Sarajevo for academic purposes

Nineteen years of travelling to Sarajevo and the city never ceases to enchant me. My first solo trip was no exception. Not the typical expedition en famille – this time it was just me and a sample of my research. I was off to the fifth Foreign Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics Conference (FLTAL’15) held at International Burch University. I’d heard about this event, by chance, last May. Tweets from Bosnia posted by the renowned Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, had aroused my curiosity. I discovered he’d been one of the FLTAL guest speakers in 2014. Well that was sufficient impetus to submit an abstract for this year.

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What a joy to receive an invitation to FLTAL’15! Plus it meant another visit to Sarajevo. The conference ran from Thursday to Saturday, 7 to 9 May, but fortuitous scheduling of flights via Istanbul and accommodation with my in-laws allowed me to stay a little longer. On the Wednesday I had the freedom of Sarajevo – welcome headspace before my presentation. Though it took me a while to remember how to relax… to wander around and reminisce, appreciate.

It was warm for spring but the heat was lilac-scented. Neither tourist nor native, I enjoyed retracing the centuries of history embedded in the cobbles of Baščaršija. Coffee and rahat lokum refreshed my way to Vijećnica. I’d watched this city hall and former national library as it slowly rose from ruins to magnificence. It drew me in again and, empty for a few minutes on a quiet afternoon, I was treated to a private exhibition of its splendour. Perfect calm before a busy conference!

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FLTAL’15 indeed proved lively. Global experts from a spectrum of fields in linguistics and language education delivered excellent keynote speeches. Names I knew as citations from reading their work and recommending it to my students. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to meet them and listen to their insights in Sarajevo. It was also wonderful to make new contacts among the conference participants. They were a diverse bunch – from Brazil to the USA, to China and Japan, to all over Europe, many nations were represented. I found it very interesting to hear presenters from across the Balkan region speaking about their studies on issues of relevance to this area. In particular, the involvement of institutions from various parts of Bosnia was important. From the outset, the focus was on language as a means of communication which can foster greater understanding between people(s).

It was a pleasure to present my research into second language acquisition by immigrant children in Ireland and to talk about the need for plurilingual and intercultural approaches to education. Strangely, I felt more nervous than usual, even though I’ve co-authored a book on this topic and spoken about it at a Council of Europe intergovernmental seminar and other events in Cambridge and Dublin. I think it was due to a certain emotional investment in bringing my work to Sarajevo. Having taught English in one of its language schools, being a regular visitor and eternal learner of Bosnian (which happens to be ‘father tongue’ of my kids), I’ve got a deep connection to this city. But, above all, I was excited. The thrill of being in Bosnia, exchanging ideas with colleagues from such a range of places and situations, made this prodigal’s return seem worthwhile.

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I also managed to become an unofficial tour guide. Many of the foreign participants had never been to Sarajevo before, so I offered tips on what to see during their short stay. An Irish vegetarian’s suggestion of Željo as the best ćevapi restaurant went down well! Back on campus, the staff and students of International Burch University did an impressive job not only organising in a stimulating conference but in promoting the potential of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The closing ceremony was followed by a concert in which young musicians provided a taste of the country’s cultural heritage, showing how this remains a source of mixing and innovation.

The next day, for those who didn’t have to leave immediately, a trip to Mostar was arranged. It included a brief stop at Počitelj – a town rich in both mediaeval and Ottoman influence – and lunch at the picturesque site of a dervish monastery on the River Buna. Visiting these places in new company was uplifting. Standing on Mostar’s famous bridge, I gazed below me into the emerald Neretva. Swollen with seasonal rain and snow-melt, it was flowing with fresh energy.

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Then the bus back to Sarajevo. By this stage, I was tired. Worried too. I’d heard, when I phoned home the previous night, that my eight-year-old daughter had lost a piece of her permanent front tooth in a minor accident. Throughout the journey to and from Mostar, I was trying to keep up with her search for emergency dental treatment – difficult to come by in Ireland on a Sunday. Verdant slopes turned to stone as they stretched towards reproachful peaks. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there to hug my unfortunate youngest. Illogically but inevitably, I blamed myself for being away. Asking ‘why?’ Realising the damage could’ve been more serious, yet it was lasting. I was caught between two worlds, amid the jagged mountains of Herzegovina aware of the fragility of my child.

A few days concentrating solely on work-related matters, rather than multitasking, had been delightful. But now I wished my that Bosnian-Irish darlings were with me. Hopefully, we’ll all be back in the summer. For the kids, it’s vital to maintain their sense of belonging. Also, from my own perspective, I’m eager to develop further professional liaisons with Bosnia.

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In the meantime, it’s lovely to feel familiar in Sarajevo. When the assistant in the Svjetlost bookstore recalls you as a loyal customer, when you know exactly where to find a special present for a brave little girl… This is a city whose streets forever hold significance – troves of idiosyncrasy which can frustrate but make you smile, often at yourself. It’s somewhere of stories galore. And of unfinished chapters.

Congratulations to the organisers of FLTAL’15 – for information about the conference see: http://fltal.ibu.edu.ba/

Link to my research, published as Volume 3 of the Cambridge English Profile Studies series: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/cambridgeenglish/professional-development/immigrant-pupils-learn-english/immigrant-pupils-learn-english-a-cefr-related-empirical-study-l2-development-paperback

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