As fate would have it, he came to Switzerland with his family as a sixteen-year-old boy. From being silent to starting to speak he developed and refined his own method of learning foreign languages – far more effective than what we are used to from school time. He is ready to share it with all those who, finding themselves in a country with an unfamiliar language and culture, dream of learning to express themselves and understanding those around them.
Igor Botchkarev – the young, promising, intelligent and charming director of the VOX language school – is convinced that it is possible to go further and integrate into the society in which one is lucky enough to find oneself in a short period of time.
Some of the basics of foreign languages were laid down for him in his childhood: he studied English at a school in Krasnodar for many years, and just before his move to Switzerland he managed to master the basics of German and learnt a little French – he was lucky to have a talented teacher. However, Igor had no conversational practice in either language. He learnt to pronounce foreign words, starting with “Grüezi”, in Winterthur, Switzerland.
After a few months in the country, the bright youngster spoke German and was given the opportunity to enter a secondary school as a guest student. At secondary school he opted for the classical languages stream, where Latin was the main subject. This became the basis for his studies of languages from the entire Romance group. French and Spanish were easy and very enjoyable. Six months after his arrival he was already speaking Swiss German, and after graduating from secondary school, he even started teaching it to foreigners. Language learning became increasingly compelling and allowed him to experience the joy of meeting and communicating again.
However, there were inevitably some funny missteps at first. Once, to keep up a conversation about the weather, Igor decided to say something more interesting to his Swiss companions than simply “there are many clouds in the sky,” and did not immediately understand why the others laughed after he uttered the phrase “das Wetter ist so schwul heute!”. (translated from German this means “The weather is so homosexual today”. Correct would be “das Wetter ist so schwül heute” – The weather is so humid today).
His growing passion for languages eventually led him to the University of Zurich, where he studied French philology and Spanish studies, concentrating on the typology of world languages and comparative linguistics. Now Igor Botchkarev speaks 6 languages, and his immediate plans are to give a course on learning several languages at the same time and a course on how to learn languages properly on your own.
AN ENTREPRENEUR IS BORN, AND A BUSINESSMAN BECOMES A BUSINESSMAN
They say an entrepreneur has to have a certain mindset. This is Igor. He got into business in the second grade. At the very beginning of the nineties, three friends and some similarly savvy kids started distributing TV programmes to flats, selling them ten times the price of what they were buying at Soyuzpechat (СоюзПечать, former Soviet kiosk chain selling magazines and newspapers). They earned more than their parents and spent almost everything on ice cream and sweets, having had enough of them for the rest of their lives.
The children’s next business success came with the “Sowing” ritual on 8 March. They went around the flats imitating sowing: “Sowing, sowing, sowing, congratulations on March 8, open your chests, hand over your stumps!” The event was a great success and there was no competition. This was followed by car washing, catching fish in the rice canal, drying them and selling them in front of the beer hall; then unauthorised refuelling of cars on the city streets. In general, they did everything they could with ingenuity and audacity.
In Switzerland, his entrepreneurial skills were strengthened. First, Igor opened a biotech firm to clean up industrial heat exchangers in sugar factories, and later several online clothing shops.
In the process of realising his ideas, however, he realised that he was missing his language passion and his desire to share his work and experience required some kind of outlet. He started to develop his family’s small language studio in Winterthur. Soon a partner with IT experience joined, and things began to take off. He became director of VOX in 2008 in parallel to running two other businesses and studying at the University of Zurich in the fields of French philology and Spanish studies.
Nowadays, Igor increasingly focuses on implementing his method in the school’s teaching system, training the teachers, monitoring the quality of the lessons and making methodical and professional corrections. He makes sure that their team includes only the most talented linguists with good education, knowledge of articulatory phonetics, syntax, morphology, historical linguistics, and who understand and know the structure of language like a multiplication table.
Parallel to these tasks, he and his partner work on the formation of a strategy and the organisation of the digital and the customer relations departments.
There are now more than 60 teachers in the VOX team. The most important quality that Igor controls when hiring is an excellent command of the language system, a passion for teaching and a developed sense of empathy to empathise with the students‘ emotional state. After all, whoever tries to start speaking a foreign language is confused by every language ever learnt, and is like a child learning to speak.
And while a child’s fear of making a mistake is not yet known, an adult’s fear of being misunderstood or looking foolish is much more difficult to overcome. “My son is growing up with three native languages: Russian, French and Swiss German,” says Igor, “so you can hear things like: ‘Gäschter I saw this truc in the street and s’gliche has grand-papa and grand-maman‘. That is, ‘Yesterday I saw a thing in the street and grandma and grandpa have it too.’
“At school, too, an unexpected error can slip in, and you have to know how to react to it properly. Swiss learning Russian often get the emphasis wrong. A pupil in class: “Yesterday I peed the answer to a question” (Here two Russian words are confused, which are written the same, but pronounced differently: напИсать – to pee and написАть – to write). And a Russian-speaking fellow I know, being unable to pronounce the Swiss word “Grüezi”, replaced it with a consonant of his native language – “cucumbers” (Here, Russian word огурцы is mean, which is pronounced like “ogoortzee”). Everyone understood him, and he enjoyed his ingenuity. More to that, Russian-speaking students learning German find it difficult to pronounce place names like Chur, Seebach, Ebikon.
“The influence of the native language is hard to eradicate,” continues Igor, “so one of our students constantly called her Italian classmate Paolo ‘Paola’, because in Russian the unstruck ‘o’ is pronounced as [a], which really hurt Paolo’s male ego. After all, “Paola” is feminine in Italian. With tears in his eyes. “I’m not Paola, I’m Paolo,” to which the girl replied nonchalantly: “Well, that’s what I said: Paola”.
NOBODY IS PERFECT
Igor Botchkarev believes that if you do not speak, then it is difficult for you to learn to speak. Through conversation, a connection is created between the brain and the muscles that make the sound. It’s like learning to play the piano: you can’t learn to play just by listening to Chopin tapes or even memorising notes. Only by playing can one learn to play, and speak – if speaking, starting with imitation of what has been heard.
“If you are complex about your pronunciation,” the director of the language school shares his advice, “learn a couple of sentences by heart with a native speaker, make an audio recording of the phrase and practise its pronunciation, ideally, until it matches the pronunciation of the native speaker. This will become the foundation for further improvement of speech. “Igor Botchakrev
And if “the tongue does not turn“? Igor believes that in this case, a simple repetition of what the student heard will help, even if the meaning of the radio program or podcast the student must listen to is not clear. Five or, even better, ten minutes of daily training can work a miracle: the muscles of the tongue, lips will develop to pronounce unusual sounds. “It’s like twine, like a gymnastic bridge: you gradually stretch and stretch the muscles, until you sit down or get into the correct position. “
In multilingual Switzerland, nobody cares what you say. In the land of polyglots, they treat your efforts with understanding and respect and, when talking, concentrate on understanding and supporting, not catching in illiteracy. “Don’t worry about mistakes, don’t be afraid of them,” Botchkarev recommends. – Errors are the norm; a person learns only from his mistakes! “
Having visited the VOX language school for a lesson (by the way, an excellent location – within walking distance from the main station in Zurich) and met some teachers, I was fascinated by the sincerity, burning eyes, interest in my work and professionalism. And I signed up for a course of simultaneous study of Italian, Spanish and French.
Text by Elizaveta Andreeva, AboutSwiss.ch