Three Months, Mongolia and Me

Battuul, Munguu and Verena at Open English Speaking Day in March
Battuul, Munguu and Verena at the Open English Speaking Day in March

Verena Zelger is BOOKBRIDGE Fellow at our learning center in Dalanzadgad, a city in Southern Mongolia. Verena has arrived three months ago in Mongolia to support the learning center with organizing its educational offers. In this article she writes about her impressions.

If I reflect the last three months I realize how much I have experienced here. I have got to know a completely new culture and learnt new ways of living and thinking. I have created many new programs in the Global Passport Learning Center in Dalanzadgad: Language and conversation classes, dancing classes, different cooperation projects with the Culture and Education Department of the Province Umnigobi and the Life Long Learning Center. In addition I have created a finance plan and progressed the business strategy of the Global Passport learning center which is not supported by state organizations. The many different projects make every day’s work interesting and varying. The cooperation projects give me a big insight in Mongolia’s education system since I am in contact with many teachers and students of all 19 schools in the province.

Verena with students at Open English Speaking Day at the learning center
Verena with students at Open English Speaking Day at the learning center

After a few weeks I already feel some kind of routine in my work and free time and I want to reflect about my Mongolian life’s highlights. Shortly after arriving I have already experienced a very important Mongolian cultural highlight: the Tsagaan Sar. On the one hand it was an amazing experience, on the other hand it was not an easy start in a province town during these days because most of the families celebrate this event inside their homes. That means, I was mostly alone these first three days. Battuul, the head of the Global Passport Learning Center invited me to celebrate parts of the event with her family which was very exciting. I was really happy that I read a lot about and had an introduction in Mongolian culture and manners before I came to Dalanzadgad. I made some mistakes anyway but that was accepted with a big smile since I am not Mongolian 🙂

Verena spent Tsagaan Sar at Battuul's parents-in-law
Verena spent Tsagaan Sar at Battuul’s parents-in-law

Although I could participate at many cultural and educational events I have the strong feeling that my personal highlights are hidden behind smaller and daily occasions: My students can suddenly understand what I say. Or I can recognize some Mongolian words. I accidently meet people around which I have already spoken to. I am invited to a dinner and it becomes an I-feel-100%-comfortable-evening which let me go home with a huge smile on my lips. Some children which I have never seen before say hello to me and tell me their names, ask me about myself. A friend is taking me to the mountains and let me watch her husband getting some healing water from a spring. A young woman tells me how much she likes to be my student. I walk through the streets and realize that I don’t feel like a stranger anymore. I am not overseen at the supermarket counter anymore. I have serious friendships. I enjoy yoga time with my friends twice a week. I get a free haircut, just like this. And I realize that the people I meet here are really rich because they have values they stick by and they live after. Because they make the best out of everything. And because they are still dreaming.

Of course there are lot of challenges which I am confronted with some time or the other – they make the routine life more interesting but also more complicating. For example the language: Although sometimes I can understand the content and I know some important sentences in Mongolian (grocery shopping, ordering food, I know the numbers and understand them, I know the most important formulas of curtesy) it is still difficult.

It's time! Really?
It’s time! Really?

In the beginning of my stay the concept of time was quite interesting. Dalanzadgad’s inhabitants are patient and cannot be put out of countenance – no matter what happens. If they have to wait somewhere they wait, and they don’t dislike it. Since I accepted that the people live with a different perspective on calmness and time than in Middle Europe it is not difficult anymore. Sometimes I even don’t realize it anymore. My friends Kathi and Dani which visited me in Mongolia recently remembered me that you have to get used to it. Sometimes it is still disturbing me, especially when meetings are not maintained or rescheduled at short notice. Since I don’t have a lot of free time stress and started to live true to the unwritten motto of Dalanzadgad’s inhabitants that it is not worthy to be stressed I don’t take the topic time seriously anymore. When I will be back in Germany this will be a big change!

Have a cup of coffee and relax! Everything will be fine :)
Have a cup of coffee and relax! Everything will be fine 🙂

Another difficult topic is the sometimes missing communication. Often I am confronted with accomplished facts. A short time ago I was told at lunch time that a new language course will start the same day at 7pm and that I will be the teacher. What if I had plans for the evening? The solution would have been easy: the language course would have been postponed. Similar to the perception of time flexibility is demanded.

A last challenge lies in the border between calmness and serenity. In the beginning of my stay I was very strict with some topics, for example with the marketing and finance strategies. That had a strong influence to our work which still has after three months. Nevertheless I had to plan less in order to give more space for flexibility. I still work on these topics seriously in order to achieve a reliable and sustainable strategy but with a moderate breeze of calmness. After being used to the Mongolian working style it is difficult for me to realize when I should be relaxed, when more accurate. Sometimes I have the feeling that I miss some important steps because I am too relaxed, in other times I take some aspects of the work too seriously. The only thing I can do? Observe and ask again and again!

One of Verena's language courses
One of Verena’s language courses

The lessons
In the last months I have experienced that the focus of language lessons in Mongolia lies in grammar and vocabularies, not in speaking and writing. This is a pity because especially the active language allows us to build relationships with people with different cultural backgrounds. I want to help children and teenagers, but also adults to use the language actively instead of sticking with the structured inflexible grammar. My rules are encouraging: Never be afraid of talking! Don’t be shy, but confident! Never say you can’t! No Mongolian language!

It is not easy to change the people’s habits concerning the use of the English language. I always try to create a stress-free atmosphere in my courses, to motivate and the same time to challenge. Because of the people’s different levels of speaking it is difficult to challenge everyone the same way: Some people take a longer time for a solution and they got immediately interrupted by the people which already know it. That happens very often: Or all the people speak at the same time or the interrupt each other. I try to prevent this so that shy or less experienced people have the possibility to speak, too. It is very interesting for me that this characteristic of impatience seems to be a contrast to the unending patience in Mongolians’ daily lives outside the lessons.

Having fun in the snow with Munguu and some of the students
Having fun in the snow with Munguu and some of the students

In order to make my students happy I always teach a short topic-based grammar in my conversation classes and give them homework. They expect it. But for me it is much more important that they use the language actively. That’s why I want them to use new vocabularies in different contexts, written and orally. Especially the oral use of English is not easy for most of the students because they don’t feel prepared (most of the students are always prepared but when it comes to speak they are quiet) and they don’t know whom to speak to. But there are possibilities and I want them to use them.

It is quite easy to teach in the Global Passport Learning Center because the students really respect me as a teacher. In the schools it can be different but here the students really want to learn English in their free time, voluntarily. The consequence of this respect is that many students don’t tell me their own opinion but agree with mine. In order to support the opinion making process I don’t tell them mine and ask open questions. And it works: the students open up and talk about their own opinions– not always, but most of the time. This is a huge step!

Verena with one of her younger students
Verena with one of her younger students

The best success is when I realize that somebody has really made a huge step forward. I have the feeling that one of the Learning Center’s teachers progressed very much. When I started with my work in February she was shy and didn’t speak a lot. After a few days we started speaking in English and her language use is much better now. She is more confident and is studying English every day for one or two hours. I am proud of her and admire her energy and will to learn English better day by day.

Verena led a workshop on marketing. We worked hard and it was a lot of fun.
Me moderating a marketing workshop. Our work is constructive and is a lot of fun.

The projects
The project I can create and participate at in the learning center and in cooperation with other educational institutions are very interesting and a nice alternation to the English lessons.

Besides the language courses in the learning center I am responsible for the finance plan and the development of a marketing and business strategy in accordance with Battuul, the head of the learning center and Munguu who is a teacher and librarian. I contribute with classical marketing strategies to create and follow a red line in our concepts, Battuul and Munguu adapt it to the Mongolian culture. So I am able to learn what ethno marketing means in the practice. Together we develop creative ways to establish the learning center in Dalanzadgad, for example through different events for children, teenagers and adults.

The director of the Culture and Education Departments visited with his employee Ariuka our learning center. He liked our work and the library a lot.
The Culture and Education Department’s director visiting our learning center together with his employee Ariuka who is the foreign language representative. He is enthusiastic about our work and the English library.

Through the projects in cooperation with the Culture and Education Department I get a big insight in Mongolian’s education politics.

These projects are very exciting and I really like them, especially the last one: I hold a workshop for teachers with the topic “How to conduct a foreign language theatre play with teenagers”. This reminded me how I liked to play on the stage myself. I also realized that I really like leading workshops and that I am not that bad in it 😉

The cooperation with the Life-Long-Learning Center is very exciting and I learn a lot. Expect of a conversation class together with Juul, an employee of the center, we create a project plan with the topic how to bring English in the kindergartens. Furthermore, I get an insight in the Life-Skills trainings which are offered by the LLLC: I can participate at any training and talk to the experienced coaches.

In the next month I am planning different free time activities for children and teenagers to enhance their active use of the English language. I would like to show them that learning a language must not always take place in the classroom but can happen everywhere: in the museum, through an art project, during a walk, while playing games, cooking, dancing, listening to music, and watching TV. And I want that they have fun learning English also after my return to Germany.

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