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Blog Podcast interview with Kathryn Alevizos and Zanne Gaynor

Podcast interview with Kathryn Alevizos and Zanne Gaynor

Blog Podcast interview with Kathryn Alevizos and Zanne Gaynor

Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast.

I’m delighted to be joined by Kathryn Alevizos and Zanne Gaynor, founders of Acrobat-Global and authors of the ‘Is That Clear?’ book series.

Janina Neumann (00:24):

Kathryn, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Kathryn Alevizos (00:39):
Hi Janina, and thanks for having us. Well, my background is in ELT, so that’s English Language Teaching. So, I started off teaching English in France, and in Greece and then in the UK to international business students, asylum seekers, refugees, school children, a whole range. And then I went into writing. And so I’m a published author of course books for English as a foreign language, and I’m also an exam consultant for Cambridge exams. But then last year, Zanne and myself started our own company Acrobat-Global, which specialises in clear communication and we deliver workshops, and we’ve, as you say, we’ve recently, self-published two books in the ‘Is That Clear?’ series.

Janina Neumann (01:28):
Yes, it’s so good to have you here, Kathryn.

Zanne tell us a little bit about yourself.

Zanne Gaynor (01:34):
Well, like Kathryn, I’ve got a background in ELT But before ELT I’d say very much my interests were languages in general. After studying French and Germany at university, I moved to Spain to learn Spanish. And actually, I was originally a translator for several years for a company that makes cameras. I used to translate photographic magazines, which was quite good fun actually and I learned a lot about other languages whilst I was doing that. I then decided to move to Spain with my family. I was really passionate about language learning and wanted my three children to be bilingual.

Zanne Gaynor (02:14):
So I moved to Spain where I run a language school for nearly six years. And it was when I was there that I started to feel really quite anxious sometimes when I was recruiting other native English teachers. I used to feel that my students were working so hard to up their game and speak better English, but some of the language teachers just weren’t really doing their bit to make their English easier to understand. And I always had this idea that I’d like to do something to help English teachers adapt their language.

Zanne Gaynor (02:48):
Eventually, I got into writing and it was after years of writing for companies like Pearson, Macmillan, OUP, that I started to think, well, if I’m writing all these books that help the language learner, I think I can also write something else that will help that the native English teacher in the classroom. And Kathryn and I were working together on a project when we just had this idea that we could put together some really nice concise tips and strategies that would help native English speakers use better language in the classroom and be better communicators for their students.

Janina Neumann (03:26):
Oh, that’s so interesting because usually, the approach is to help the people speak better English rather than actually native English speakers, making the English more understandable. That’s really interesting.

Kathryn Alevizos (03:43):
Yes. I mean, that’s what Zanne and I both felt that for too long, and I think it still is the case, that it’s very much an even playing field where the non-native speaker has to put in all the effort and the burden of communication is placed very much at their door. Whereas a lot of native English speakers think wrongly in most cases that, oh, I speak English, that’s fine, I don’t need to do anything. So, I mean, part of it is actually making people aware that there’re things that they can do and to be aware of how their language can be difficult, overly difficult, for non-native speakers. And to share the responsibility really of effective communication.

Zanne Gaynor (04:21):
Yeah. I think we wanted to really challenge this view that just because you’re a native English speaker, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best teacher. So, many teachers enter the profession without really understanding their own language. And yet they’re going into a classroom with students and trying to explain grammar areas that really they’ve never studied themselves. So we just wanted to raise awareness really that you can learn more about your language and adapt your language and ultimately be a better teacher.

Janina Neumann (04:54):
Yeah, that’s really important.

So tell us a little bit more about some of the stories that I can imagine that inspired you with writing some of the content for ‘Is That Clear? Effective Communication in a Multilingual World’. Tell us a little bit more about some of the experiences that you’ve had Kathryn.

Kathryn Alevizos (05:15):
Yes. Well, I think it’s twofold really. I mean, part of it was inspired by our experiences as English teachers and seeing what our students found difficult. But also I think a lot of it was inspired by our own experiences as language learners and knowing the frustrations and the difficulties of learning a language. So for example, when Zanne and I separately, but we both lived and worked abroad, that feeling of isolation sometimes when you’re not really proficient in the language, you lose a sense of identity. All these things that native English speakers often aren’t aware of when dealing with speakers of other languages.

Kathryn Alevizos (05:59):
And I think also from a personal point of view, my husband’s Greek, and I know when he first came to live in the UK, I mean, he’s a fluent speaker now, but I know a lot of family members and friends really with the best intentions trying to put him at ease would be full of idiomatic phrases and polite language. And I could just see him glazing over. And the same, as Zanne said are the teachers that weren’t really that good at adapting their English. And just through our experience, recognising what is difficult for non-native speakers to understanding, and the really easy adjustments we can often make to make life easier and to make the experience less anxious for the non-native speaker.

Zanne Gaynor (06:49):
What was really important during the writing of the book actually Janina, is that we just reached out to anybody we knew who had experience working with either international students or colleagues and that was really important. For example, one of the people who reviewed the book was working in Singapore at the time. And he was training out in Singapore and he’d never considered how the language that he used affected his training.

Zanne Gaynor (07:22):
And I sent him a copy of the book and he said it was so easy to make the adjustments to his language, but just nobody had ever brought his attention to these things. And one of the examples that he gave us, which was really nice, was that the day after he’d read the book, he said he went into his training session and he was explaining something. And he was just about to say, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater”. And he said, he stopped himself and thought, “I can’t use expressions like that”. Because I mean, he was training Asians who would not have that cultural knowledge of that idiomatic phrase. And he said he stopped himself. And he was one of the really first critics of the book who said, “I wish I’d had something like that when I was doing my general training for work”. He’d never had that.

Zanne Gaynor (08:12):
And another example, again whilst we were writing the book, was in fact my own brother-in-law was training in Madrid and he was telling me that he had quite a problem with the group that he was training. He didn’t feel that there were a great dynamics going on. He was struggling because he didn’t speak any Spanish at all, and some of his Spanish colleagues didn’t speak great English and he was putting it down all the time to, “Oh, they haven’t got enough English. This is the problem”. But I was sure that within this group of people he was training, there was somebody who could communicate his point.

Zanne Gaynor (08:50):
And we found out that actually the person who knew the most about the technical side of things, was actually the person with the lowest level of English. And the reason of a bad dynamics was because one of the people in the group, who had the lowest technical ability for the training but had the best level of English, was trying to explain things. So it’s almost a little bit like that person was being too assertive and taking over in the group, which was upsetting the person with the technical knowledge.

Zanne Gaynor (09:17):
And my brother-in-law said, “What can I do about this?” And I said, “Well, what you have to do is go to the person with the technical knowledge, because that she’s your link to getting through to the group, but offer her your sympathy, explain that you’ll speak more slowly, go through things with her first so that she probably will understand you’re just speaking too fast for her”.

Zanne Gaynor (09:40):
So he changed his approach and he spoke to her first, he explained what he was going to train and do in the group and it completely changed the dynamics. But what had happened was the more experienced professional in that group felt very undermined by her own lack of English, and it just needed somebody to understand that. And once my brother-in-law had read the book, he could understand that this is what he needed to do was, talk to the group really and find out what their individual needs were.

Janina Neumann (10:11):
Yeah. That’s really important and sometimes you just don’t notice what you say until you realise, oh, that person probably doesn’t understand that particular phrase. I mean, just thinking about idioms that I use day-to-day. Your book really helped me to actually highlight that and perhaps also in like British culture to make someone feel at ease, we do use idioms because it’s an informal way of communicating rather than being very direct, which might feel uncomfortable at times.

Kathryn Alevizos (10:43):
Yeah, and I think the directness that you’ve just mentioned is another interesting thing that’s come up, that we did a workshop based on the book for a fruit picking company. And they were having some difficulties in the factory between the non-native speakers and the native English speakers. And some of that boiled down to well, half language and half culture of this direct style of speaking, that some native English speakers were getting a bit upset and offended by what they felt the rude manner in which they were being addressed by some of the non-native speakers.

Kathryn Alevizos (11:20):
And again, within the workshop, just highlighting the fact that A) you need a certain level of English to add all that, softer idiomatic, informal polite language to instructions and requests, but also that in some cultures, it’s just not the way it’s done. I mean, in my own experience with Greek, it’s a much more direct style of language than English. And so, it may well be that it’s perfectly normal to say, “Give me that”, in their language or it could be a language level issue. But again, it’s just awareness-raising. And I think unfortunately a lot of native English, British people, native English speakers, aren’t that exposed to language learning even less so nowadays. And so I think there really is that lack of empathy or that lack of understanding of how other languages work, how it is to learn a language. And so, yeah, it’s interesting. It’s very interesting what comes up and how people used to think, oh yes. I never thought of that.

Janina Neumann (12:34):
Yes, definitely. I mean, just from my own experiences with someone to the doctor whose first language wasn’t English, and he’s still learning English. When it came to the point where, just before that person was going to be vaccinated and the doctor asked, “Do I have your consent?” And he didn’t understand what that meant. And just having that realisation that sometimes when you’re under pressure, you either just say yes to everything or no to everything. But just understanding that in that moment, I realised that actually he didn’t understand what consent meant.

Janina Neumann (13:17):
So it was actually taught as I put it simplistically, “Can he start?” And that’s all really, that person needs to know, that he’s happy to go ahead, but using words such as consent and he just repeated it because he perhaps didn’t understand that it was that vocabulary. And I suppose the more you know a person, the more you know the exact words that that person knows, and you can modify your language. And sometimes it’s quite crucial to actually just get your point across, so your grammar might not be spot-on, because they don’t realise how for example words change, given how who you’re addressing or in what tense, but sometimes it’s even on that basic understanding about how to communicate effectively.

Zanne Gaynor (14:10):
I think also to add to that Janina, which is interesting is when that doctor posed the question, so many people even if they don’t understand the question, don’t like to say that they haven’t understood the question.

Janina Neumann (14:24):

Zanne Gaynor (14:25):
You know, we’re always a bit worried that we embarrass ourselves by saying we don’t understand, and we feel very undermined, our self-confidence is undermined. So it is very hard for people to say, “Sorry, I didn’t understand that”. So I think as the native English speaker, you’ve got to be aware of how difficult that is for people to actually say they don’t understand. And even if that doctor had said, “Do you understand?” or had recognised that the person didn’t understand, they could have reworded the question. But we just don’t think about it, the native English speakers a lot of the time.

Kathryn Alevizos (15:03):
And that sort of brings on to another point actually, that in our workshops, we do say, “Check understanding, but don’t check understanding by asking, ‘Do you understand?'” Because I think especially in a professional setting, people are, like Zanne said, people are unlikely to want to admit that they don’t understand because they feel it’s somehow a weakness or show of lack of intelligence, which of course it isn’t if you’re operating in a second language. So yes, we suggested ways of checking understanding by running through information again or even having a written follow up to what you’re asking of people to ensure comprehension.

Janina Neumann (15:47):
Yeah, that’s a great point.

And Zanne, tell us a little bit more about your experiences with the English teachers in Spain, some of the things that you realised, how they could better communicate with people.

Zanne Gaynor (16:02):
Well, it was something that I’ve realised they’d not had in their teacher training. And I’ve since done some teacher training since my experience of running the school and many teachers do this very sort of intensive and very good month-long course before they begin teaching. And it’s really great course, but I think there is a lack of training that gets them to consider classroom language.

Zanne Gaynor (16:29):
They have to do this crash course in learning English grammar and learning all the tenses that they’ve never looked at before. But they just don’t look at their own language. So I think my experience was that we had quite a few English teachers who came straight off the CELTA course, month course, and were really hungry to learn actually, really keen to exchange ideas and talk to me about when they were having problems with certain grammatical areas. But I must admit it was when I would, within the first day of them being in the school, if I could hear the classroom activity, I could know whether that teacher was really engaged with those students or not. And there’s always that problem as well, that English teachers when they’re new they’re quite nervous and they’ll go into a classroom and just talk too much because they want to fill the silence.

Zanne Gaynor (17:22):
And so what I would do with some of the new teachers is really show them very nice ways of getting your warmer going at the beginning of the classroom so that students are more relaxed, put on a bit of music, give them an activity that they do amongst each other. So there’s less pressure to feel you’ve got to talk in that first few minutes. And then I would just try and tell the teachers or why talking too much was very off-putting. Because the one thing that you don’t realise sometimes as a teacher when you’re instructing is that, that student is trying to process everything that you’re saying, and if it’s in another language, particularly very low-level students, I mean, it obviously depends on the level of your students.

Zanne Gaynor (18:05):
But particularly low-level students who are just beginning with a language, they’re very overwhelmed and it takes them a long time to process what you’re saying. So I’d often say to the teachers, “Just try stopping every now and again, so that they’ve got time to go over their notes or go over what you’re saying and give them time to ask questions”. A lot of people and you may have or may not have experienced this yourself, when you’re learning a language, you tend to formulate your answers to questions in your head. And then when it’s your turn to speak, the conversation’s moved on…

Janina Neumann (18:41):

Zanne Gaynor (18:41):
…because you’re a bit slow to join in the conversation. So I would always try and tell teachers to be incredibly patient. Sometimes you think you’re almost being a bit boring because you’re going too slowly in a class, but you’re really giving students time to process their ideas, their language and then they can express themselves better and they feel so much more comfortable.

Janina Neumann (19:05):
That’s really important. And also when you talk about being able to express ideas, that comes down to feeling a little bit like you have your personality there. Because as we spoke about before, a lot of people feel that, their second language, they can’t really express themselves and perhaps their personality doesn’t shine through or they feel a bit distant. Also, it depends on the culture, but I find that really interesting because also when you learn a language, you also don’t understand what’s really important to listen to and where’s the question for example and what’s just general kind of added value content rather than something that you have to act on.

Zanne Gaynor (19:55):
And I think with the whole language learning process, what you can forget sometimes when you’re that native English teacher in that classroom and you’re trying to get an activity going or something. You can forget that in fact, your student needs to just listen. You learn first by just listening to the language. And I had a very interesting experience with my own child, he was only four when we went to Spain and I went to parents evening and the teacher said to me, “He has to talk, he has to talk. He doesn’t talk enough in class”.

Zanne Gaynor (20:32):
Well, he was at home quite a quiet boy. This one of my children. He was quite a quiet boy, but very curious. I knew that he was developmentally, he was fine. And I said to her, “Well, I can’t make him talk”. And I went away and I said to my son, “Oh, you’ve got to try and talk more in class”. And I realised, actually it just wasn’t in his nature. But also at the very earliest stages, he was listening to everything around him. And he said, years later, “Well, I didn’t talk because I wanted to get it perfect. I wanted what I was going to say to be perfect because otherwise, people would tease me”. And there’s all things like that you don’t realise if you’ve never been in that language learning situation. You don’t realise how embarrassing and uncomfortable you can feel sometimes speaking that language. So you will hold back. You won’t be the same person until you’re very fluent or competent.

Janina Neumann (21:26):
Yeah. I think just from my own experiences, I came to the UK when I was nine, and primary school kids trying to teach you English is just not a good idea. They used to tell me that there is no difference between he and she, and everyone used to laugh. So actually just being aware of what actually happens in school, because I’m very grateful that I moved here at a young age, so I did become bilingual. But also being aware of how that child is going to learn the language, which is like its surroundings but also obviously help from the teachers. But it’s not like that dedicated service that you might have as an adult.

Kathryn Alevizos (22:15):

Janina Neumann (22:17):

So Kathryn, tell us a little bit more about your work with refugees and some of the communication things that you’ve learned through that work.

Kathryn Alevizos (22:29):
Yeah. So I worked for a while in Birmingham and Bristol, in FE colleges as a teacher of English, also a teacher trainer. And at that time, most of our students were asylum seekers and some refugees, and it was always very interesting. It was a real mix of students from mixed nationalities. I mean, I have to say, I probably spent half my time teaching and half my time supporting them with tasks such as, like you were saying about taking that person you know to the doctors, helping them contact doctors, helping them phone utility companies.

Kathryn Alevizos (23:11):
I mean, we all hate doing that even if we’re native speakers. So imagine a low level of English. So, I mean, it was a real eye-opener for me, of all the everyday tasks you need to complete just for day-to-day living. That is so difficult if you have a language barrier. And then for some of the students that I was teaching, they may not been literate in their own languages, their mother tongue. So yeah, it was quite demanding in lots of ways but very rewarding. Yeah.

Janina Neumann (23:47):
Yeah. That’s really interesting. And being literate in your own language, we sometimes forget that not everyone’s like that. And also locally, I know of a deprived area as well, where at a certain age, were they can speak, but they can’t read and write. And that was quite shocking for me because we sometimes think in the UK, everyone who grew up here has that access to school. But actually, sometimes things happen and they can’t continue in their education and that quite impacts them quite a lot if you can’t read and write.

Kathryn Alevizos (24:24):
Yeah. Yeah. So previous to that, I taught business English and I taught, I said abroad in mainly school children. So it was really interesting that the topics that I was teaching in FE colleges is very much the language you need to go to the doctors, the language you need to rent a house. It was all very practical, functional language skills. And actually, that’s how I got into working for Cambridge exam board because they started, well this was a long time ago now, 12 years or more ago, a series of exams called ‘Skills for Life’, which was specifically aimed at people coming to settle in the UK. And so all the questions and reading texts were all very much British-based and relevant to everyday life. So I found that really enjoyable. The fact that your lessons, you knew, were going to have a real-life application for your students and to make life a bit easier.

Janina Neumann (25:29):
Yeah. That’s really important, especially for those who don’t know the UK and its culture. So it’s really important to make them feel welcome and help them integrate into the new culture.

You’ve recently published your new book, ‘Is That Clear?: Effective Communication in a Neurodiverse World’. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your new book?

Kathryn Alevizos (25:50):
Okay. Well, as we said earlier, we deliver workshops on the first book, ‘Effective Communication in a Multilingual World’. And on more than one occasion, participants at the workshops had said to us how a lot of the tips in our book would be applicable for communicating with autistic people. And so we were put in touch with Joe Butler, who is our co-author on the second book, who is an education consultant specialising with working with autistic children and young people. And she read the book and just saw a great amount of overlap with the kind of language tips that she was offering people working with autistic children and young people. And from that point, we started collaborating and yes, it was kind of our lockdown baby, really the second book.

Zanne Gaynor (26:48):
We actually Janina, we still haven’t met our co-author in person. It was all done over Skype calls, very intensive Skype calls, but we were all so passionate about it. Once we started a call each day, we just found, we just couldn’t stop. We had to keep going until the book was finished. We had the idea for writing a second book, but it wasn’t particularly the neurodiverse one. It was another book that we were going to do. And in fact, when everything went online, when COVID started, we sort of flipped our plans really, because we were just getting our workshops up and running when of course they were all postponed at the beginning of COVID. So in fact, working online gave us the chance to go back to writing, which is what we really love. We wouldn’t have in fact started that book now if it hadn’t been for the fact that we all had to stay at home and stay online.

Janina Neumann (27:42):
It’s great that you embrace this opportunity.

So where can we buy your book?

Zanne Gaynor (27:46):
Well, we’ve got it. It’s on Amazon. We actually self-published the book first. Maybe we should just say that first. We self-published the book. We self-published our first book as well. We felt that it was the quickest, easiest way to get our book out there. Both books were published with, through IngramSpark who actually distribute them around the world.

Zanne Gaynor (28:09):
So they’re in wholesale catalogs around the world. So you can buy it on Amazon, but you can get it through The Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, who were in the based in the US. And Waterstones stock it. If you Google it, you will see different stockists of it. We also have the Kindle version and we also do a PDF, which we do offer to anybody who does our workshop, but that’s through our own website.

Janina Neumann (28:41):
That’s great to hear. Thank you for that Zanne.

Kathryn, if people loved listening to you and Zanne, how can they connect and work with you?

Kathryn Alevizos (28:51):
Okay, well, you can find us on LinkedIn and Twitter, but best place to find this is at our website that’s And yes, if you look on Amazon, you can see a little bit about ourselves and links to our website there as well. Yes, and we’re always happy to connect with new people and our client base up to date has been very diverse. So basically our books have a relevant to all kinds of people from all walks of life. We’ve delivered workshops to schools, universities, private organisations, international charities. So, and we’re very happy to make bespoke courses that suits particular companies and organisation’s needs.

Zanne Gaynor (29:46):
In fact, Janina, perhaps we could just say a little bit about the courses that we do, because I did say they were postponed at the beginning of COVID. But they’ve picked up again now, which is great, although they are online at the moment. But we do run anything from an hour and a half course to a three-hour course, depending on the needs of clients. The three-hour course is long, but the final part of it is really useful, particularly if you’re working in business because we do have recordings of non-native speakers talking about why they find native English quite difficult to understand, which is really useful for anybody in any international work setting.

Zanne Gaynor (30:24):
And then the shorter courses we’ve been running with foster carers and social workers, anybody who works with children or young people who speak English as an additional language. And the workshops have gone down really well. We’ve had really nice comments that they’re clear to follow, insightful, useful, practical. And we just hope it’s the first stage to getting people to realise that just these minor adjustments at times to their language can make their language much more inclusive for people who really need to understand what you’re saying.

Janina Neumann (30:58):
Yes, exactly. Inclusivity is so important for effective communication and our chat today and also reading your books has really helped me understand how I currently communicate and has given me the tools to improve my communications. So thank you very much for that. It’s been fantastic to have you on my podcast. Thank you very much both for your time.

Kathryn Alevizos  (31:23):
Thank you for having us, Janina. It’s been a pleasure.

Zanne Gaynor (31:26):
Thank you, Janina. That was great.

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