Online conferences, webinars and courses are extremely valuable.

It is a good way to connect, to learn what is going on, what is new, to communicate and to take part in various discussions. It has an extra value because we can record it and watch some parts again, as well as switch off when we need. Live-streamed talks are like a normal course of lectures, a teacher trainer course. We listen and learn, take notes, research a topic further if needed.

Attending a face-to-face conference is an entirely different experience. I recently went to a conference in Wellington, New Zealand as an accompanying person. First of all, there is the trip itself. It took us more than two full days just to get there, with an overnight stop in Hong Kong. We traveled from harsh winter into lush summer and from one time zone into another one. The difference of six hours was felt deeply. While in transit, we heard several kinds of spoken English, from the melodic soft variant in Hong Kong to the unfamiliar lilting intonation in New Zealand. It seemed to me that they pronounce diphthongs even when there are none: I heard one distinctly in the word “Zealand”, even though I could not reproduce it myself.

The conference working language was English. The participants came from all over the world, so it was fascinating to watch the language we teach in action, as the main instrument for communication. Many problems are solved in direct contact: having heard a number of presentations on the subject which turned out to be vital for several scientists, they arranged impromptu sessions to work out project proposals for future collaborations.

Mutually beneficial visits were also agreed upon during lunch and dinner breaks. It is obviously easier and faster to discuss several topics while a conference is in progress, and to establish some new contacts. Stand presentations perhaps show the advantages of real-life meetings best of all. In the time allotted to such sessions, all the participants have an opportunity to quickly move around, looking at the giant posters and stopping wherever they wish to ask questions and comment. Quite often, a whole group milling around a stand would move to an adjacent table and continue the discussion on the subject which elicited the most reactions.

Listening to the locals was pure magic for a linguist. I had ample opportunities to talk with student helpers, to ask them about the system of education and their plans for the future. Through those talks, I learned a lot about the customs and traditions of the country which I previously knew only thanks to books, films, and my own work with English To Go. It was important for me as a professional EL teacher to observe that the variety of English I use when communicating with people in a multinational environment, the RP (or as close to it as I can get), is understood universally. Researchers, students, lecturers, hotel staff, waiters, and clerks at various institutions we visited never once asked me to repeat what I said. No, I have no doubts about my skills. Yes, it was still important to have this new confirmation of them in a new country, where English is the state language. The Maori language used everywhere, from street signs to menus to real speech, is an added exotic ingredient to the whole experience.

Once I returned back home into winter, I began by sorting out hundreds of photos I took. We teachers know how useful visual aids are. A hundred amazing pictures from the Botanical Garden in all the colours of the rainbow immediately bring back the most charming day of that week. The government buildings, with the old nineteenth century Parliament and the modern towering “beehive”, are a great illustration to the country’s development as a nation. The lovely greenery, the peaceful atmosphere and the general cleanliness are evidence of the real care the authorities and the whole population take of their homeland.

My next step is sharing the impressions with my colleagues via educational publications, lectures, seminars and naturally blogs.

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