UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Academic Spotlight: Dr Natalia V. Parker

8 April 2024

In this edition of the SSEES Academic Spotlight, we hear from Dr Natalia V Parker, Lecturer (Teaching) in Russian Language at UCL SSEES.

SSEES Academic Spotlight - Dr Natalia V Parker

What brought you to work at SSEES?

I have always liked helping people to understand each other. I worked as a corporate interpreter for a while but then got really interested in education where the levels of understanding are much deeper. When I started teaching my mother tongue in the UK, it was a steep learning curve, as understanding how others see your own language turned out to be considerably harder than trying to understand something yourself. I remember one day, at the end of the 1990s, walking past the North Wing of the Senate House, which had a sign for “School of Slavonic and East European Studies”, and thinking about what it would be like working there, among the people who know so much more about learning than I did. The main reason for coming back to HE was to understand better how learners learn languages. I delved into psycholinguistics and Second Language Acquisition to do that, developing my own teaching approach. When I got the job at SSEES it was a dream come true, because, at the end of the day, if you are going to teach Russian in the UK, SSEES is the place!

If you weren’t working in academia, what would be your dream job?

I must say that I enjoyed all the jobs I have had so far – I liked working in a corporate environment, working with children was extremely satisfying, and so was working with adults in Further Education. I have a friend who left academia to teach English in a small school in Vietnam. Sometimes, particularly at the end of a term (haha), I think that one day that might be a good option. This is instead of retirement. I don’t think I would ever be able to retire properly!

Can you tell us a bit about your research/teaching and why it’s important to study this?

My teaching and my research are inseparable – my teaching feeds directly into my research and my research informs my teaching. It started with small teaching experiments that I conducted as a sort of action research, to see which technique would work better for students, and has gradually grown into a full-scale UKRI-funded project, investigating learners’ cognitive processing and looking for ways of optimising it, to make language learning more effective. It involved a longitudinal teaching intervention with lots of statistical analysis and psycholinguistic interviews. The results were part of my PhD and are now published in Open Access.

Why is it important to study this? They say “to help somebody solve a problem, you need to see that problem through their eyes.” It is quite challenging to see the learning process from a learner’s perspective. This is exactly what I am trying to do in my research. Traditionally, teaching and textbooks are designed from the teacher’s point of view, and I work to help change this. A couple of years ago, with the help of UKRI funding, I conducted a Knowledge Exchange Project, organising a series of workshops and roundtables with teachers of Russian in the UK, which had very positive feedback. I am hoping to carry on working in that direction. My first textbook “Russian in Plain English” is also completely learner-centred and based on the outcomes of my research. I quite like one of the students’ comments about it – “it explains complicated things in words that I can understand”, which, I guess, is the whole purpose behind it.

Outside of work, how do you unwind?

As many of my colleagues know, I live in Wales and love coming back to Penarth at the end of the week and having a walk to Penarth Pier or to Cardiff Bay, weather permitting, of course. I have been doing yoga for many years and cannot imagine living without it. It helps me “air” my brain a bit! I used to do paragliding and figure skating, but have not done these for a bit. However, I am thinking that I might go back to the ice rink in the summer. What else? I am a passionate swimmer! I swim in the sea in the summer, but otherwise, in the swimming pool once a week. Finally, I love travelling and always look forward to a conference or a holiday.

If you could recommend only one book, what would it be?

This is a really hard question! I have a few authors whom I really enjoy reading, e.g. Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Barbara Kingsolver, Paulo Coehlo, but I would really struggle to give preference to one of their books. I do have a favourite film though, “The Shawshank Redemption”. I think it is staying human in inhumane situations which is important for me; and probably seeing every person that you meet as a human with their own needs, hopes and aspirations, which is a rare ability.

Who has been the greatest source of inspiration to you, and how have they impacted you, personally or professionally?

Professionally, I admire François Gouin, a 19th century French linguist who started by trying to learn German by learning all the grammar rules and memorising the entire dictionary and was extremely frustrated that he couldn’t understand anything and was unable to communicate in Germany. He then took this challenge as an opportunity and dedicated his life to looking for more effective methods of teaching languages, becoming one of the most prominent reformers of European language education at the time. I also aspire to the work of Jerome Bruner, who was at the start of cognitive psychology, as his principles are at the basis of my research.

Personally, I feel very fortunate to have met a lot of amazing people who inspired me. If I have to choose one, it would definitely be my grandma, who risked her life to tell other villagers to flee their homes before the Nazis burnt their village down in December 1941. She then rebuilt her house and her life, only to be repressed by Stalin’s regime. Having lived through all of that, she remained the kindest, most positive and understanding person I have ever known.

Tell us something about you that might surprise people.

I like rock music and was lucky to attend the legendary Moscow Music Peace Festival Concert, with Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions and Bon Jovi, next to Gorky Park and other Soviet groups. Also, one of my favourite groups is AC/DC. I went to their concert in Manchester in 2016 when Brian Johnson ended up in hospital and Justin Rose stepped in. So, I saw two in one!