IATEFL 2011 - a report from our Cactus to Conference scholarship winner

I applied for the Cactus IATEFL scholarship for two reasons: I am a newly-qualified teacher looking to develop the skills I already have and to prevent myself becoming an island in a big teaching world.

In the introductory speech, IATEFL president Herbert Puchta proclaimed that “this is going to be a fantastic conference!” His words were heart-warming – he not only seemed to be talking about the programme but also about the amount and range of people who had come to the IATEFL conference. I looked around me – in front of me I could hear Dutch, French and Italian being spoken, to my right Japanese and to my left: Russian. These were all teachers of English! This was my second day at IATEFL as I had already attended a SIG (Special Interest Group) event the day before and it was just beginning to dawn on me how much there was to do and to see: the choice is overwhelming particularly if you are a first-time conference visitor.

I met up with colleagues later to discuss our choices of sessions and workshops. A useful lesson is to ‘keep it relevant’ I found out. I made decisions about what I wanted to do and see that I felt would be useful to my development now or in the next year.But relevant to what exactly? My own school – a Dutch Montessori secondary school with a creative profile – is there another school like it in the whole world?), my professional development, the development of young people generally? I needn’t have worried – I was in the right place and easily filled the four day conference with plenaries, discussions, talks and workshops not to mention conversations with other teachers and student teachers that I met at IATEFL.

The Conference I planned for myself spanned, amongst other things; Child and teenage development (Sue Palmer), learning to learn (Bonnie Tsai) and Hyperlink Heroin (Jim Scrivener). I learnt how to present, how to analyse and talk about literature, how to teach thinking, how to approach my Master’s course, how to use Moodle for a range of different practices and to use and embed sound files.

The mood of the Conference was a positive, creative and happy one. Everyone who was there, wanted to be there – it was no small under-taking for some who had travelled a very long way. This became evident at the Scholar’s Tea on Saturday when we had the chance to meet other prize-winners and their sponsors. More than twenty countries were represented: it was a proud and happy moment and I was glad that Cactus had given me the opportunity to be a part of it.

Find out more on the Cactus to Conference IATEFL Scholarship

10 reasons why summer language camps abroad are a great option for teenagers

Here are some great reasons to consider it as an option this year…

Progress and development

1. Tuition at language camps is provided by qualified, experienced, native-speaker teachers. As a result, the quality of teaching that students get is very high, and the effects all the more noticeable.

2. Language camps attract students from all over the world, which means that they have to use the local language every day in order to communicate with each other – this is great for practising what they have learnt in lessons.

3. The experience of living away from home in a foreign country will fill any student with a great sense of self-confidence and achievement, which will really help their personal development.

4. Spending a summer with students from other countries will mean that they can make friends from all over the world, and gain an all-important insight into other cultures.

5. Making foreign friends that they want to stay in touch with will give them an incentive to keep up their language skills!

Special considerations for young learners

6. Students are accommodated in safe, comfortable lodgings. They usually have the choice between on-site, supervised residences and carefully vetted host families.

7. Full in-country care is offered by the course provider, which means that students and parents can feel confident in the level of support provided.

8. The food offered to students is designed to be healthy and nutritional, and can be adapted for any special dietary needs that students may have.

9. Language camps vary in length, and you can choose to send your child for anywhere between 1 and 4 weeks, depending on how comfortable they feel being away from home.

Fun options for free time

10. A variety of interesting activity options and excursions to places of interest are included in the programme, which ensures that the students can relax and have fun, as well as learn…

Summer language camps are available in Spain/Costa Rica,/Mexico/Uruguay, France/Canada, Italy, Germany/Austria/Switzerland and China, and are generally available to students over the age of 10.

Why should anybody bother to learn a language in the current economic climate?

There is a recession on and the outlook is truly bleak:  the June 2011 jobs market seems to be hitting an all time low with young people unable to find their first employment and a high percentage of people are out of work. Despite what the Chancellor said in the Today programme on June 6th, it doesn’t really look like there will be an improvement in the economic outlook any time soon.

So it certainly doesn’t seem to make sense for people to splash out any little stash of cash they may have on language classes!

And yet, a careful trawl around the internet brings up various languages-related curiosities which together sow seeds of hope. 

The Languages Company, provides on its informative website an overview of the progress made in language learning strategy between 2002 and 2010 and a perspective on the future.  According to the Languages Company the government continues to believe in the value of foreign languages, both at Primary and at Secondary, and despite withdrawal of funding to worthy languages-based organisations and institutions, such as CILT and Links into Languages, the Department for Education continues to support the learning of languages, in its English baccalaureate, for example.

The English baccalaureate, admittedly not a real qualification at all but a way to measure qualifications that students do have, has a foreign language as one of its 5 recommended ‘core academic’ subjects.  If languages are not worthwhile, why would ‘one foreign language’ be on this list?

The launch of a new online resource centre for language teachers and learners, Linguanet Worldwide, a project funded with support from the European Commission education and training Lifelong Learning Programme, is a reflection of the priority given to language learning by those at the centre of Europe, where languages are thriving.

The London Language Show programmed for October 2011 has a very impressive list of exhibitors and promises to be the place to go to see all the organisations involved in any way with language teaching and learning, including language tasters and seminars. 

Another resource which is great for teachers is the LinkedUp section of Linked in, which shares all the project resources from the Links into Languages LinkedUp Award Scheme, in the form of a series of free downloadable resources for teachers of primary, secondary, and post-16 languages.

The ALL (Association for Language Learning) annual conference, Language World 2011, promises to be an opportunity to ‘celebrate language learning’ in July this year. For the first time, the conference is being held in London, and despite the exorbitant conference fees (£440 for non-members!!) the exhibitor list is impressive and attendance may be high.

ALL also supports the current Secondary curriculum, which is due to be replaced in September 2014 when the results of the Curriculum review, which began in November 2010, are made public. It is not yet clear whether the new Curriculum will give language learning higher priority than now. In 2004, the government took language learning off the list of compulsory school subjects (except for age 11-14) and the number of foreign language examination candidates has been declining at all levels ever since.

As a result of this decline in language learning, in February 2011 Mike Kelly of Southampton University and others set up the Speak to the Future campaign, in order to raise the profile of language learning in this age of globalization by lobbying politicians and policy-makers towards change and thus improve educational and career opportunities for young people.

Mike Kelly has also co-written the European Profile for Language Teacher Education, a framework for foreign language teacher training.

The information contained in this summary is not joined up in any way and makes little sense in the current climate. But the fact that there is so little priority given to language learning at the moment gives me the feeling that this is a lull before a storm.  Already, anxiety is being expressed by members of the European parliament that so few graduates with languages are available. According to the BBC at the beginning of May, it is simply not possible to find suitably qualified applicants for the positions available where languages are necessary. The new English Baccalaureate is making schools think again and could cause them to reintroduce languages at primary and secondary level.  The scramble for language teachers to start in the Autumn has already begun. Meanwhile, there is a perceived lack of skilled language speakers, and I feel that sometime fairly soon, knowing a foreign language will put job seekers at the very top of the pile.

Cactus offers foreign language evening courses in a variety of locations across the UK, language courses abroad in a range of destinations worldwide and tailor-made language training for companies and individuals.

Congratulations to our language course winners!

Phil and Aurora completed their end-of-course questionnaires after their respective evening language courses (Phil in London and Aurora in Toronto) and each win their next language course free of charge, courtesy of Cactus. Congratulations to you both.

To be in with a chance of winning a course near you, all you need to do is sign up for a language course in the UK or the US/Canada and complete your end-of-course questionnaire.

Students signed up to the next course term can win their course fees back simply by sending in their feedback questionnaire. The most constructive feedback will win!

So please continue to send us your feedback, as this is invaluable in helping us to improve our service to you and making your language courses as rewarding and as enjoyable as possible.

Feedback from Phil: Italian Level 1 at London Bridge, UK

“I really enjoyed my teacher’s style of teaching. She made the class very enjoyable. I have made progress and got enough from the class that was required for personal use. I would recommend Cactus to others for good value for money and a wonderful Italian teacher!”

Feedback from Aurora: Portuguese Level 1 in Toronto, Canada

“I enjoyed the instructor of the course, as she was very personable, and the smaller size of the class with regards to students. I have a greater knowledge of the vocabulary and its use than prior to attending the class.”

Cactus runs a variety of evening, daytime and weekend language courses in 41 locations across the UK and 6 locations across the US and Canada.

How is teaching English as a foreign language different in the UK to abroad?

The main differences centre around the kind of learners you will be teaching. Whereas in the UK you will probably teach multilingual classes, when it comes to teaching abroad you will most likley teach monolingual groups. It’s not necessarily that one type of class is easier to teach than the other, just that there are different things for you to consider when preparing and teaching lessons in each case.

Timetable-wise, most of the students that you teach abroad will study part-time, perhaps once or twice per week. This may well be in evening classes. In the UK you are more likely to be teaching students who are learning intensively, and most probably full-time, during the day.

When it comes to students’ motivations for wanting to take English lessons, these also tend to differ according to where you teach. Students who are learning English in private language schools in the UK are often learning with a set goal in mind, whether this is in a professional or academic context. Anyone studying English for commercial reasons will be aiming to become proficient enough to be able to conduct business successfully in English. Anyone studying for academic reasons, often in order to get their English up to scratch so that they can embark on a degree course in an English-speaking country, will most likely be looking to sit either the Cambridge Proficiency or IELTS level 7 exam at the end of their course.

There is possibly a wider variety of reasons why people are learning when it comes to students who are learning English in their local language school abroad. Whilst there will also be students learning for business or academic purposes, albeit on a lightly less intensive basis, there will also be students who are learning simply for leisure, or for pleasure…in the more developed countries anyway.

Long term study goals: getting to know what makes people tick

Most of us seem to be really eager for quick fixes, for whatever it may be. And language learning is just the same. 

In my case, I need German for my work as well as for whenever I visit Switzerland or Germany.  You really need to get into learning and absorbing the language from day one in this type of situation – paying good attention in class, and committing everything to memory so it comes out when it should!

The textbook is great – geared exactly for the lessons, and while the teachers are an important part of the lesson, we, the students are the most important. If the teacher speaks in English I have noticed that we learn a lot slower – particularly for that first important couple of levels where we were learning everyday communication skills.

But then – in the higher levels I’ve been attending term after term after term – the benefits really do come through by focusing on the long term goal of really getting to know the language, reading newspapers, watching movies, chatting to people and so on. Not only can we “get by”, we (myself and my fellow students who have been striving through the last 3 or 4 terms) are now really speaking in German and getting to the point of being able to understand what’s happening behind the scenes.

In other words, it is only once you reach the higher levels that you realise although it’s great to be able to say what you want, or to have an informal chat at a mountain ski resort, you miss out on the whole world of what makes German speaking people tick if you stick to the most basic elements of the language.

I am glad I have stuck to it – and will continue to stick to it.  It’s been well worth it.

Find out more about part-time German courses in the UK

What kind of people teach EFL?

The reasons why and when people choose to teach EFL can be loosely categorised, but not really the people themselves. They come from far and wide, from a variety of age groups and from a huge assortment of professional and academic backgrounds.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that every native, or near native, English speaker possesses a proficiency in the main skill that needs to be imparted – English. Granted, this doesn’t mean that everyone will be a great teacher, but the basic skill that they will be required to teach is there, and the rest can be improved.

There are lots of reasons why people choose to teach EFL, but there tend to be four main groups of people: people taking a gap year, people taking a career break, people who want a retirement or second career option and people who want a full-blown career in TEFL.

A gap year activity

So-called ‘gappers’ tend to be in the 18-25 bracket, and are normally taking a year out just before or after they have finished their studies. Sometimes the main impetus for them to train in TEFL is so that they can spend a year abroad in a specific country in order to hone or learn foreign language skills.  For others, it is simply a way for them to see new parts of the world and learn more about different cultures. Other gap year TEFLers may be teaching as part of wider volunteering type-projects, normally in developing countries around the world. TEFL can certainly be a ‘worthwhile’ project to undertake in this type of year off from work or study, and skills that are learnt through teaching will be a welcome addition to the CV of anyone trying to get onto the career ladder.

A career break option

Teaching TEFL as part of a career break is similar to teaching on a gap year in terms of its length and appeal -many people who take gap years or careers breaks have the same reasons for wanting to do so and are only looking to be away for a year or two at the most. Career breakers tend normally to be a little older – between 25 and 35 in general. Although sometimes both career breakers and ‘gappers’ train in TEFL with a specific goal in mind – to find a job in a certain area of the world and stay there for a set amount of time – others train in TEFL more as a ‘back up’ option. There is usually casual work available on the travelling route, and having a TEFL certificate in your back pocket will certainly come in handy if you come across informal teaching work and want to top up your funds along the way.

A second career, or retirement project

It’s interesting to note that one of the first questions asked by the majority of potential TEFL course applicants over the age of 45 is ‘am i too old’? This must mean, I suppose, that TEFL is still largely associated with this kind of gap-year/career break travel. The answer to the question of course though, is no. Trends over the last 10 years or so (admittedly before the recession struck) have been that people retire from their main profession earlier, and consider relocating to the likes of France and Spain to enjoy their retirement in warmer climates. Both of this things have encouraged far more people within this stage of life to consider TEFL, either as a way to ‘give something back’ via voluntary work in the UK, to make a bit of extra money via private tutoring, or for those who relocate abroad, as a way to integrate into the local community.

A long-term career

Often people who start off teaching TEFL as a gap year or career break option enjoy it so much that they end up making a career out of it. Other people, although less abundant in number, know right from the start that TEFL is the career path they want to follow and train for this accordingly. They may also choose to study for an MA in TESOL. It could be that they have permanent plans to relocate to a country and set up a school, or simply that they want to remain in the UK and teach or train within language schools, or the lifelong learning sector.

In short, there really is no one type of person who teaches TEFL, and one reason for why people choose to do so. The industry comprises a mix of short-term teachers and long-term teachers, those who are doing it for money and those who teach on a voluntary basis, those who teach in the UK and those who teach abroad. The good thing about TEFL is that there are opportunities and suitable courses for everyone, irrespective of what capacity they hope to teach in.

More about TEFL courses worldwide

More about TEFL in different countries around the world

Why use Cactus to book your language holiday abroad?

Here’s a run-down of the factors that make booking with Cactus the best way to ensure both value for money, and a great learning experience abroad.

1. First-hand experience of our courses

Here at Cactus, we all speak foreign languages and have attended courses abroad and in the UK. Every year we are encouraged to take a week-long language course at one of our partner schools, which gives us first-hand experience of what it’s like to take the courses that we sell, and an understanding of the questions and concerns that you might have.

2. Useful insight into our schools

Aside from the language course that we take each year, we also visit our partner schools on familiarisation, or ‘fam’ trips. This ensures that we have direct experience of the schools that we work with, meaning we can give you informed and impartial advice on which would be most suitable for your requirements, tastes and budget.

3. Help with foreign language communication

If you’re a beginner and don’t speak any of the language that you’re hoping to study, booking through Cactus avoids any communication difficulties that you might experience if booking directly with a foreign school. All course advisers at Cactus speak foreign languages, and can organise your booking in the language that you’re hoping to learn on your behalf.

4. Financial security through ATOL and TOPP

We’re ATOL bonded and TOPP protected, so your money is safe in the unlikely event of financial failure.

5. Careful school selection to ensure quality

It’s worth pointing out that all of the schools we work with have been carefully selected – in other words, we don’t just work with anyone who approaches us. We only maintain partnerships with schools that we consider to be high-quality, fully compliant with laws and regulations, and that we think will provide you with a great learning experience.

6. Lower costs relating to currency and domestic call rates

If you live in the UK, for example, you can pay for a course taking place in Europe or South America in Pounds, which may avoid currency/bank transfer fees that you might incur when booking direct. Equally, our US customers can pay for their courses in Dollars. Although it may seem like a small point, talking to our advisers in Brighton/New York also means that you avoid paying international call rates when you book and pay for the course, which, in some cases can prove costly.

7. Flexibility with payment options

We recognise that paying for a course and accommodation abroad can be a significant financial commitment, especially in these difficult financial times, and as such are able to offer certain bookings the option to pay in instalments.

8. Peace of mind in the case of emergencies or problems

Although the vast majority of people who book courses abroad with us have a fantastic time, occasionally there will be instances where people need to get home quickly, or where something occurs during their course that they need help dealing with. Our advisers are here to help throughout your whole booking, from start to end, and having an English speaking contact at the end of the phone who can offer useful language skills, or make the most of close relationships with the school staff to help sort your issue, can be priceless.

9. Useful assistance with travel ‘extras’

A point that again, is especially useful for beginner language learners, is that we are also able to help with arranging airport transfers and other travel ‘extras’ that you may require, including extra nights accommodation (availability permitting), hotel accommodation and multi-destination trips.

10. Continued learning after your trip

When booking with Cactus, we have options for you after your course abroad to help you continue your learning when you get back. We are all passionate about language learning, and we want to encourage our clients as much as possible to make the most of what they’ve learnt and to carry on building their skills. As a result, we offer discounts to anyone who wants to continue learning at one of our UK or US based language courses, which include 10-week evening courses, 5-week evening courses, 1-week intensive courses and weekend ‘crash’ courses. Tailor-made language training to cater for your individual needs can also be organised for you, at a discounted price.

Please visit the Cactus Language website for course listings, prices and to book a course.

10 ways to get the most out of your evening language course

1. Attend every class

Most evening language courses consist of ten 2-hour sessions, whether they span five or ten weeks. The relatively short length of the courses means that a fair amount of information is covered in each session, and therefore that it’s really important for students to aim to attend all. If you need to miss a class due to a prior commitment, or because you’re unwell, you should ask your teacher to fill you in on what you’ve missed.

2. Set yourself realistic goals

Becoming totally fluent in a language takes lots of time and effort. Of course, if you’re dedicated and determined you can definitely achieve this, but in reality, getting to grips with the basics is what you need to concentrate on initially. It’s important to have a good idea of what can be achieved in the time you have so that you can set yourself realistic goals and avoid any disappointment. Reading our course outlines will give you a good indication of what you can expect to achieve at your level.

3. Always do your homework

Many language learners fall into the trap of thinking that all they have to do is turn up to their lessons and concentrate to become proficient. Of course, this goes a long way towards it but it’s vital for anyone attending a course to put the hours in outside of lessons too. You may not be at school or college, but it’s still important to do your homework!

4. Immerse yourself as much as possible in the language outside of classes

Along the same vein, anything extra that you can do outside of your classes will be hugely beneficial to your learning. Immersing yourself in the language, whether by watching a film, listening to music or radio, reading the newspaper, or even eating in a restaurant that specialises in the food of a country where your foreign language is spoken is great for picking up and practising new vocabulary and structures, and of course for improving your comprehension and pronunciation.

5. Invest in a good dictionary

When you sign up for an evening course you’ll be provided with a textbook, but it’s down to you to buy a dictionary and a book of verb tables. It’s not generally recommended that you use a dictionary in class, but it’ll help enormously with any homework set. A dictionary will also come in useful when you finally head abroad to test out your skills…you can guarantee, it’ll help you out in all kinds of situations!

6. Ask your teacher if you don’t understand

One of the great things about learning languages in an evening or part-time class, where class numbers rarely go above 12, is that it’s much easier to say if you haven’t understood something. At school or in college this can be more difficult because the classes are larger, but with small or individual classes you have much more of a say in the pace of the course, and also benefit from more individual time with the teacher. It’s really important to flag any uncertainties up with your tutor so that you can address the issue and move on when you’ve fully understood.

7. Don’t be put off by grammar

It’s sometimes the case that people who take up a language later in life have not always had a great experience of learning languages in school. Of course, this can often be down to fierce teachers, or a lack of interest in the subject at the time, but often people put it down to the complexities of grammar. Learning the grammatical norms and structures of a language can of course be harder than simply learning vocabulary, but equally, it’s usually not as difficult as people imagine. The more you’re exposed to the language, the more familiar with these structures you’ll become and before you know it you’ll be using them with ease.

8. Make sure you tell your teacher straight away if you feel you’re in the wrong class

We have specific language level tests for prospective students to use to gauge their level, and normally students find themselves in the correct level group. Occasionally, students do find that the class is too easy or too hard though, and in this case it’s essential to say something sooner rather than later. We’ll make sure the issue is addressed, and if necessary will place you in a different group – capacity permitting.

9. If possible, combine it with time abroad in a country where the language is spoken

As we have already mentioned, immersing yourself in the foreign language you’re learning outside of lessons is really important. Whilst films, music, radio, cultural events are all great, being able to go abroad and actually spend time in a country where the foreign language is spoken can be priceless. Not only will it help you practise what you know, and hopefully learn more, it will also give you a really authentic experience of the culture and hopefully inspire you to keep learning.  Whether you go for a long weekend during your course, or a week or two afterwards, you’ll certainly reap the benefits, and especially if your time abroad is spent at a foreign language school where you can have a further week of language lessons.


Learning a language proficiently takes time and dedication. Of course, there will be aspects of the language that you find easier than others but try not to be put off by any difficulties that you encounter…the first time you have a conversation with someone in the language you’re learning, or the first time a request or question you ask is understood, it’ll all seem worth it!

Cactus offers part-time and evening courses in locations around the UK, the US and Canada. Courses are available in a wide range of languages and at a variety of levels, from beginner to advanced.

Endangered languages: a glimmer of hope

Enduring Voices, run in conjunction with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, aims to preserve endangered languages by identifying locations where languages are most at risk, and then documenting the languages and cultures within them. These locations comprise those that harbour the planet’s most unique, lesser understood and most threatened languages.

The sad and shocking reality is that, if current trends continue, more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages will die out by the year 2100. That’s one language every fortnight. And with every language that disappears, so too does the culture and history intrinsically linked to each one. Stories, songs, traditions and knowledge passed down from generations will be lost, as will local knowledge about the land, traditional remedies and privileged knowledge about the natural world. To make matters worse, some of these language have not yet even been recorded, and some exist only in verbal form, rather than written – making them even harder to preserve.

Why are all these languages in danger of disappearing entirely?

As has been happening throughout history, some languages will naturally be more dominant or hold more prestige than others, and it is these languages that will tend to be spoken to the detriment of smaller, less important languages. Official language policies may also encourage people to speak a common language, sometimes in preference to their local, native tongue which is then deemed to be less useful. On the same note, government policies that force tribes to leave traditional ways of life, by destroying their natural habitat for economic gain, for example, directly contribute to the loss of indigenous languages as well as to local knowledge and customs.

And the more a dominant language spreads, the more importance it gains, and the more people want to learn it – sometimes resulting in parents not passing down the language of their ancestors to their children, in favour of the language that they think will help them progress further in the world and gain future employment.

So, although this is a naturally occurring phenomenon in human history, the rate at which languages are disappearing has accelerated over recent years and this is why the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project could not come at a more pertinent time.

Fascinating language facts:

• More than 500 languages (more than 5% of the world’s total) are spoken in Nigeria alone. Some of these languages may only be spoken by a handful of people, many of these elderly.

• 80% of Africa’s 2,000 languages have no written form

• The Tofa language of Central Siberia is spoken by less than 30 people now, all of them elderly, and is likely to become the next victim of Russian-only government policies that force speakers of minority languages to use the national language

• Small populations of speakers such as those in Eastern India and Malaysia have potential to be wiped up by a single catastrophic natural disaster such as the 2004 tsunami

• Some languages such as Yami, on the tiny Irala Island south of Taiwan, are intrinsically linked to the local way of life; here on Irala, Yami contains the names for over 450 species of fish, which is the major food source – and of which, according to local culture, pregnant women are only permitted to eat 4!

• Oklahoma is home to the highest density of indigenous languages in the US

• The Andes mountains in South America, including part of the Amazon Basin, contains some of the most endangered languages, as Spanish, Portuguese and the most dominant indigenous languages replace minority ones

Read the article in full on the National Geographic website