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Peta van Zanden and her Mongolia Red Cross colleagues build a compost bin.

Making omelettes and mulching orchards are all part of Peta van Zanden's unusual approach to English classes in Mongolia.

It's Friday morning in the northern province of Selenge and Peta van Zanden is about to run an English lesson with her colleagues from Mongolia Red Cross. But in an unconventional twist, today the kitchen is the classroom. Peta is asking her new friends to open up their taste buds - and their vocal chords - and help her cook omelettes as part of an English breakfast.

The aim, says Peta, is to learn language in context.

"It's been much more successful than I had expected," she says. "I demonstrate what I'm making and ask colleagues to assist in chopping up vegetables or setting the table. I speak in English only and I believe I'm more easily understood here than in a classroom because I am using language in context. Learning is mutual as inevitably Mongolian words come up during the session."

Peta has discovered that being flexible and adaptable is key to making the most of her assignment. In Mongolia under the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, she has been helping Mongolia Red Cross staff improve their English while also getting hands on with a range of branch development activities.

Located in Mongolia's north, Selenge Province is the country's food bowl. Agriculture is vital to the region, with around half of the country's grain produced here. For Peta, this means scheduling English lessons around the branch's agriculture-based income generation projects, which include cattle breeding and cultivation of a sea-buckthorn orchard.

"In the first two or three weeks after I arrived, they really made an effort to do English lessons in the morning," she says. "But as they got busier with summer coming - the ideal time for them to get out and do agriculture activities - the English lessons weren't happening on a daily basis.

"But then I found a great opportunity to use my agricultural background to teach them how to make compost and mulching and the importance of it for their orchards. It's been really helpful and I underestimated the significance it would have for them in being able to grow better, healthier produce."

While local income generation activities are important for the branch, English skills are becoming vital. International donors fund the majority of Mongolia Red Cross' disaster management and social care activities, so the staff need strong English skills in order to access and write reports and apply for funding opportunities.

B. Tuvshinjargal, Chairman of the Selenge branch, says improved English skills will help Mongolian Red Cross staff to engage on an international level.

"Building on our English language skills will help us improve and develop our organisation…we will be able to talk about our projects not only in our community, we can go beyond our community."

For Peta, volunteering has defied all expectations. A town planner for eight years before volunteering with AVID, she has also taught English in China, Hong Kong and Japan. Meanwhile, her passion for farming and agriculture made the assignment in Selenge Province a perfect fit.

So far her biggest challenges have been learning the local language and adapting to the country's unpredictable weather. "One day you have a snow storm and the next day a dust storm, and the next day it's 35 degrees, so that really takes a bit of getting used to."

She also has some sage advice for anyone considering volunteering in Mongolia.

"You naturally have some assumptions and it's actually quite delightful when you're proven wrong. Remain adaptable and be ready to get your hands dirty. And be humble."


Photo: Courtesy of Peta van Zanden