Hello Leo Listeners and welcome to an interview with a fellow English teacher, Alexandra Kapinya from Visual English School.
I’ve brought Alexandra on because she’s a fellow movie lover. And she’s also been living abroad since the age of 19!
As I love to share stories of movie lovers and expats, she seemed to be the perfect guest. Plus, she put together this lovely interview with me about improving your English with movies before moving abroad.
So, let’s get into Alexandra’s story of how she learned English using short movies plus her experiences of living abroad.
Cara: Can you tell us a bit about Visual English School and why you created it?
Alexandra: I’ve always learned languages by watching films. Unfortunately, when I was a student, there weren’t any materials or film-inspired lessons available, so I created them.
I took notes in front of the TV and created my own film glossary and exercises. I would have liked to talk about cinema and mingle with other cinephiles, but it was just not possible in the small town where I grew up.
When I started Visual English School and the online movie club, I just wanted to create a place where English learners could hang out together, watch beautiful short films, chat about them, and learn the language along the way. It was really a dream-come-true project.
Cara: Wow, that sounds amazing. I think you summarized the frustration of many TV and movie fans who are isolated from other English learners with similar interests. You mention where you grew up: where is that?
I was born in Hungary, but I moved to Italy at 19, when I won a scholarship to the University of Siena for Foreigners, in Tuscany.
When the university accepted me, I danced on the table! I’ve always been a language addict, so I couldn’t wait to improve my Italian and flew happily and quickly here.
Cara: Wow! When you were just 19. That’s so young! Where do you live now? And how long have you been there?
I live in a small town near Milan. I’ve been here for more than 14 years now. I cannot believe it.
Cara: Wow – that is a long time! So, why are you still in Italy and living in a small town?
Oh, because l’amore brought me here. I’ll be honest, even if I’m an English teacher, I’ve never really wanted to live in the UK, no matter how much I’ve loved English.
It’s the language I work, dream in, write in, and publish articles in, but I’ve always had Italy in my heart. I just feel lucky that I can teach my favorite language, English, from a sunny Mediterranean country.
Cara: Indeed, that is a good place to teach English from, even if you’re not in the sunniest part of Italy! So, tell us, as an expat, what’s the best/worst thing about living there?
I love all those tiny little things that make Italy such a livable place, like chatting with friends in bars sipping a cappuccino or having never-ending lunches on Sundays. Wherever you go in Italy, you can see breathtaking places that are chock-full of cultural attractions.
I remember renting an apartment in an old building in Siena, where I had this thick, extremely long, rusty medieval key that opened the house’s main door. I really felt like I was living in medieval times. Italy is a unique place.
The worst thing is, well, all the problems people complain about here. Lack of meritocracy, a lot of red tape, even when I started my online teaching business, it was just so complicated to get everything ready.
Cara: So, bearing in mind the downsides, do you ever get homesick? What do you miss most about your home country?
I miss my family and friends. Especially now that I have two little kids. They cannot see their grandparents whenever they want or just have lunch together on Sundays. We have social gatherings on Skype, which is not really like live get-togethers.
Cara: Right, so let’s talk a bit more about Visual English School. Why do you use short movies to teach English?
I think they’re suitable for English learners for so many reasons:
- They’re around 10 to 15 minutes long, so it’s easier to find time to watch them in our hectic lives.
- You can stop and start a short film at any time and watch it again. This is so important for English learners. If you use a feature film for your studies, you really need to analyze it scene by scene.
- Many short films are independent productions, so I feel filmmakers have more freedom, take a lot of risks and experiment. I also find shorts incredibly creative. I think that’s because directors have time constraints. They need to tell a story and evoke emotions in us in a very limited time. They need to use those 5 or 10 minutes effectively and come up with original solutions.
For me, short films are a powerful form of art.
Cara: That’s fascinating, especially the part about creativity. And you make some good points about length. This is why I prefer movie clips to whole movies. So, as a cinema fan, what are some of your favourite movies, either short or feature length?
Oh, how much time do we have? I did some film studies at university, where we focused mainly on Billy Wilder, and I just fell in love with his movies:
- ”Double Indemnity”
- ”Sunset Boulevard”
- ”Some Like It Hot”
- and “The Apartment” to name just a few.
What is incredible about Wilder is that he moved to the USA not knowing any English, and some years later, the Motion Picture Academy nominated him for an Oscar for his screenplay for “Ninotchka.” Scripts were always more important to him than the look of a movie.
If you ever get the chance, read his screenplays, you’ll realize that his language is inventive, full of jokes, puns, and verbal color. I think Wilder is an inspiration not just for filmmakers but for many non-native English speakers who want to create something in this language.
As for short films, I would tell you to watch the amazing “Theo and Celeste” by Hannah Dougherty right now. And get some tissues, too. It’s about two friends who test the boundaries of their friendship. “Would you still be my friend if there were things about me you didn’t know?”
They repeatedly ask each other this question. You should see how far they go to realize how much they mean to one another. It’s a surreal and creative short about acceptance and love that I cannot help watching it over and over. I’ve written an article about it here.
Cara: Thanks for those recommendations. “Some Like It Hot” is one of my dad’s favourite movies. I had no idea the director was a non-native English speaker. As you say, that’s so inspiring. Right, so, I know we’re quite far into the year at this point, but what are some of your plans for 2019?
I’ll keep working on the movie club and spread the word about it. I hope more short film lovers and English learners will find this little corner of the Internet. But I’m also thinking of creating a local short movie club and more live events.
Cara: That’s a really cool idea – I love meeting up with people in real life and totally recommend it. For those of us who don’t live near Milan though, where is the best place to hang out with you online?
Many people have asked me what it’s really like to learn English with short films in an online movie club, so I created a free six-day online course, which comes with a community, too.
This is where I spend most of my time now, chatting about shorts with enthusiastic English learners, and I’m having so much fun. It made it possible to get in touch with so many amazing people from different parts of the world.
Cara: that’s awesome, thanks for sharing it with us and for coming on to tell us your life story!
More about today’s guest
Alexandra helps all movie lovers learn English with beautiful short films. She runs an online short movie club specifically for English learners and writes about her favorite shorts on her blog. Find out more at Visual English School.