I'm Nicholas, and I'm an independent English teacher. I was a lawyer for 20 years, and then spent 5 years teaching general English and business English to students from all over the world, including executives from Barclays, HSBC, Deloitte, Hitachi, General Electric, EDF, SGN-Areva, Renault and many others.
I'm happy to teach general English, business English or academic English in your city or organisation - except in summer, when I run the Wild English summer school in Scotland. This is an intensive English course for people who enjoy nature. The lessons have an environmental theme. The course combines classroom activities with outdoor study on the beach, the moors and in the woods.
Environmental English website
There are language schools, courses and course-books for general English (holidays and shopping, work and music); and for business English (products and projects, orders and complaints); and for literary English (scansion and Shakespeare, metre and Marvell). There is academic English, military English, English for doctors, English for lawyers, English for financial markets, English for civil aviation, English for tourism - every kind of English.
And now there's environmental English too.
Language is culture. Let's change the world - one word at a time.
An interview with Nicholas
- So, Nicholas, what makes a lawyer become an English teacher?
- After twenty years as a lawyer it was time for a change! I liked the work, I even wrote a book about it, but after fifteen or twenty years every new file starts to look the same, and it's time to move on.
- You didn't think of becoming a writer?
- I thought about it, but that's another story! There's a long history of ex-lawyers becoming writers ... and painters, composers, saints, revolutionaries. Some of them were very successful in their new jobs ... Geoffrey Chaucer, Fidel Castro, Voltaire... Jules Verne, Schumann...
- Was it easy to make the change from law to teaching?
- No, it was really difficult! When you're a lawyer, your job is to give clear explanations about complex subjects. You're very serious, you're the boss, there's very little discussion. As a teacher, you have to keep people interested, make the lesson relevant to them. Ideally, the students will make a big contribution to the lesson. Sometimes it's more like street theatre. I don't remember ever doing an impression of a marmot when I was a lawyer!
- Is a legal background useful when you're teaching?
- It means I can teach business English and academic English to a high level; but probably more important is the general knowledge it gives me. That's very useful for a teacher. My specialist area as a lawyer had the minimum amount of law, and the maximum amount of interesting stuff about machinery, structures and work systems, and medicine, and psychology, and rehabilitation, and all the different jobs and professions that people do.
- You told me you didn't start your working life as a lawyer?
- No, that's right, I started off as a kayaking instructor. I worked for several centres by the sea and in the mountains. We also did a bit of rock climbing. And a bit of speleology; we were the cave rescue team for the region.
- And you've always been interested in nature.
- Definitely. I've only spent about 4 years of my life living in cities. The rest of the time I've lived in the country. My family always had animals in the house, and wildlife always makes me smile. I've always done a lot of sea kayaking, and I find that it's the meetings with birds and animals that make a good kayak trip.
- But you don't really meet them, do you?
- Yes! Quite a lot of animals interact with a kayaker. Seals are always interested in people, they often come and watch people walking by the sea. A fulmar (which is a seabird like a little albatross) will come and fly round your kayak two or three times, about 5 metres away, before it goes on its way. I've had dolphins swim with my kayak, then go away for ten minutes, and then come back and put on a show, two dolphins jumping right out of the water just in front of me.
- What has been your best ever wildlife experience so far?
- It's hard to choose; I once met three killer whales, orca, while I was kayaking in Scotland. It was very exciting, and absolutely terrifying. But I think the best was the time I rescued a baby seal, also in Scotland. You have to be careful about baby seals, because they look very cute and it's easy to think they need rescuing, when in fact their mother has just gone fishing for 20 minutes. This one did need rescuing, though.
- Are wildlife and nature relevant to learning English?
- Yes, because people learn faster if they're interested. Every good English lesson has a theme. On a general English course, the lesson themes will be things like fashion, celebrities, sports, a debate about cats vs. dogs, and so on. On a business English course there'll be some lessons about business meetings, some about problems with hotels or suppliers, some about negotiations, some about cultural styles. Obviously, not all the students will be motivated by a lesson about fashion or hotel rooms or business protocol. If you have a whole group of students who are ALL interested in wildlife and nature - which is what we get at the Wild English summer school - it's fantastic! Suddenly everybody wants to make a contribution, everybody wants to talk.
- So you make your lessons fun?
- That depends what you mean by fun; it's an intensive English course, it's not a holiday! I've worked on English courses where the students did exercises like walking around a public park with their eyes closed, or making little structures out of paper and Scotch tape and then dropping an egg on them. It was fun, and it helps the students relax (which is definitely a good thing) but I'm not clear about how this teaches them any English! Some of my lessons have very traditional subjects, they're about grammar rules, but when I teach them I use examples that are relevant to the students, I use a lot of hand gestures, I jump up and down if I have to, I take the students by surprise, but that's not really for fun - it's so I know I have their full attention for every minute of the lesson. There is homework most evenings, and I expect each student to get at least 85% in the Friday test. Motivating, yes. Interesting, yes. Fun, OK - but they have to be using English too.
- Most people in the world study English for 7 or 8 years at high school. How much can you teach a student in two or three weeks?
- Two or three weeks is 50 or 75 hours of English lessons, so quite a lot. For me, the real purpose of "total immersion" English courses is to revise and consolidate what the student already knows, and to give them confidence. There are two points here. I studied French for 7 years in high school, and when I was 18 I did the examination, and I got the top grade. Then I went to France to do a summer job, and I couldn't even ask for a beer. I had lots of little pieces of French in my head, but I couldn't combine them. In France, I had to talk French, and all the little pieces became one big thing, a real language I could use for real communication. By the end of summer, I could have a good conversation in French, and I never lost that ability.
- And the second point?
- There's an expression in English, "use it or lose it". It's great to read English and watch movies in English, but you also need to speak English. If you don't use it for real communication, you don't lose all that grammar and vocabulary you learned in school, but it's not so easy for you to access it.
Your brain is like a public library. In the front of the library, there are good lights and comfortable seats and fresh air and computers, and that's where the library puts the popular books that everybody wants to read all the time. In the back of the library is the Archive. To get to the Archive, you have to go down some stairs, and through two or three doors, and then you put the lights on, and there are thousands and thousands of less popular books. And there aren't any chairs, and it smells strange. That's where your brain puts the things you don't use very often. So you don't exactly lose your grammar and vocabulary if you don't often speak English, but it goes into the Archive and then it's hard to access.
- Can you sum up the benefits of Summer School in one word?
- "Confidence". Which comes from real communication about things that interest you.
- Sounds good! And what percentage of language learners are interested in wildlife and nature?
- Most people like to watch wildlife programmes on TV, or popular science programmes. In Britain, 1 adult in every 10 is a member of a national wildlife or environmental organisation. The RSPB bird organisation has more than one million members in Britain, just for that one organisation. And there are lots of regional or local groups too. You can enjoy a wildlife holiday or a wildlife course without being a professional biologist, or a fanatic about birds or insects. Most of our students live in a city and work in an office. It's pretty exciting for them to take their shoes off and walk on a beach with an eagle in the sky, or to see seals and dolphins.
- Why did you choose such a remote part of Scotland for the Summer School? Isn't it easier to be near an airport?
- Well, it is called "Wild English", and there aren't any eagles or dolphins in London or Edinburgh! We're about four hours from Glasgow International Airport, including the ferry. I did think about Corsica and Brittany and Cornwall, but Scotland was my first choice. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland have a lot of wildlife, the landscape is fantastic, there's a lot to look at (especially if you like boats), there aren't many visitors even in summer, and the people are nice. A visitor is not a "billet sur pattes", which is a great French expression meaning "a 50 euro note on legs"! If you need help or information, people will take the time to help you. Compared to England, it seems to me the Scots have more respect for education, and more interest in their own culture and heritage, which is a lot more than just whisky, haggis, bagpipes and the kilt.
- For you, is "environmental English" just a good idea for a language course, or is there some deeper ecological purpose?
- It does concern me that every new generation of people becomes more urban. More people live in big cities, we go everywhere by car, kids don't climb trees or swim in the sea any more, a lot of them have never touched an animal; we're less connected to the wild world. Jacques Cousteau, the great diver and oceanographer and naturalist, said, "People protect what they love." The more people who connect with nature, the better for all of us, I think.
- What would you say to somebody who is thinking of coming to the Wild English summer school?
- I would say, "Come along! We can't make you a wildlife expert in two or three weeks, but we can make you much more confident about communicating in English."
- Can I ask you some questions about you personally?
- Fire away!
- Is there anything that makes you different from other teachers?
- I do more work on pronunciation. But apart from that, no; English teachers are a very, very diverse group of people.
- How do you like to spend your weekends?
- Well, I do a lot of reading, sometimes three or four books a week. I'm building a small library of books on wildlife and nature. I have about 750 now. Teaching myself to be an amateur naturalist takes time. And I've always loved small boats. Sailing boats, rowing boats, canoes, kayaks. My favourite is a 5.2 metre long Greenland kayak called an Anas Acuta, which is Latin for "pintail duck". Two of my websites are about sea kayaking. [www.kayarchy.co.uk or the North American edition at www.kayarchy.com]
- What's your favourite kind of music?
- I listen to a lot of early music. Anything by Jordi Savall is good.
- Do you have a favourite animal?
- The otter, which is a loutre, or a nutria, or a lontra, or a vydra [выдра]. It's the animal that lives in rivers and eats fish. It's quite big, it's about the size of a small- to medium-size dog but it has short legs. Once I was on the River Dart in Devon, and an otter swam right under my kayak. I couldn't see what it was at first, because it just looked entirely silver, metallic silver. I think it must have been a layer of air. Otters are great because they can go on land, or in rivers, or in the sea, and they love to play games. When it snows, otters go out and make snow slides. Winter sports for otters!
- How many languages do you speak?
- Only English and French. I can say the word "werewolf" in about ten languages, though ... loup garou, hombre lobo, kurt adam, okami otoko [狼男], oborochin [оборотень]... lupo mannaro, werwolf, varulv, ihmissusi...
- Er .... why?
- When I teach in a city, I often have to tell young students that there are some places in the town that are bad at night. I don't have to do that at Summer School, because there isn't any crime here. No drugs, no violence, no werewolves. No theft, even. I've lost my wallet three times this year, and each time somebody has taken it to the police, with all the money still inside!
- Do you have a signature phrase?
- Well, once or twice in a typical week I say, 'So, the dog ate your homework?'!
- Can you remember the most embarrassing thing you ever did?
- Yes, I can, in glorious Technicolor. Next question?
- Are you domestic?
- Not really. I like cooking and doing things to the garden, but I prefer making things for my various boats, so I often have adhesive or paint on my clothes. Or in my hair.
- Where do you see yourself in 10 years' time?
- On the west coast of Scotland, I think. Summers on the Atlantic coast are fantastic because there is so much wildlife. The west coast and islands are pretty quiet in winter, but I have an idea for building small boats.