Sanam Monteiro is poet, activist, political science graduate, youth worker, former intern for United Nations Women, and a friend of mine who once let me sleep on her sofa in Brussels! I invited Sanam on to Thinking in English today to discuss her experiences of both learning and teaching English.
We had an amazing conversation on topics including her work with refugees and asylum seekers, why creative writing is an awesome tool to develop and improve your English skills, how being a non-native speaker actually makes your English more interesting, and Sanam’s language learning journey!
I hope you all enjoy this episode!
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Freelance (adj,adv) – doing pieces of work for different organisations, rather than working all the time for a single organisation
Many journalists today work freelance
Collective (n) – an organisation or business which is owned and controlled by the people who work in it
He spent a year working on a collective farm after university
Bilingual (adj) – able to use two language equally well
They are raising bilingual children
messed up (phrasal v) – unorganised, confused
Sorry, I slept through my alarm this morning and now my schedule is messed up
to figure out (phrasal v) – to understand or solve something
It takes most people some time to figure out new software
make do (phrasal v) – manage with the limited or inadequate
For the first year of Thinking in English, I had to make do with a terrible microphone
Attainable (adj) – possible to achieve
Make sure your goals are clear and attainable
Sanctuary (n) – protection or a safe place
The refugees took sanctuary in a local church
Spectrum (n) – a range of different positions, opinions, etc, between two extreme points
He has support from across the whole political spectrum
Cynical (adj) – believing that people are only interesting in themselves and are not sincere
I’ve always been deeply cynical about politicians
Intensifier (n) – a word, especially an adjective or adverb, that has little meaning itself but is used to add force to another adjective, verb, or adverb
In the phrases “I was quite happy” and “he is an extremely rich man”, “quite” and “extremely” are both intensifiers
Go AWOL (adj) – (Absent Without Leave) If something or someone goes AWOL, it is not in its usual place
My glasses have gone AWOL – I have no idea where they are
to roll with it (phrase) – to adapt to a situation despite unexpected circumstance or challenges
The restaurant we planned to go to was closed, but we decided to just roll with it, found somewhere new, and it actually turned out to be fun!
code switching (n) – the act of changing between two or more languages, dialects, or accents when you are speaking
Code switching is common among bilinguals in many communities
Institution (n) – a large and important organisation
Harvard is an internationally respected institution
The Home Office (n) – the UK government department that deals with matters inside the UK – for example justice and the rules for people from other countries entering the country
The Home Office have started deporting illegal immigrants from the UK
Privileged (adj) – having or showing a special advantage
As an old friend of the president, he enjoys privileged status
To catch (v) – to manage to hear or see something, so you understand or remember it
I couldn’t catch what the announcement said, with all the noise in the train station
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Who is Sanam Monteiro?
Hi Sanam, how are you?
I’m good and you?
I’m great, thank you! I know who you are, but could you introduce yourself to my listeners?
Yeah, I’m Sanam Monteiro. I met Tom at uni. We went to Uni together and studied political science.
But I’ve always done a lot of things on the side of my studies, and one of them is drawing and writing. Currently a lot of my time is being taken doing some freelance work with young refugees in the UK and I’m based in London.
I work with an artist collective called Compass Collective and I think that’s why I’m here today.
That’s one of the reasons! I’m really interested in you teaching English. But also, as my listeners can probably hear from your accent, you might not be a native English speaker. Can you tell everyone your linguistic background? What languages did you grow up speaking and grow up around?
Yep, so basically so my name is Sanam, which is an Iranian name, and my family name is Monteiro which is a Portuguese name. So that already gives you an idea of my family background.
I was raised and I hold a Belgian passport. Belgium is a bilingual country, so we speak French on one side and Dutch like the Netherlands on the other side. Which also means that as in any country that’s a bit messed up with languages English is around a lot to kind of help us communicate with each other when we haven’t learned our second national mother tongue, and if you add to the mix the diversity of languages in the migrant family.
I’ve been raised mainly with French, but with a lot of English around to kind of help communicate with different people in the family or the friendship groups, or even in my daily life.
And then to add again to the mix – I wasn’t raised fully in Belgium. My mum travelled around for her job, so I was raised partly in Southeast Asia.
Where again you kind of pick up the local language, but whenever it gets I too complicated you switch to English, so I was in French schools abroad, but English was very much part of trying to figure out life and make do. So yeah, that’s kind of my background.
I guess just in summary – half Portuguese, half Iranian, born and raised in Belgium, and you also studied in Switzerland right and in the UK.
Yeah, yeah! I studied in Switzerland in the French side but again it is another country that is divided between languages. So English is used quite a lot. And then I did my post grad in the UK, in London, fully in English.
I’m quite proud that I achieved that. It was kind of like something when I was a kid – “I was like I can never study in English. It would be impossible.” And yeah, I did it!
I think a lot of people have the same thoughts when you’re young. There’s no way that you can work or study in a foreign language.
But there are thousands, millions of people every year who manage it, so it is an attainable goal.
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What is Compass Collective?
You mentioned at the beginning of the episode that you’re currently working with an artist collective called Compass Collective. What do they do? What are you doing?
Compass Collective is a collective, so the idea is to bring artists together to collaborate on projects and to have a pool of resources for when you do a specific project. Basically, I’m mostly on the creative writing side and use creativity in writing to tell the story you want to tell. And if that story is just about learning English, then you know we can also do that.
So that’s one of the things that I do, so we have a regular English class and within that English class we have a beginner’s group that is taught by an ESL teacher, and I used to be teaching assistant on that group.
Then we noticed that some of them were ready for things that will be a bit more creative and to kind of use this English that they’re learning at school. That’s where I come in with my intermediate class using different creative techniques to make English a bit more enjoyable and fun and playful!
All of our students come from a background of seeking sanctuary in the UK – seeking sanctuary means that you’ve come to the UK seeking asylum. Some of them now have status in the UK as refugees, some others don’t. There’s a whole spectrum, but we don’t discriminate. We work with young people, usually from the age of 16 up to the age of 25, but it can be older or younger. It depends on the projects really.
So yeah, that’s Compass and what I do currently for Compass in a very short nutshell.
Creative Writing and English Learning
I think creative writing is a really important thing for all English learners to learn and study. Especially for children, right?
Creative writing is using a lot of different interrelated and interconnected skills and it’s a way of outputting some English that you’ve learned and studied. A lot of people, including myself as I’m studying Japanese and Chinese, look at a textbook and write down some words but will never use those words and then forget them.
And creative writing is a great way to practice new grammar, practice new skills, practice new vocabulary and also have fun while you’re doing it!
Yeah, I think it really enhances your confidence as well because you realise that with very simple tools, little tricks that you were not taught because you weren’t born in the English language, you can just make your English more in a certain way.
I love to focus on his joy and humour, and it’s so difficult to have a personality in another language. I like being funny person and I like finding my sense of humour in every language that I speak.
I think it’s really difficult when you don’t understand how sarcasm is constructed in English. And how do you play around? Like famous sayings that you just twist around to make them a bit funny. Or when’s the right time in a conversation to use, you know, a stop or an exclamation.
These things make it a bit more like spicy basically. So I like teaching that to my students – when to break the grammar rules, because it’s funny and it’s actually allowed as part of British humour.
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English vs French Comedy
This question is a little bit different from what I was planning on asking you, but are there any differences that you noticed when you moved from the French world to the English world in terms of humour and comedy in writing?
For example, if we want to describe a feeling that you have, or the weather, or an experience, we’re not going to use the same idioms.
Which means that in English ’cause I don’t know the right one I’m gonna make up an image and people are going to be like what is this image? What are you talking about?
But you make up new metaphors because you’re trying to make that cultural translation in your head and then you notice that people don’t use the same, I don’t know, the same animals or the same objects to make those idioms or metaphors
For example, saying someone is “really thin.” I always say people are “as thin as a toothpick,” but apparently here it is “as thin as a twig”
There’s like stuff like this that you need to learn. And then there’s also the way that you construct your humour. I think in French I’m very rude and very cynical, but here it’s a much more polite way of being sarcastic, and you need to adapt to that! I find it really interesting.
British people like to use low intensifier with strong adjectives. Oh, “it was quite distressing.” You know, using this type of things, so “quite” as an intensifier and “distressing” as a strong adjective to describe, like not being happy or being stressed. If you use the wrong intensifier, with the wrong strong adjective, you can really give a sense that you’re making fun of the thing you’re talking about, or that the experience was absolutely absurd and didn’t make any sense or things like that.
it’s something that you take some time to learn in the UK. You know how to have this very polite sarcasm.
Of course! But I think making your own metaphors and making these kinds of mistakes, which aren’t really mistakes, is also a really useful tool for creative writing! Because just reusing the same old cliches that English speakers use doesn’t make interesting writing and doesn’t make interesting storytelling.
You’re just using images that someone else has made up 100 years ago. I think it’s what George Orwell said – you should never use a phrase that you’re used to seeing in print because someone else has thought of it already. Maybe it’s one of the unique advantages of being a non-native English speaker is you can come up with more interesting phrases.
Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes and Be Unique
That’s why I always tell my students. I always tell them. First of all, don’t be shy with me. Make all the mistakes because I’m coming here to teach you today and I’m making mistakes. We can’t speak if we don’t accept that we’re gonna mess it up at some point; that my pronunciation is gonna go AWOL; that I’m going to put the wrong intonation in my sentence; that it’s gonna sound weird; that I’m gonna start the sentence in one tense and finish it in another because I realise halfway through that it is not working out and that’s perfectly fine!
I also tell them that it’s about finding their own voice in English. It’s not about speaking like the Queen, because let’s just be honest, very few of us managed to reach that point.
There are some people that are really, truly geniuses. You listen to them and you’re like, “how were you not born in the UK?” “How have you just, you know, soaked in that language so well?”
I’ve been learning it for so many years and I still have my accent and I still make grammatical mistakes, and I think that’s what makes your personality. You just have to roll with it! That’s why I say find your personality.
I hear so many of in my other job saying things like “oh, I wish you know I hadn’t been so ashamed of my accent when I was in high school” or “I wish this and this and that” – especially people from a black British background or a South Asian British background who have been here since they were born and completely adapted their accent to fit in the high school system. Then you kind of lose touch with your culture a bit, so that’s why I tell my students “I really don’t want us to lose touch, to keep that link with your culture and however much you want to have it.”
And remember you’ve got a power which is called code switching, and if you don’t want your personality to come out, you can always do that, but just don’t delete it forever. Keep it somewhere you know in your brain in your heart.
I think it’s really, really important for people not to forget their accents because that is your story. Every accent is different. It’s kind of like a fingerprint. It’s something unique, unique to you, but it’s something that even British people have to deal with, right?
I lost a lot of my accent when I went to university because I came from a working-class English background and my classmates didn’t. And they use different words to me, so I made my English a lot more standard. And then I moved to Japan and just hang around with Americans – that always ruins your accent, if you hang around with Americans
Can you tell us some of the challenges of teaching English and creative writing to refugees and asylum seekers? Most of my students in the past and now have been from regular family backgrounds, schoolchildren in Japan or at the moment professional adults.
Challenges of Teaching Refugees and Asylum Seekers
What are some of the challenges of teaching people from slightly more diverse and complicated backgrounds?
I’ve also taught to adults, and adults from the UK wanted to learn French, so I’ve done the other way around. And I also work in schools in my other job, not in language, but prevention workshops. I’ve had different experiences of the education chain.
And I have to say that teaching refugees and asylum seekers has been the most joyful experience because it’s usually students who really want to be here, who are highly motivated and are really grateful for the interaction that you’re offering them, so it’s often a conversation more than a lesson.
I am friends with all of them and I really, really care about their language journey and so do they. It’s not a like a one-way conversation where you have the teacher who’s really want something to happen and the students might be at a different pace in their personal journey, which is fine.
I was a very very slow learner. I annoyed my teachers so much because I just didn’t want to focus on my English. What’s great with working with young people with our background of seeking sanctuary in the UK is that they really want to be here and they really want to learn as fast as well.
I think the challenges come not from the language barrier, because we have lots of fun. We find ways of communicating, and we’re all really eager to learn from each other.
I think the difficulty comes from the institutions around us not making it easy for them to really progress on that journey. For example, being moved schools without notice, being moved housing to another city with one week notice. All of this type of stuff that happened.
And the person in charge of you is the British Home Office, and have very little consideration for your life and what you’re trying to build in the UK and your story.
That’s been the most challenging. It’s having people who cannot attend regularly, have to attend their classes from their phone, from their data, and you have to make sure that they have enough data to join the whole session.
And you’re trying to talk about writing similes and metaphors, but all they want to talk about is the fact that they’ve been moved housing for the third time in one month, and they don’t have their own room and there’s no quiet space for them to join the lesson. And I think that’s what is the most challenging.
But in terms of working with that specific population of young people It’s really a blast. I love it so much.
It sounds very different from my experiences of teaching English and helping people learn English, but it’s something I think in the future I’d love to get involved with! Maybe when I’m back in the UK I’ll hit you up and hit Compass Collective up.
Has your experience of learning English impacted your experience of teaching English?
Oh, definitely! First, because compared to the other teacher who I mentioned, an ESL teacher, he is from the UK. I actually know what it is to sit through these English classes, and not understand what is going on and have to learn all of these things. Learn these irregular verbs for next week and all of these things
Has the has the ESL teacher ever learned another language?
Yeah, he actually speaks Chinese fluently and used to teach English in China.
OK. Because that is that is useful if you speak another language. You kind of start to understand some of the problems, but I always tell people that actually when I learned to be an English teacher, on my course, the first thing they told me was the best English teacher is a non-native English teacher.
Yeah, because you understand what might seem logical for everyone else, but that you really have to explain and find a logical way of explaining it. Even if you speak another language, if you’ve like learned Spanish, there’s still stuff in the English language that you may not realise is actually harder to get than you think.
That’s definitely impacted the way I teach. And I’ve been very privileged to learn English in many different backgrounds
One of my high schools actually had a pilot programme for English teaching in the French education system and it was to do with learning through culture, not learning through textbooks. So we sat and watched a lot of movies and that’s how they try and get us into English, which they decided not to continue because they didn’t think the pilot worked really well.
But for me that worked really well, ’cause before that I was struggling with English. I could not sit in front of a textbook. Then I also partly went to bilingual school at some point in my journey, which actually forced me to read a lot of English literature because I had to do my GCSE and my A levels in English literature as part of that programme. It was really intense because I joined the year before the GCSEs
I just had to get my head in the books
Like 15/16 years old, I guess.
Exactly, yeah, I joined at 16 and I just had one year to do my English literature a GCSE.
I also realised how you have to take those texts and you don’t understand 50% of what’s going on, but the more you read them, the percentage is just going to increase. I actually use Shakespeare quite a lot with my students because you’re not gonna understand 90% of that sentence, but there’s a really interesting metaphor here that I want us to look at.
I like to challenge. Basically I think I only learned by being challenged in many different ways, and so I want to challenge people. But I also understand that people don’t react to challenges the same way. So you have to throw at people many different things until the right one hits
The last stage of my English development was actually going to Asia and living in Hong Kong and Singapore and suddenly having access to in English that was much less.
Uhm, how to say like you know, “perfect”
There was left the stress of like speaking the proper way and having the proper grammar and the proper word because they themselves have mixed up English with their own local language and suddenly people are talking much, much more freely, and that’s when I started actually speaking in English with people,
You don’t have to speak like the Queen and I think that’s really influenced by how I learned because I just saw what are the things that unlocked my English when I was a really shy person.
And I took really long to actually learn English.
I think the key is being an active learner, right? Being engaged in what you are studying and how you’re studying. I guess the reason they discontinued that movie programme at the schools is, well, some students, like yourself were really engaged in the movies and listening intently to what they were hearing and maybe making notes of words they didn’t know.
But a lot of students would just be sitting and watching a movie without thinking about anything had subtitles. They would just be reading the subtitles and not learning any English.
The key is being active and engaged in your own language learning process. Because I did the same, I’ve watched so many Japanese movies over the last year and don’t remember any of them because I would sit with a cup of tea or lie in bed watching a movie. But I wasn’t paying attention to it and I was looking at my phone half at half of the time
I think the key is to remember you’re studying as well as having fun. Remember, you’re supposed to be learning as well, so keeping your brain active, keeping your brain engaged is important.
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Sanam’s Language Learning Journey
Finally, I just want to talk about your language learning journey. We’ve talked about you learning English. Do you speak any other languages? Or have you tried to learn any other languages?
So I’m actually really bad at languages. As I mentioned several times!
I learned Portuguese for a while. Well, I learned Dutch for some time, but my grades were not there. I stopped. I picked up Portuguese because it’s much closer to French, so it was easier to get good grades without studying that much because you can use your French to speak Portuguese and it kind of passes.
I got to a good level, but then I think I’m the sort of brain where one language takes the main space in my brain and everything else gets cancelled. So, my Portuguese currently is really inexistent, and my Dutch is absolutely not there.
I live with Italian flat mates and the more they speak Italian around me, the more my ear is catching on stuff.
And I think that’s great about having had the privilege to be raised with like lots of different languages around me. Once you know maybe one or two Latin languages you can catch on other languages easier, and that’s a really nice thing to be able to sort of somewhat understand what’s going around you
Then on my mom’s side is Farsi, which is the language spoken in Iran. I’m actually really, really bad at Farsi. I only know, “Hello,” “how are you?” and all of the food that I like so I can order in the restaurant!
But it’s a big aim of mine to actually focus on that language, and it’s much more challenging because it doesn’t have that transferable aspect that Latin languages have. Although compared to Arabic, Farsi has a lot of links with the French language, for example, and the English language, so it’s much easier to learn than Arabic
It’s a big goal of mine for the next five years is to actually get some somewhat near fluent in Farsi, but who knows how long that’s going to take you? I’ve been on that journey for five years already, and I’m very, very slow as usual.
Where can you find Sanam??
Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. The final thing is for you to promote yourself and promote compass collective. So where can the listeners of Thinking in English find you and Compass Collective?
Sure, so you can find me on Instagram. My handle is at @namnaaam
You can find Compass Collective as well on Instagram.
They also have a website complexcollect.com I think. Or type Compass collective on Google and you’ll find them and they’re also on Facebook and have lots of different things going on.
They’ve got currently a fund raising for refugee week, which is going to be around the end of June, so they’ve got a fundraiser until then, and currently what they’re walking the miles to Ukraine.
So they’re fundraising by doing lots of walking and it has to come up to the distance between the UK and Ukraine to raise awareness.
Amazing and I’ll put all of these links in the description of the podcast and also on the Thinking in English blog.
I hope everyone enjoyed that conversation with Sanam! We covered a lot of topics – from teaching languages to refugees, why creative writing is so important, struggling to learn English, and the differences between French and British humour!
Do you like creative writing? What is something you learned or enjoyed in today’s episode? What kind of guest’s would you like to hear on Thinking in English in the future?
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