Famous Linguists

  • 06/04/2017
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We’re currently on the hunt for community interpreters here at Vandu and history is littered with famous figures interested in linguistics. In this blog, we’ll name a few that we wouldn’t mind taking on at Vandu.


Sir Richard Burton

Richard Francis Burton was a famous English explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. Born in 1821, he would go on to become one of the most well studied linguists in history, and according to some accounts could speak 29 different languages from Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as having a deep knowledge of the cultures around these languages. Burton was very eccentric by Victorian-era standards and defied many cultural taboos, such as criticising British colonial policies, and inter-racial relations. However, in 1886 he was recognised with a knighthood for his contributions to British society, before passing away four years later.


Queen Elizabeth I

Born in 1533, daughter of King Henry VIII of England and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s 44-year reign as Queen was considered a stable and prosperous time and the arts, particularly English drama, flourished during her era thanks to the likes of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Elizabeth had several teachers during her youth, receiving an education fit for a princess and resulting in Elizabeth being able to speak Greek, Italian, French, Flemish, and later would learn Welsh and Cornish. Being the Queen of England would require a knowledge of languages and foreign cultures, and according to historians, a Venetian ambassador remarked that Elizabeth “possessed languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue". Elizabeth passed away at the age of 70 in 1603.


Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman is a half-American, half-Israeli born in 1981. Though she has won an Oscar for best actress in the film Black Swan, Portman has always placed education and languages over her acting career stating that she would “rather be smart, than be a movie star”. Portman took time out of her acting to earn a degree at Harvard and attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Along with Hebrew, Portman can speak French, Japanese, German and Arabic, and has professed her interest in languages since her youth.


José Mourinho

Currently the boss at Manchester United F.C, Mourinho is amongst the best football managers in Europe, and some would argue he already has made his place in managerial history. Football is perhaps the most international game in the world, and being a top manager in the English Premier League requires a grasp of different languages and an understanding of different cultures. Born in Portugal in 1963, Mourinho has gone on to win trophies in Portugal, England, Spain and Italy, and can speak their respective languages -including Catalan- as well as French (maybe in case PSG come calling?)    

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Body Language

  • 30/03/2017
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Body language is one of the few languages we don’t provide at Vandu, and the fact that readers of body language are called experts rather than interpreters suggests why. While an interpreter can either get it right or wrong, body language is not an exact science, and several consistent signals must be recognised to support a conclusion. Having said that, so much more can be understood from a person’s body language – many sources agree that between 50%-80% of communication is non-verbal.

Scientists and philosophers have connected physical behaviour with meaning, mood and personality throughout the ages, but only in living memory has the science of body language become as sophisticated as it is today. Initially the only notable findings on body language were made by the ancient Greeks but Charles Darwin was the true pioneer on the subject, and his book written in 1872 ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ is commonly regarded as the beginnings of the body language science, and is the only pre-1950’s reference made by Julius Fast’s book ‘Body Language’ – the book that brought the science to the mainstream.

So, what is body language? The dictionary definition is this:

“Body language -noun- the process of communicating what you are feeling or thinking by the way you place and move your body rather than by words”

However, what actually counts as body language is up for debate. They tend to encompass these actions:


•             How we position our bodies.

•             Our closeness to and the space between us and other people (proxemics), and how this changes.

•             Our facial expressions.

•             Our eyes especially and how our eyes move and focus.

•             How we touch ourselves and others.

•             How our bodies connect with objects, for instance, pens, cigarettes, glasses and clothing.

•             Our breathing, and other less noticeable physical effects, for example our heartbeat and perspiration.


Most of us can instinctively read certain body language signals, such as crossed arms and a tapping foot might indicate impatience or frustration, however it is considered bad practice to make judgements on one signal – it’s better to go on what’s called ‘clusters’ otherwise known as a group of similar signals.

Another thing to consider is the cultural differences between people; comfortable proximities differ between cultures, as do meanings behind eye contact. For example, keeping eye contact might mean certainty or confidence in the U.K, but in Latino culture prolonged eye contact can mean you are challenging an individual or that you might have a romantic interest in the recipient. In many Asian cultures staring into the eyes of someone is also a sign of aggression. Another example of this is handshakes, here in the UK and most of the western world a firm friendly handshake is considered polite, but across Muslim cultures its frowned upon for men and women to touch publicly, and in Hindu cultures men place their hands as if praying to greet women.

Understanding body language can be a great tool to get a better impression of someone or a particular interaction between two people, and it provides signs that aren’t so obvious by any other means of communication.

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Spring Celebrations

  • 14/03/2017
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It feels like spring has truly sprung today, the sun feels warm, the trees and flowers are beginning to blossom. We all know about Easter here in England, but how do the rest of the world celebrate this wonderful time?

Japan – Hanami

Hanami is a traditional custom of viewing flowers as they bloom over Japan, normally over two weeks at the end of March. Locals will have small parties and feasts underneath Japanese cherry and plum trees and enjoy the blossoms, which are said to be a representation of life itself – beautiful, yet fleeting. The custom was popularised by Emperor Saga, and is said to have started around the year 795. It has since become a staple in Japanese culture.

Eastern Europe – Marzanna

Taking place in mainly Slavic areas of Europe, this is one of the more bizarre traditions on the list. ‘Marzanna’ is the Polish name for a Baltic and Slavic goddess whom is associated with the death and rebirth of nature. Over the years, the religious aspects of this custom have faded away, leaving only the strange tradition of throwing dolls of Marzanna into nearby rivers, or setting effigies of her alight, or indeed both. Her ‘death’ is meant to signify the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the whole process is accompanied by group songs and can sometimes end in a feast to celebrate.


Australia – Floriade

Floriade is in Australia’s capital city of Canberra, and is the youngest entry on this list. It began in 1988, and has gone on to become the biggest flower festival in the Southern Hemisphere. The festival has a wonderful community feel as it regularly involves local schools and care homes, as well as local art, live performance, and other recreational activities. The event receives over 300,000 visitors every year, and now features an evening counterpart festival called ‘NightFest’.

India – Holi

Holi is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, coming from one of the many symbolic legends of Vishnu. The event tends to take place in late February or early March, and whilst it originated in India its popularity has seen its spread throughout the world. The night before Holi people have parties and make bonfires, and those more traditionally inclined may perform sacred rituals; but it’s the powder paint fight on the day of Holi which the celebration is famous for. The powder paint fight is supposed to symbolise letting go of any of the evils that dogged you over the winter, and the carefree fun is meant for you to enjoy the human contact and the people around you.

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International Womens Day Blog Series (4 of 4)

  • 09/03/2017
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In the build-up to International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, I’ll be writing a short blog series regarding some of the famous and not-so-famous women of the world; women who have triumphed in the face of adversity and overcome challenges both worldly and personal. In our final instalment of the series, we look back on the life (so far) of the director of Vandu, Mebrak Ghebreweldi.



Mebrak was born on the 23rd of January, 1965 in Haiyellow, Eritrea, a small village just over 20km from the capital city Asmara. One of nine children, she grew up on her parents’ farm living in a small building with little more than a stone fence between her family and the animals they looked after. She would have to walk miles to get to school in the neighbouring village, making her way through a landscape that would flip-flop between semi-aridness and verdant greenery, with tall hills and mountains surrounding her. Once she turned 11, she moved to the capital for further education and upon finishing her Eritrean equivalent of GCSE’s, Mebrak joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a group of fighters working against the Ethiopian regime, initially as a barefoot doctor giving first aid to men behind the frontline and later as a communications officer, both in the headquarters and in the field. Mebrak would be part of this army for a decade, and the experience would shape her approach to life instilling a sense of discipline and determination to an intelligent young woman. In 1991 when Eritrea finally won independence Mebrak quickly returned to education, going to university as an international student in Sweden and then England in 1992, where she met her soon to be husband and had two children, Aaron and Joshua.

Unfortunately, Mebrak and her husband divorced a few years later which left Mebrak with very little money and two more mouths to feed, so she borrowed from a friend and set up Vandu Language Services, then known as South East Interpreting. She supplemented her income by taking on foster care, and within a year and a half she had paid her friend back and was making a profit from Vandu. Building a successful business is hard enough as it is, but to make it in a different country, with a different language and culture whilst also caring for two sons is quite an achievement. The company has been going for just under 20 years, and along the way she has developed many young adults via the apprenticeship scheme, earned a Master’s in business, become a qualified life coach and founded a new social enterprise in Diversity Resource International, which provides leadership and business management programmes in Africa and the UK. As Mebrak has grown older her mind has turned back to Eritrea and Africa and while DRI is a response to that, she also does a lot of work for ERA-UK, a charity that looks specifically at Eritrea and its youth; every year she has either hosted a large charity dinner or ran the London 10k in name of ERA-UK.

Like the other women in this blog series, Mebrak Ghebreweldi has had to overcome many obstacles to enjoy success; the scale might be a smaller, but Mebrak and the other ladies in the series are testament to the strength of women throughout the ages, and are a wonderful reminder of the capabilities of the female gender.

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International Womens Day Blog Series (3 of 4)

  • 02/03/2017
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In the build-up to International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, I’ll be writing a short blog series regarding some of the famous and not-so-famous women of the world; women who have triumphed in the face of adversity and overcome challenges both worldly and personal. Nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale is the subject of our third instalment of this series.

Florence Nightingale was born on the 12th of May 1820 in the Italian city she was named after. As with all the women in this blog series, Nightingale would go on to achieve great things, but unlike our previous subjects, Nightingale came from an upper-class background and actually worked her way down, as nursing was seen as a working-class woman’s job during this time. Affluent young women of the 1800’s were only meant to be wives and mothers, nothing more; its telling that Florence never married or had children. Her early life was particularly rosy, she enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle and education and her father William would take the family on tours of Europe. Even in her early days she would find herself caring for the sick, whether it was a family member or a local in the nearby village. But it wasn’t until the spring of 1937 believing that God had spoken to her in her dreams, that she became truly impassioned to devote her life to nursing. She encountered strong resistance from her family upon telling them of her plans, particularly from her mother and sister. It would take her more than 20 years to fully commit to and learn her vocation, and she would eventually take a post as superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Upper Harley Street, London a year before the beginning of the Crimean War.

The Crimean War is where Florence Nightingale truly made a name for herself. Upon arriving at the Selimiye Barracks in Scutari (formally an area in Istanbul), Nightingale found that the medical team was understaffed and over worked, and providing poor care in dirty, unsanitary conditions. Men were littered around the barracks with hay used to soak up the blood on the floor, the food was poorly processed, and more men were dying of diseases spread throughout the hospital than their war wounds. Florence worked to install more sanitary conditions to the hospital, even processes as simple as washing hands before seeing to patients. But the key moment was when a plea written by Florence to The Times newspaper was published, and subsequently a prefabricated civilian hospital was sent to Scutari – once the new build was up and running the mortality rate dropped from 42% to 2%. Following the new hospital was a report which popularised her nickname ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, as she would often do nightshifts on her own. Her time in Istanbul would make for the foundations of her legacy, as upon her return home she would present her evidence for the need of sanitary conditions in medical areas to the Royal Commission of Health in the Army, and go on to be a great advocate for hygiene in hospitals, the effects of which we still see in hospitals today.

After the Crimean War, Nightingale reduced her involvement of in-field nursing and moved onto teaching her methods of the trade. She would set up the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery which lives on to this day as part of London’s King College, and at the time her student nurses would go on to become matrons at major hospitals throughout Britain. In her later years, her sanitation activism would move from hospital level to the realms of governance, where she lobbied for social reform and stronger legislation, eventually culminating in the Public Health Acts of 1874 and 1875. These acts would have been considerably weaker if not for Nightingale, and along with giving more power to local authorities (which Nightingale also had a hand in) would contribute to a 20-year rise in life expectancy from 1871 to the mid 1930’s.

Florence Nightingale died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 90 in 1910, with many honours, including a Royal Red Cross bestowed by Queen Victoria. Against a backdrop of social restraints in Victorian England, Nightingale rose above it all to become a powerful woman in a world dominated almost completely by men.  

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