ELE (English language Evenings). The New Season.
ELE (English language Evenings) is facing new challenges, as are we all in the new Covid-19-influenced world. I talked to two of the current three hosts, Oksana Konstantinova and newly appointed Colin Ward about what the club does, and how it is adapting in this new environment (editor).
John: First of all, may I ask you, what is ELE?
Oksana: As is written on our web site and on Wikipedia as well, ELE is a non-commercial, intellectual club. The club organises lectures once every two weeks by native English speakers on a very wide range of subjects, from, to take as examples two lectures from the last season’s cycle of talks: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an update on Artificial Intelligence. It’s a club first and foremost for Russians who like speaking and listening to English; people just like me for example, where they can not just listen to a talk but ask questions and interact. It is also a format for foreigners who want to meet new people and get new contacts.
John: When did ELE start?
Oksana: Almost 23 years ago, it was started by an American writer and teacher, Stephen Lapeyrouse.
John: What are the club’s goals?
The goals are first of all to provide an intellectual environment for people, secondly to provide the opportunity for Russians with the chance to meet foreign speakers, and to improve their English. That was what I directly experienced myself when I first found out about ELE.
Colin: From a foreigner’s point of view, this is a chance to interact with some smart Russian people, to exchange ideas. Of course, English Language Evenings is an opportunity for Russians to have more experience with native speakers because quite often, in a city as large as Moscow, I think native speakers make up 0.01 percent of the population. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but these kinds of chances are not common. I think that is one of primary goals. There is no question that the English native speakers who give talks, and those that attend, learn a lot from Russians, and that is an important aspect.
John: So it’s a win win situation?
Oksana: Yes absolutely, additionally, and I have noticed that because of the wide range of speakers and topics, every time a few people come who want to find out some information which may help them on something that they are working on, or is applicable for furthering their interests in general.
John: Fantastic. Most people do things for money in this world that we live in. You two are the current hosts of ELE, I have noticed that you probably aren’t doing this for money, I may be wrong, so may I ask why are you doing this? What’s the attraction?
Oksana: For me, I would say that it is affection. I first found out about the club in 2011, that’s 8 or even 9 years ago. I got used to it, and then I fell in love with it. Then I understood that I couldn’t live without it! It has become part of my life. I tell all my friends that Friday night is my special time. It’s not about money, it’s about commitment I would say. When you literally have to usher the public out of the library because they don’t want to let a speaker go and when new or regular ELE members come up to us with burning eyes after talks and thank us sincerely for finding such interesting speakers, it’s priceless. I believe that as someone who hosted and co-hosted ELE for years, you know that feeling.
John: Yes I do, it is very special, something that money cannot buy. Perhaps this is one of the good things about living here, that this is still possible. Organising all this must tax you of quite a lot of time and energy?
Colin: Yes, there is quite a lot to do to organise it, and Oksana has been doing extremely well I have to say. I hope to support her in all that she does. There are some risks involved with location and making sure that there is continuity, and this is quite a challenge. Finding speakers, who are also not paid, can be strenuous. Obviously, there have been new challenges to overcome with the appearance of Covid-19. From a personal point of view, what I feel about ELE is that it has a certain status within the foreign community, it might not be that well known, but amongst those who know it, it is an important feature, and for me it is important to know that I am able to make some kind of contribution by participating in this way.
John: ELE is lucky to have you Colin as a co-host. So the audience is mostly Russian, but I have noticed at the evenings that I have attended that there are quite a few foreigners as well?
Oksana: Yes, it’s mostly Russian, and about 30% of those who attend are foreigners. Not necessarily only English-speaking foreigners from the USA or UK, but people from other countries as well.
John: Those of us involved with teaching and communication in general, have definitely all come up against quite a few challenges with this Covid-19 situation, haven’t we? How is the pandemic affecting ELE, how will you handle that situation, how can you carry on with the next season starting in September?
Colin: ELE had to move fast after March, otherwise there wouldn’t have been any more lectures, so they were moved across to ‘Zoom’ calls. There was one test lecture which was quite successful, and then we have had a number of Zoom lectures which have gone quite well. In September we are launching with a speaker from the UK with very good Russian connections who will be talking about a major event from the past. I suppose what we are trying to do is recognise that there is a potential for another lockdown, so we are going to be doing about 25% of the lectures online and the others offline, and that proportion can be moved around as need be. Speakers will have to be prepared to be able to deliver their lectures online as well. But this has given us the opportunity to see that we can expand ELE, so from our point of view, Covid has added a new dimension. Speakers, and audiences can come from a much broader church so to speak.
John: But one wonderful thing that I remember about ELE is the Chekhov library, the special atmosphere there, and the post-lecture cups of tea or whatever in a café nearby! Will that carry on?, I’m a little bit confused.
Oksana: We have agreed that every fourth lecture is going to be online, no more at the moment, to give our visitors more opportunity to get to know speakers in person. The Chekhov library has been our home for about 20 years, so we feel attached to it and of course we will be returning back to it in September. But because of the pandemic, the library has introduced social distancing rules, which means that there can only be 40 guests maximum.
John: Thank you. How do people apply to become speakers?
Oksana: As we have all the dates agreed and negotiated with the library, we are able to schedule lectures accordingly. Anyone who is willing to give a lecture may contact us and we will discuss the topic, the dates and the details. We are quite lucky because the ELE name sort of speaks for itself and people do contact us. It’s not as though we are searching for speakers, we do, but also people find out about us from different sources and email us and ask if they can give a lecture. I’d also like to add that the friendly atmosphere of the club, the questions our audience asks and the interest it shows make new speakers into returning ones.
John: And the email is on the website?
Oksana: Yes, it’s on the website, and also they can contact us via Facebook.
John: As somebody who really likes what ELE does, may I congratulate Colin on becoming a co-host of ELE, how do you feel about it?
Colin: Actually I feel great about it, I feel pleased to be following in the footsteps of all the other hosts. I think it is a really great vehicle for people to express themselves and be open in an environment that is conducive to that. For me it is absolutely wonderful.
John: How can people who have never attended an ELE meeting find out about it? How can people remain in contact with you so that they will know whether a particular meeting is going to be held in the library or not?
Oksana: We have a website where you can get information. That website address is: http://www.elemoscow.net Also, we have a group on Facebook where we put an official announcement and a reminder about the next upcoming meeting: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ele1998. Also, there is a subscription system whereby you can sign up to receive our email announcements.
John: May I wish both of you, and the third host, Dr Oksana Danchevskaya who is on leave of absence at the moment, all the best, and that we all really appreciate all the hard work you are doing to allow this club to carry on, which I think is easy for us to take for granted. Also, of course, we shouldn’t forget about Stephen Lapeyrouse who came up with the idea in the first place, all those many years ago, and is still actively involved.