Speaking of English

Published Jun 26, 2017

When Hugo Garcia (from Timor-Leste) and Su Kalayar Htun (from Myanmar) arrived in Wellington in January this year to begin 20 weeks of intensive English Language Training for Officials (ELTO), they had some pretty specific goals about what they wanted to achieve.

Viclink subsidiary Accent Learning holds a three-year contract with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide the ELTO programme to government officials from South East Asia who use English language in their work to achieve national development objectives. Each intake centres around a particular theme that the participants have some background knowledge of; the theme for Hugo and Su’s intake of 60 officials from seven countries was ‘Strengthening Resilience: Disaster Risk Management’. 

Hugo, who works for Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation, was looking forward to improving his written and oral English language skills—an essential part of his job as the Ministry’s Protocol Officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He was also keen to explore New Zealand and learn te reo Māori (which he says has a lot of similarities to his native language of Tetum). 

Su, who is the Assistant Director for Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, was hoping to overcome her shyness at speaking English, and looking forward to meeting, and learning from, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. 

Fast forward to the end of the course, and it’s clear to see just how far these two students have come in just 20 weeks (seven at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, and 13 at Victoria’s English Language Institute). Their English language skills have skyrocketed—as has their confidence. 

“I feel so much more confident about writing a report in English now,” says Hugo. “Not only did my vocabulary improve significantly—I used to get up early each morning to practice my 1,000 word list—but I learnt so many practical writing strategies and techniques as well, such as ‘signposting’, which made report writing so much easier.” 

Hugo says the first time his language skills were tested shortly after he arrived, scoring 18 out of 40. In his final exam, his score was 36 out of 40 — the first time a Timor-Leste student has topped the class since 2006.

But it wasn’t all about being in the classroom as Hugo explains: “I learned to speak te reo while I was in Nelson, and I joined the Wellington Community Choir as a tenor. The course is not just about improving your English, you are encouraged to take part in the whole New Zealand experience!”

Su also worked hard to achieve her goals. “Some of our projects in Myanmar are funded by international organisations such as the United Nations Environment Programme, and we report to them in English,” says Su. “Not only can I write project reports for them now, I can also present them confidently in English too. I was quite hesitant to speak the language before.” Her colleagues also noted her newfound proficiency, selecting Su as their representative to give the final speech on behalf of all ELTO students at their graduation ceremony. 

Su says she particularly enjoyed putting the theory they learned into practice. “We had some really good field trips, to Christchurch (to learn from the rebuild), the Nelson City Council, the Wellington City Council and, my highlight, the Department of Conservation.” 

Both Hugo and Su commented on the excellent pastoral care they received during the course, perhaps best evidenced by the lengths that the Accent Learning team went to when Hugo’s daughter turned two back in Timor-Leste. “They posted video of themselves wishing her a happy birthday,” says Hugo. “It was such a thoughtful thing to do.” 

They also both mentioned how much they enjoyed the Kiwi lifestyle, noting how much free time we have in the weekends. “I come from a city of seven million, where most people work weekends in order to provide continuous customer service, so any spare time is kept for ourselves,” says Su. “Here, we can’t get over how many people volunteer to give their time to help others.” 

Hugo and Su are intent on retaining the skills they have learnt during their time in New Zealand—not just through their work, but also by keeping in touch with the many friends they have made here. 

“I think we’ve created a very special bond between Timor-Leste and New Zealand,” says Hugo. “Not just government to government, but people to people. I can’t recommend the programme highly enough.”