an Italian in the group who is a ski instructor, and she wants to be able to take groups of Germans and Austrians skiing in the Italian Alps. And others are taking it purely for the pleasure of learning a new language, and also believing that it will help them in the workplace in the future. Whatever the reason, we’re a motivated bunch, and we make good progress from the basics through to the grammatically challenging parts.

My course ends too soon for my liking, and way too soon for my level of German to be good enough yet. So I think I’ll definitely be back as a student again for another few weeks. I’ll just take a little time out first, for a chance to practise on the unsuspecting Austrian public.

Cactus runs a variety of German courses in Vienna for all levels and ages. In addition to group and private German courses, we offer music courses, teacher refresher courses, academic year courses, and summer activity courses for under 18s.

If you want to learn German before you go, why not consider an evening language course at home? Available in the UK and the US & Canada, these short-term courses are the ideal way to brush up your language skills before an overseas trip.

Useful skiing-related vocabulary in German

Lift pass Liftpass/Liftkarte
Ski lift Skilift
Skis Skier
To ski Ski fahren
To hire (skis) Ski ausleihen
Off-piste Off-piste or or Nicht Praepariert
Piste map Skikarte or Karte vom Skigebiet
Ski equipment Skiausruestung
Ski jacket Skijacke
Goggles Skibrille
Poles Skistoecke
Ski boots Skistiefel

Gloves Handschuhe
Hat Muetze
Ski school Skischuhle
Ski instructor Skilehrer
Chalet Chalet or Hotel or Gasthaus
Help! Hilfe!
Watch out! Vorsicht!
I need a doctor Ich brauche einen Artz
It’s an emergency Es ist ein Notfall
Snow Schnee
Snow forecast Schneevorhersage
Avalanche risk Lawinengefahr
Closed Geschlossen
Bad weather warning Schlechtwetter Warnung
Cross-country skiing Skilanglauf
Downhill skiing Abfahrt Ski
Mulled wine Gluehwein
A beer please Ein Bier bitte

Cactus seminar on ‘Teaching Grammar Communicatively’

On Saturday 6th November many of the teachers of Spanish who teach for Cactus attended the seminar taught by Virgilio Borobio and organised by Cactus and SM, the publishing house of the “Nuevo ELE” textbooks that we use in Cactus to teach Spanish.

Mr. Borobio, the author of “Nuevo ELE”, began his talk reminding us about the importance of opening a lesson with a starter or warming-up activity to get students engaged and create a sense of learning from the beginning, and gave us a practical demonstration of how they work with a very simple but engaging activity ideal to revise topics already taught.

Getting to the heart of the matter, Virgilio Borobio introduced us to the world of grammar: he explained to us why our students, depending on their origin and previous educational experiences, have a different conception of grammar; the need to approach the teaching of languages from a communicative perspective and to follow a topic criteria, because it allows us to introduce vocabulary, grammar and phonology at the same time, and the advisability of using cyclical schemes of work to revise what we have covered in previous lessons.

After a short break for coffee, tea and biscuits perfectly organised by Cactus representatives, Mr. Borobio proceeded to show us how to approach the teaching of some areas of the Spanish grammar which are especially difficult for English native speakers students, such as the use of subjunctive and the differences among the Spanish past tenses, and suggested very clear visual ideas to teach, for example, the concept of a finished action.

Following a delicious lunch based on sandwiches, fruit and fresh drinks, which provided us with an excellent opportunity to exchange opinions and experiences, Virgilio Borobio explained to us the different approaches to grammar, its diverse treatments and the advantages of teaching grammar from an inductive point of view, because it helps students remember much better what they learn, find a certain logic in it and therefore, feel more confident and secure when using the Spanish language.

Mr. Borobio ended his fruitful lecture focussing on the importance of planning carefully our lessons and creating always a teaching sequence, which starts introducing the new language to the students (vocabulary, phonetics and grammatical structures), continues with a controlled practice in which we always know what our students can answer and ends with an open and free practice where students can develop their imagination and creativity. Mr. Borobio brought the seminar to an end with a series of some practical examples cleverly chosen from his “Nuevo ELE” textbooks.

This Cactus seminar was undoubtedly a great success, not only because of its good attendance and the active participation of all students, as we even debated about the new changes introduced by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, but also thanks to its content, as we were given clear explanations, ideas and examples on how to teach grammar and, therefore, we left the seminar as better teachers.

The organisation of this training course by Cactus and its academic director Jenny Johnson, who spent the whole day with us, was also brilliant, very much in keeping with the high level of the lecturer and his talk: Cactus representatives paid attention to the smallest of details in breaks and at lunch time, gave us a free copy of the interesting and helpful book “Didactired I: Grammar. Pragmatic-Discursive Aspects”, published by SM, and provided us with a certificate of attendance.

On behalf of my fellow Cactus teachers, thank you very much for the organisation of such a productive day in which we could explore some new areas in the teaching of grammar, become better teachers of Spanish and also make new friends.

————————————————-SPANISH VERSION———————————————–


El pasado sábado seis de Noviembre muchos de los profesores de español que trabajamos para Cactus asistimos al seminario “Cómo trabajar con la gramática en un enfoque comunicativo” impartido por Virgilio Borobio y organizado por Cactus en colaboración con SM, la editorial que ha publicado los libros Nuevo ELE que usamos en Cactus para enseñar español.

El señor Borobio, autor de Nuevo ELE, comenzó su intervención recordándonos la importancia de empezar la clase con una actividad de calentamiento para atraer la atención de los estudiantes y crear una atmósfera de aprendizaje desde el principio, y nos hizo una pequeña demostración con una sencilla pero atractiva actividad ideal para repasar contenidos ya vistos.

Entrados ya en materia, Virgilio Borobio nos introdujo en el mundo de la gramática: nos explicó por qué los estudiantes, dependiendo de su origen y de experiencias educativas anteriores, tienen una concepción diferente de la gramática; la necesidad de afrontar la enseñanza de una lengua con un enfoque comunicativo y siguiendo un criterio temático, ya que nos permite introducir a un mismo tiempo vocabulario, gramática y fonética, y la conveniencia de utilizar una programación cíclica que incluya repasar lo aprendido en anteriores clases.

Tras un pequeño descanso para café, té y galletas perfectamente organizado por las chicas de Cactus, el señor Borobio procedió a explicarnos algunas de las áreas de la gramática española que resultan especialmente difíciles para los estudiantes ingleses, como el uso del subjuntivo y las diferencias entre los diferentes tiempos verbales pasados, y nos ofreció ideas visuales muy claras para explicar, por ejemplo, el concepto de acción terminada.

Después de un exquisito almuerzo a base de sándwiches, fruta y bebidas frescas en el que pudimos intercambiar opiniones y experiencias, Virgilio Borobio nos introdujo en las diferentes aproximaciones a la enseñanza de la gramática, sus diferentes tratamientos y las ventajas que ofrece afrontar su enseñanza desde un punto de inductivo, ya que éste permite a los alumnos recordar mucho mejor lo que aprenden, encontrarle una cierta lógica y, por consiguiente, ganar en confianza y seguridad cuando usan el español.

El señor Borobio terminó su fructífera conferencia centrándose en la importancia de planificar cuidadosamente las clases y crear siempre una secuencia didáctica, que se inicia con la presentación del lenguaje nuevo (vocabulario, fonética y estructuras gramaticales), continúa con una práctica controlada en la que sabemos de antemano lo que el alumno puede responder, y finaliza con una práctica abierta o libre en la que los alumnos pueden desarrollar su imaginación y su creatividad. La charla concluyó con una serie de ejemplos prácticos de los libros Nuevo ELE inteligentemente escogidos por el señor Borobio.

El seminario resultó sin dudas un rotundo éxito, no sólo por la numerosa asistencia y la activa participación de los alumnos, que incluso debatimos sobre las nuevas modificaciones introducidas por la Real Academia Española de la Lengua, sino también gracias a su contenido, pues nos ofreció explicaciones claras, ideas y ejemplos para afrontar la enseñanza de la gramática y, por consiguiente, nos convirtió automáticamente en mejores profesores. 

La organización del evento, a cargo de Cactus y de su directora academica, Jenny Johnson, que nos acompañó durante todo el día, fue también brillante, a tono con el nivel del conferenciante y de su ponencia. Cuidaron hasta el último detalle en los recesos y en el almuerzo, nos regalaron un ejemplar del interesante libro publicado por SM y nos acreditaron la asistencia con un certificado.

En nombre de todos los compañeros profesores de Cactus y en el mío propio, muchísimas gracias por la organización de un día tan productivo en el que pudimos explorar nuevas áreas en la enseñanza de la gramática, mejorar como profesores de español y también hacer nuevas amistades.

New evening course location in New York – 32nd and 5th

Just one block south of the Empire State and two blocks from 33rd Street, Lexington, the school enjoys a really convenient location that makes it easily accessible. The closest subway is Lexington 33rd Street.

Included in the course offerings at the new center are Arabic, Mandarin, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian and Spanish. Students can choose from a variety of levels, ranging from beginner to advanced, and can check their current level using our online level test.

Courses begin in January, although booking is now open. Places are limited, so be sure to book early to secure your place!

New evening course location in the UK: Sheffield

A welcome addition to our existing course locations in the North of England, the new school in Sheffield enjoys a very convenient location right in the city centre. Students will benefit from high quality teaching rooms, good facilities and free parking, although its central location makes it easily accessible by public transport.

From January 2011, we’ll be offering evening courses in Sheffield in Arabic, Mandarin, French, German, Hindi, Italian and Spanish, at a range of levels – from beginner to advanced.

Prospective students can gauge their level using the online level test on our website, and courses are available to book now.

Places are limited, so booking in advance is advised! An Early Bird discount is available for anyone who books more than 30 days before the start of the course.

Launch of London’s first French radio station - great news for French learners

French Radio London, or FRL as it’s also known, will be transmitted entirely in French, and will consist of the usual radio offerings – music, weather, news round-ups etc. With the studios and offices in central London, French Radio London also benefits from a network of Paris-based correspondents who will be bringing regular news updates, interviews and press reviews from the French capital.

The station was launched by Pascal Grierson, and is aimed at the sizeable French community in London (estimated to be over 400,000) and, of course, Francophiles who enjoy listening to French in their free time.

The station will provide a great tool for anyone learning French, who can listen in and familiarise themselves with the language, and learn more about French culture. The easiest way to tune in is via the French Radio London website.


Cactus offers part-time and intensive French courses at a range of levels and destinations in London. Please visit the Language Courses UK website for full listings, and to book.

Winter sunshine: our top 5 hot spots!

Ok, so winter isn’t for everyone. Dark evenings, short days, piling on the layers…even the most festive among us can feel a bit gloomy at times. So whether you’re planning a great escape or just a sneaky pick-me-up, check out our top holidays this winter where you can be sure of some sunshine!

1. Phuket, Thailand

As the wind howls outside and the heating clicks in, a CELTA course in Thailand is a sure-fire way to make your friends back home green with envy. You will be learning to Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in the tropical island paradise of Phuket, learning valuable new skills on your course and enjoying golden sandy beaches outside class. Of course, you don’t have to come home afterwards – and many don’t. The school can help you graduate on to paid teaching work within Thailand, and your winter adventure can continue as long as you like…

4-week CELTA course in Phuket

2. Buenos Aires, Argentinaimage

Argentina is the perfect place to go during the winter as its Southern Hemisphere location guarantees plenty of sunshine and warmth. A popular destination for a Spanish course, our 12-week Spanish & Volunteer programme is the ultimate way to learn the language and take part in rewarding local volunteer work; placements cover social work, education, health care and environmental work. If you’re looking for a feel-good Latin adventure this winter, this could be it.

12-week Spanish & Volunteer in Buenos Aires

3. Guadeloupeimage

There aren’t many places where you can learn the language in the morning, chill out on a palm-fringed Caribbean beach in the afternoon, and enjoy traditional Creole culture by night. Yet in Guadeloupe all this is possible and more. Just don’t forget to send a postcard to all your friends back home to make sure they know how hard, er, you’re working.

French course in Guadeloupe

4. Salvador de Bahia, Brasilimage

This city is hot in more ways than climatic. Known for its beaches, festivals and carnivals, Salvador de Bahia is the place to come to party, pose and purr over delicious tropical food and drink. If you can time it right don’t miss Salvador’s infamous Carnaval, starting March 3rd 2011 – arguably one of the world’s best parties. Whatever you do, you’ll be doing it surrounded by beautiful 17th century architecture and immersed in a unique Afro-Brazilian culture. Learn the lingo even for just one week and you’ll get so much more out of your stay – the locals will really be impressed if you learn the traditional art of capoeira at the same time.

Portuguese & Capoeira course in Salvador da Bahia

5. La Ceiba, Hondurasimage

Honduras’ Bay Islands are well-known in the diving world, and with reason. Paradisical islands set in clear blue Caribbean waters make them perfect – and economical – places to explore the colourful underwater world. This course gives you the unique opportunity to learn Spanish one-to-one in the mainland city of La Ceiba, and then take a one-week PADI diving course on the Bay island of Utila. A once-in-a-lifetime package of sun, sea, sport and learning.

Spanish & Diving course in La Ceiba

Cactus offers language courses in over 500 destinations worldwide, which can be combined with a range of activities from volunteering to activity courses, and TEFL/TESOL courses across the globe. 

Grotta Gigante: a must-see if studying Italian in Venice

Studying Italian in Venice this winter? Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Giant Cave! Just a 2 hour trip up to the Triestian city of Carso will bring you to the wondrous Grotta Gigante, the “world’s largest tourist cave” according to Guinness World Records. Below is my first experience visiting La Grotta Gigante.

Well, let me start off by saying that I am terrified of heights! So, as you might imagine, I was feeling a bit reluctant to visiting a place that is 130 meters deep and with over 500 stairs to descend! However, the allure of mystery that this 10 million year old cave exudes, with its constant 11°C temperature, and its extreme stalagmite/stalactite formations (some 30m long) made it a must-see, regardless of my fears.

The Grotta Gigante, situated in the hilly Trieste Region of Carso, first opened to the public in 1908 and was lit by oil lamps, with only one way to both enter and exit. Now, thanks to researchers and courageous excavators, there exists another exit leading to a smaller cave, where Neolithic man and giant bear fossils were found completely preserved due to the temperature constant. And it’s only another couple of hundred stairs up!

I must admit that I truly had no idea of the breathtaking wonder I was about to witness. Once my legs stopped trembling, I was able to experience one of the great marvels of the world (or at least it should be!). It was like being on a movie set, it seemed unreal. Ten million years of water erosion naturally created this spectacular cave, equipped with plant life (which is able to photosynthesize because of the fluorescent lights).

If you are planning on visiting northern Italy any time soon, you cannot miss the chance to visit the Grotta Gigante – just remember to bring your running shoes!

Cactus runs Italian courses in some 20 locations across Italy, as well as part-time evening language courses in the US & Canada and the UK.

Cactus-to-Conference update from Fiona James

“When Cactus contacted me recently I couldn’t believe that another six months had passed since writing my first reflections on what Iatefl had done for me and my teaching. I asked that they bear with me until after the weekend when I go to our little country place to the north of Cordoba in the south of Spain. It is here, where I write now, that I am most able to switch off from teaching and professional commitments and relax in the gorgeous rural surroundings with my family. Yet funnily enough, detached from the world and my day to day reality, this is the place where I often find myself generating my most creative ideas. I put this down to creating the distance between ourselves and our routine responsibilities, which allows us, or at least me to see things from a bird’s eye view as it were, from a new angle, with a fresh perspective, (something I touched on in my first article) – and that is precisely what I tell myself I should offer in this follow-up article.

Sadly many of the wonderful ideas I wanted to put into practice on my return have fallen through the sieve and only a handful, in comparison to those that impressed me, have found themselves sprinkled into the classroom. I am learning that it is impossible to put everything into practice and that the most important thing is to prioritize with what we consider to be key areas that can serve us and our students well, depending on where we and they are at any one time. Needless to say there is no shortage of teaching ideas available to us within a few clicks of a mouse or from colleagues, friends and mentors. I am having to learn to balance such an intense input of ideas in relation to the immediate demands of the individuals who have trusted in me to assist them in their learning of English. Neither have I accessed writings, as I intended to do, from some of those who I found truly inspiring at Iatefl – but there is time for everything and at the appropriate moment I know I will seek out what I need. What truly makes a lasting impression, I believe is never lost, only put on standby until the time is ripe.

Despite my relatively short teaching experience, I have a clear vision of one day becoming involved in teacher training. Before going to Iatefl, I debated a great deal on whether or not to submit a speaker proposal as I thought that organizing a workshop, which could be of any real interest to others, was somewhat premature, and could even be perceived as over-zealous, bordering on presumptuous by others who have been in the profession for much longer. (I am still wondering if this is a “reality” and whether interested people would really question this, or whether it is a distortion based on my own self-limiting views….) For me, it was a daunting idea to think that I could hope to offer anything of any value alongside the great names we are all familiar with at such a prestigious event. 

However I was gratefully swayed in my final decision to go ahead by three very inspiring people:  the first was Bonnie Tsai, whom I met at Pilgrims in 2009; she told me that that she considered that being a teacher trainer is more about having the right attitude, regardless of the number of years of experience, (by no means underestimating having the necessary requirements of knowledge and skills for such an important undertaking). The second person was Chaz Pugliese, whom I met for the first time a few years ago at ACEIA, the yearly Andalusian teacher conference in Seville. He told me that if I was really interested in becoming involved in teacher training, the best way to start was to offer myself to give in-service teacher training workshops at the places I work and to give workshops at conferences. Last but not least was my dear friend Sylvia Velikova, teacher and teacher trainer, whom I met on an NLP course at Pilgrims. Sylvia professed to seeing me as a teacher trainer in the making. So, bang on the deadline I sent off my proposal, which, to my surprise and added boost to my self-confidence, was accepted and even included in the TDSig special day agenda.

Well before the event I set about developing a workshop based on the theme of “The Power of Choice in the Classroom” and the whole process, prior to the event, was one of constant reflection, research and experimentation. The element of choice has since become one of the pillars of my teaching. Although the outcome of the speaker proposal was to deliver the workshop, the fact is that the stages leading up to the conference served a much greater purpose, namely that of self-reflection of my teaching practice, which continues to propel me forward to constantly question what I am doing as a teacher and how I can achieve the best possible outcome for my students, to fine-tune what works best and reassessing what doesn’t. My subsequent participation as a speaker at the conference served to make my first Iatefl experience even more unforgettable in many ways and indeed inspired me to offer further workshops in the future. I consider that even if only one person gained a new insight from my perspective, all the efforts were more than worth it, not to mention the enormous personal benefit and deepened insight I gained from the experience.

Moreover the process seems to have marked the beginning of a self-fulfilling prophecy of becoming a teacher trainer. I was recently approached by a small group of private schools to organize teacher training sessions with both their non-native teachers and their management team for this academic year. This outcome strengthens my belief that when we believe we can do something and work towards achieving our goal, providence moves with us. It is with this positive note that I would like to encourage you to believe and follow your dreams, to freely share your ideas with those around you, however trivial they may sometimes seem. We are all unique and we can all offer something of value, no matter how small we may appear to ourselves. But a word of caution – “Be careful about what you want, you might get it” (Emerson).”