Thursday, 7 May 2020

Learning a Language Part 3 – Passing the Exam

Hopefully if you’re reading this you’ve been inspired or at least somewhat convinced that there’s more to foreign languages than ticking that pesky box on the way to your ISIA cert. It’s going to take a while before you’re fluent though and passing the language exam isn’t a bad place to start. Today, let’s take a look at some good practises and tactics that will help get you through that exam quickly and cheaply.

Breaking down the objectives

Looking at the language exam like you would a tech exam isn’t the worst way to go about things. There are 3 strands; general chit-chat, the emergency situation and the teach. In two of these strands, teach and emergency, there’s a limited number of paths the conversation can go down and you can use a script that you practise over and over again. Part one, the general chit-chat, could well be the trickiest part of the exam, because it’s harder to predict what might come up. Having said that, there are certain tactics that you can use both in the exam as well as in your teaching to take control of the situation and prevent it heading off into uncharted territory.

Teaching the Central Theme

If we look at what I see as the easiest part of the exam, you’ll be asked to teach a section from the central theme. This immediately gives us a narrow spectrum of ideas that you need to be able to communicate.

I recommend starting off by breaking down the central theme and writing everything out in English. Your objective is to communicate each lesson of the central theme as precisely and succinctly as you can. I reckon that you need no more than 8 sentences to teach any part the central theme. Let’s take a plough and braking plough for example. The mock students will be expected to have mastered the stage beforehand, which means that you should be able to teach that entire lesson using the following phrases:
    • 1. Make a triangle with your skis like me
    • 2. This triangle is called a snowplough
    • 3. Point the triangle down the hill
    • 4. Flatten the skis slightly to begin to slide
    • 5. Keep your skis in the triangle position all the way
    • 6. In order to slow down - push your heels out
    • 7. In order to stop - make a really big snowplough
I’d go further and say that one or two of those are optional – I can see number 5 happening without needing any additional emphasis from the instructor.

You’ll notice that the English that I’ve used is a little… weird. It’s super simple, super functional. Without embellishments it should translate well into your target language. This is where working with a language tutor on-call can be great to come up with a simple, succinct and accurate translation.

When you’ve achieved this for every central theme stage, you’ll have great framework upon which to base the teach section of the exam, and from here you need to employ useful repetition, varying the scope a little each time, practising slightly different responses until you’re as comfortable as you can be no matter what curveballs you get thrown by way of being asked to clarify or explain further.

In hour-long tuition sessions with previous learners we generally managed to prepare 2 lessons each time, so you’re looking at about 6 hours with a tutor to get this section really polished. That time should go way beyond creating your set phrases, but into lots and lots of practise at responding to anticipated questions and pushing things a little further beyond simple command style teaching.

Emergency situation

Things progressed a little...
Things you might want to say during the emergency situation task.

This one is both easier and harder than the central theme task. Easier, because the exchange that will take place between you and the examiner will be briefer than that in the central theme section – probably not more than 5 or 6 sentences. But harder, because you’re going to have to understand a potentially complicated instruction and respond appropriately. I’ve always found listening a much trickier exercise than speaking. Even though my French is very strong nowadays, it’s still possible for me to find myself in situations where I’m really not picking very much up at all – speed, unfamiliar vocab and colloquialisms, and background noise all conspiring to make things harder than they should be. Take your time, feel free to ask the examiner to repeat anything you need (and have phrases pre-prepared for this!) and keep things simple when you have figured out what it is you need to reply.

The details that you need to give can be things that you really weren’t expecting - I remember a heart attack coming up in one of my student’s exams after drilling him at length on breaks, sprains and head injuries. There can also be some small variations in other aspects of the situation, although these are often left up to the examinee to make up. On the whole though, some weird reflexive rules if you’re doing it in French aside, this section shouldn’t prove too difficult once you’ve crunched through the vocab required. Figure 3-4 hours of time with a tutor all in.

General chit-chat

Perhaps surprisingly, I reckon that this is the toughest of the 3 tasks, mostly because of the range of different circumstances that can crop up. It’s also a very realistic task, in that it’s important when teaching real clients that you’re not left floundering for words, misunderstanding questions and giving responses completely unrelated to what’s been asked!

This part of the exam ties into a very useful technique that crops up often in the real world, even amongst higher-level language speakers; that of controlling the narrative and quickly establishing realistic expectations for language comprehension with your clients. Hopefully you’ve already made a good start by clearly explaining your language level to the school so that your clients aren’t expecting a native speaker. Now it’s time to make clear to your clients what you can and can’t do, and how it’s not necessarily a limitation in a ski lesson.

Don’t be embarrassed by this! You’re being paid to improve your clients’ riding, not to offer eloquent commentary on current affairs. The lesson can still be safe, useful and a lot of fun, even with relatively limited verbal communication. And anyway, how many words do you really exchange other than ‘yeeeeeeewwww!!!’ once the powder starts flying?

So how do you use this concept during the oral exam? Early doors, it can be useful to get an introductory sentence in there about how long you’ve been learning the foreign language. Further explain that you’re enjoying the process, but you’ve still not mastered it. And ask questions in return. Not only can you anticipate a lot of possible answers to your questions, but controlling the conversation and dwelling in those initial stages for longer means that you spend more time within your comfort zone, gives your partner more time to gauge your level of language proficiency, and also gives you more time to establish rapport while you’re on safe ground – something that also works well in real situations.

When you are starting to speak, keep it to what you know. Even in languages like French where a lot of nouns are the same as English with a slight accent, it’s easy to start a sentence and realise that you don’t know how to finish. It’s perfectly OK to slow things down beforehand, think about how the sentence will end and then speak. This goes double with a language like German where how you chose to phrase the start of the sentence could well effect how the verbs stack up at the end! Far better to keep the level of chat short and simple than to drift off into a forest of errs and ummms because you lack the vocabulary to finish what you started.

This has happened to me so many times...
You... hdwoawhdowa dhowahdw isn't that right?
That's right...
Also... diowadjawjdawio jwajdaw djawjoidwa, correct?
Your Chinese is great!

The final part of controlling the conversation is to react quickly when you don’t understand. Don’t try to guess. You might initially have a lot of success, but you could appear a lot more fluent than you are due to you understanding the context of the phrase rather than the language used. This is a bad thing! It will likely to lead to awkwardness later when your partner starts pushing the language level further and further. By immediately asking for repetition, clarification and rephrasing, not only are you making sure that you are correctly understanding what’s been said, but you’re also letting your partner in on your level of language and making sure he doesn’t get too excited!

So how long to pass this final section? As always, a lot of this can be down to the amount of practise you’re putting in in-between sessions, but I’ve seen some really good results after about 10 hours of practise chit-chat.


So what are we looking at to pass the ISIA language exam? Assuming a basic knowledge of the language you’re attempting it in, ideally GCSE, I’ve added it up to about 20 hours of time with a tutor. In practise though, you’ll be able to combine the modules in a session and make good progress on e.g. your chit-chat during a lesson in which you focus on your central theme. Assuming that you’re putting in enough independent practise and revision for each lesson to stick and that you’re ready to move onto new vocab each week, I reckon that you’re looking at 10-15 hours with a tutor to get you through the exam.

Alongside these tailored vocab and script sessions, you’re going to need a bit of grammar. When doing this in French I’ve made do with present, simple future and past perfect tenses, along with their negatives, as well as light intros to pronouns and other grammatical rules whenever necessary – areas where having a tutor to explain things can be a real improvement on independent study!

To summarise, it’s not an inconsiderate amount of time to get started, but it’s not ridiculous either. Language is something that can be happily learnt alongside your main emphasis of passing your next snowsports exam, filling in those slots in the evenings or on your day off. The initial stages of a career in snowsports have never been especially renown for offering a lot of stability, and in post-pandemic times when questions are being asked about how realistic it is to anticipate normal levels of English-speaking skiers abroad, it can’t hurt to be able to add another string or two to your bow. Viel Glück, 加油 and bonne chance!

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Learning a Language Part 2 – Making it Work for You

In part 1 of this series, I mentioned what a shame it was that a lot of BASI candidates saw language learning as just a box to be ticked on the way to teaching English speaking clients in English speaking schools. If I’m suggesting that it’s worth putting in more effort than that, it’s only fair that I paint a picture of what you stand to gain. Here’s a few ways in which I feel that getting your second language up to a decent level can really help you out.

Getting along in your chosen country abroad

Let’s start with the most obvious one. It’s likely that you’re not going to be teaching snowsports in an English-speaking country. While true that a lot of ski resorts tend to be international, English-speaking enclaves, there’s still gains to be had from using the local lingo. As well as helping you out from a practical standpoint (although admittedly rarely strictly necessary in places like St Anton or the 3 Valleys), being able to communicate aside from in English is going to earn you a lot of goodwill and respect.

I’ve often heard about a divide between say the French and English communities in resort, or some particular supplier or shop owner who is always miserable and aggressive when being spoken to in English. I can honestly say that in 7 seasons in French speaking countries, I’ve only ever encountered two French locals who I just couldn’t get a smile out of. Making an effort in places where you’re a guest or a newcomer goes down really, really well. Even if you do end up resorting to English for most of your conversation, taking the time to exchange pleasantries in the local language shows a personal interest in your interlocuter and helps set out strong foundations.

For those of you a little further along on your language learning journeys, more possibilities can open up. Every foreign company needs at least one person able to communicate fluently, and if you can do that role alongside your normal tasks then that’s a big tick when it comes to hiring and retention. It also makes the job more interesting. A lot of instructors making their way through the system will work non-instructing jobs while they sit their qualifications. Being proficient in the local language opens up the path to doing more than entry-level roles and can also add variety to your work life. It’s no secret that a lot of ski-resort roles are tough, menial and often unpleasant. You can skip a lot of that by putting yourself ahead of other candidates with a language.

Languages in the Ski School

It should hopefully be obvious that if you’re only going for the English-speaking market, you’re not only missing out on a huge resource of clients, but also restricting yourself largely to the bigger resorts. There's more to France than the 3 Valleys, more to Switzerland than Verbier and a lot of the smaller resorts offer a lifestyle that a lot of people dream of. To be able to make money in these places though, you'll need to be able to offer ski lessons in the local language, which is admittedly tough. But the payoffs in terms of cheaper costs of living, greater integration into the local culture, with enhanced language learning possibilities as a result, less competition for lines on powder days and a lot less hassle finding housing could prove attractive to many.

Hintertux in November!

If you do go after the local market, whether in a larger or smaller resort, you’re competing against a lot of natives who speak better than you’ll ever be able to. But there’s still work to be had. One season in Grindelwald, where I taught very little in German because of the presence of several large Swiss ski schools, I still picked up work with say the German educated kids of ex-pats, or Hungarians working in Bern who had learnt German as a second language but didn’t speak any English. It sounds very niche, but it adds up over a season, and that’s in addition to just being really useful in day-to-day resort life. During the busier times, being able to teach in the local language might get you more interesting work than your colleagues restricted to working in English – although this can obviously go both ways!

Offering something nobody else does

Flaine in the Grand Massif - French required here

So the obvious choice for learning a foreign language has to be the language of the resort you’re staying in, but as we’ve discussed above, you’re going to have to be at least fluent in order to compete with native speakers. What if there was another way…

You’d be surprised, but Europeans often aren’t really that much better at learning foreign languages than we are. Obviously, it’s assumed that everybody will be able to speak English. What they won’t necessarily be able to speak though, is German in Francophone regions, or French in German speaking regions, or Chinese or Spanish anywhere at all.

I worked this past season for a Francophone school in Switzerland. I reckon I taught 50% of the time in French, a decent chunk in English and I know they specifically recruited me for my Chinese, so I had quite a lot of work there too. But what really surprised me was how useful they found my German. My German isn’t perfect – it’s an A-level + 3 seasons in Austria and German speaking Switzerland – but it's more than enough to teach a good lesson. Still, the first time I used it I was a bit apprehensive, teaching a 2 large families alongside another instructor, I expected to be a bit embarrassed in comparison to his German level. It turned out that the other instructor was Portuguese, and my German was a lot, lot better than his. I managed several repeat bookings on that lesson in a quiet week, and went somewhere near the top of the queue for the next German lessons to come in.

A real mix of languages helps in the big holidays too. Our school had 4 or 5 groups running at each level at these times, and we used language as well as ability splits. So alongside 3 francophone groups, there’d be a Dutch-speaking group, and also an Anglo/German group. Being able to offer just enough of a language to get by can sometimes go a long way!

The useful languages at a particular destination can be different to what you’d imagine. Remember that it’s not always locals that you’re going to be teaching, but often tourists, so speaking the languages that they speak can be what’s useful. Chinese, Russian and Dutch are in demand everywhere, but there’s some surprising combinations that can be really valuable – French in New Zealand is a great one, teaching surfers from New Caledonia, Reunion and Tahiti.

Finally, a lot of schools run a priority system, where if you’re an average, BASI 2 qualified instructor with a bit of experience there’s often not very much on your CV to separate you from hundreds of other candidates. If you do manage to secure a job, as a rookie you’ll be towards the bottom of the priority list, given a uniform but no guarantee of work. Speaking an unusual language can jump you straight to the top, get you work in quiet times and start to get your name noticed by the school staff, as well as getting you personal access to clients who will then go on to recommend you to their friends who have the same language requirements… It’s easy to be intimidated when going into the big red schools for the first time, but a rare language is a great way to stand out and to start to form your own little niche.

Languages for variety

One thing that has unfortunately struck me a couple of times during my career, is that ski teaching can at times become a bit of a slog. You can be on the nursery slope for weeks on end, you can be in the creche working basically as a glorified childminder, or (as a snowboarder) stuck on skis because that’s where the business need is. Speaking a second language is a great way to break out of just being a dogsbody and mix up your work a little bit. If there’s an Italian speaking snowboard lesson coming in and you’re the only Italian speaking snowboarder then no child-minding little Jonny for you, no matter how highly qualified the French and English-speaking instructors normally ahead of you in the queue.

And secondly, while looking after little Jonny and his buddies all week long in the 70s concrete bunker that they call the creche can be somewhat different from the life you had in mind when you signed up, swapping between little Jonny, kleine Johannes and petit Pierre can actually make things a lot more interesting, giving you a chance to learn something and practise your language skills as you teach.

My half-term non-Francophone snowboard group - the most fun of the season!

A typical day for a lot of my colleagues is a succession of 2-hour starter packs on skis, and no matter your enthusiasm, it can be hard to keep up the energy in your third straight week on the magic carpets. A typical day for me has me on skis in the morning in Chinese, a quick private hour of snowboarding in English before jumping onto a French school group on snowboards in the afternoon. The constant swapping and changing brings its own challenges, but I know which way I prefer.

Setting out

There’s no getting away from the fact that speaking a language to a decent level is tough and is going to take a lot of time and effort. While you’re still treading that path, it’s really important to set language expectations with your school during the recruitment process. To give you an idea, my current school has 3 levels of proficiency: ‘native speaker’, ‘fluent but obviously speaking a second language’ and ‘enough to get by’. Don’t oversell yourself – it’ll only heap the pressure on later when you’re asked to teach a full-day private with 10 phrases of French!

A bit of a longer article this, which maybe reflects the fact that there’s a lot of opportunities out there for people who can do a good job in several languages. The UK skier market for example is regularly estimated at around 1 million skiers, but the myriad European countries, the Russians and the Chinese amongst others all represent huge opportunities not only for those lucky enough to grow up speaking 2 or more languages, but also for those who put the effort in.

I acknowledge that it requires a big effort though, and in the final article in this little series we’ll look at some tips for going about the learning process to learn quickly and effectively.

French required here too - Villars in Vaud, Switzerland

Monday, 13 April 2020

Learning a Language – Getting up to speed with ISIA Language Requirements

One of the modules that lurks more threateningly than many in the list of Level 3 requirements for BASI snowsports instructors is the language test. Along with the written project, it’s the only part of the courses that could be called an academic requirement - very different to our tech and teach exams – and, given our terrible reputation for language learning, it’s maybe something that us Brits can be a bit afraid of.

Sadly, it’s also something that I feel a lot of people see as something to be passed and then forgotten about. There’s actually a whole world out there that starts to open up avec un peu de français oder ein bisschen Deutsch (即使一点儿中文!), and with time on my hands, I thought I’d try to offer a few different perspectives. This will be the first of 3 articles where I’d like to set a few things straight about learning a language, talk about what using a foreign language as a snowsports instructor can look like and what advantages you’ll be able to take leverage of, and finally take a look at some sensible strategies for getting through that oral exam. Let's kick off with some rumour bashing and a look at some bad language learning practises.

Foreign Languages in Hintertux

You’ve learned a foreign language so you must be a natural at languages.

This is the one that gets me the most. When I start speaking in a foreign language, or start swapping between a few of them, people who are in the early stages of those languages often assume that I have some natural, innate talent for languages. Total Quatsch! I’m terrible at languages. Awful. And I hate the process of learning new ones too. I’d far rather skip straight to the end stages and happily communicate with whoever I want to. I just happen to have done it for a very long time and to have put a lot of effort in. Anybody who does anything for a long time tends to end up becoming good at it, sooner or later. The difference being that anybody who does anything for a long time with talent is probably at the peak of their field. I can assure you that I am not! Also, I’ve studied alongside some of those guys who do have talent, and they’re at a different level. They’re not human. Despite having no special talent whatsoever for languages, I’ve managed to learn 4. So don’t worry about not being a ‘natural’ language learner – very few people are.

You have to have been studying since you were very young to learn a language properly.

This one has some truth to it. There’s a lot of studies to say that after the age of 18 or so the brain loses of a lot of plasticity – the ability to easily learn and take on new skills. There’s still more that say that to really master a language and speak it like a native, you’re looking at achieving that goal before the age of 12 or 13 years old. I’m not going to argue with this. However, who said we were going for bilingual or native level proficiency?

You can do a lot with a decent level of French, or especially German. Passing your BASI foreign languages module definitely doesn’t need anything like fluency, and fluency is very, very different from bilingual mastery. No matter what age you take it up, you’re going to be able to learn very useful levels of whatever it is that you study. The only time you won’t learn anything is if you never start at all!

I’ll look stupid speaking a foreign language – people will just reply to me in English.

You definitely won’t look stupid. One thing that is almost universally true is that people love it when you make a real effort to speak to them in their own language. The less common the language you speak, the more this is true – check out the second article for some examples of speaking Chinese to people who are not expecting it!

Definitely not being replied to in English here!

Despite this, the stereotype of the rude Parisian waiter remains. My advice here would be to pick your battles. Learning a language and conversing is something to take time over, to relish, to take pleasure in. It’s not something that prospers under stress, at least not initially. Sometimes the situation just doesn’t call for language learning, it calls for speed and efficiency.

Put yourself in situations where you need to learn the language. Seek out places where English isn’t spoken, or situations where you can take your time. Shop for a few small things at a bookstore or a local grocery. Don’t try to speak your first reflexive, subjunctive, plu-perfect modal verb sentence at the tills in the Supermarkt on a Friday afternoon after work with a queue of 40 Germans behind you – you’ll end up learning some phrases of a rather different kind!

It’s important to learn a lot of grammar and to stamp out mistakes early. You have to learn correctly.

This one’s a particular bête noir of mine. My parents do this trying to learn Spanish, carefully forming verbs and sentences, referring back to grammar tomes and conjugating perfectly, beautifully agreeing the gender of their reflexive verb endings. The end result is simple - they don’t learn anything. It takes so long for them to create a sentence that they’ve forgotten the beginning of it by the time they’ve got to the end, and they’re just not speaking often enough for anything to sink in.

Sometimes the meaning is more important than the exact words used.

In comparison, I speak French but would probably fail a basic vocab test on genders for half of my nouns. I speak Chinese and I butcher the tones with pride, introducing my own whenever I deem it necessary, and I speak German and enjoy wreaking utter chaos on their Teutonicly ordered case system. The end result? People understand me just fine and we get stuff done.

Furthermore, because I’m speaking a lot more than my parents, I’m getting exposed to a lot more language – language that’s correct because it’s being spoken by native speakers. This is the stuff that starts to sink in. After a while my genders align, my tones reduce in number to a mere 5, often the right ones, and somebody once told me in a pub in Innsbruck that I had mastered the cases. Yes, he was Austrian, and no, we weren’t that drunk yet.

This was not learned from books, I assure you.

Learning a language, especially as a Brit, can be a frustrating experience. It’s not easy, and it can be a long time before you see any results worth talking about. You’re having to repeat a process that you completed instinctively the first time, putting in a lot of effort to try to achieve something that everyone around you can already do much better than you’ll ever be able to manage. But try not to fall into the traps, keep pushing forwards and be realistic with what you’re looking to achieve. With good methods and some hard work you’ll get there!

Next, I’ll look at why it’s worth it for a snowsports instructor, including some ways that you can make even an intermediate level of a different language really work in your favour abroad. I’ll also touch on how you can really stand out amongst a sea of instructors with similar qualifications, and then dive into the nuts and bolts in a 3rd article to come.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Prints Sale

Selling a print is always an honour; rather than commissioning the work because of a need, somebody liked it enough to buy it for themselves. So it was with great pleasure that fifteen design ordered a set of 3 square cropped canvases for their new offices in Ilkeston. Many thanks to Ollie and the team!

Skiworld Portraits

I've just returned from 6 months in France, and although I was a little too busy to do a lot of photography out there, I still managed a few sessions. Here a Tour Operator called Skiworld needed informal portraits of their chalet staff, and shooting against the chalets in the snow made for some lovely settings.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Photography Print Sales

While my business model is based on commissions, it’s always a pleasure to sell photographs to those who simply like them as art. And while I can always be contacted for individual print sales, I occasionally like to present a selection of recent works that I’m particularly proud of.

Collard Manson Publicity Photo Shoot

One part of my job that I particularly enjoy is shooting for small boutiques and labels. Collard Manson is just such a client. Currently they run 2 shops, in Nottingham and Sheffield, and they’ll be enlarging their premises with a couple of expansions in the near future.

Working with Kate, the Nottingham store manager, was really good fun. She’s incredibly creative, and she had a really strong idea of how she wanted the shoot to turn out. The brief was ‘bleak, but not depressing,’ and for this shoot we weren’t as concerned with the portrayal of the clothes themselves as with the overall impression.

We chose to shoot at Rufford Abbey and scouted the location a couple of days beforehand, choosing the locations and mocking up the shots we wanted. It’s always interesting to compare the plans that you had before you set out to shoot with the finished result. Working on a shoot like this is an ongoing process, and when you actually get to the location and put the model in place what you’d originally planned can appear wrong and need changing, and sometimes you just come up with a better idea. Interestingly, in this case the 2 shots that I immediately felt good about during the scouting trip turned out to be my 2 favourites and were the least changed from the concept. Here's a few shots showing the mockup alongside the final product:

The staff at Rufford was incredibly helpful, taking the time to show us around and making some really good suggestions - many thanks Linda!

Jagger Bramley, Nottigham based Photographer

Telephone 0777 512 5257
or email