The bags are all neatly packed. You have double-checked your passport and ticket and feel excited to be heading to a foreign country. All the arrangements seem to have been meticulously taken care of. But have they really? Perhaps it would be wise to remember your destination. Is it by any chance an English-speaking country? If the answer to that question is in the affirmative and if you do not happen to be a native speaker of English then another issue seems to be pertinent: how well are you prepared language-wise to get the most out of your trip, be it vacation or business?
We have all heard hilarious stories about tourists or business travelers who, in a desperate effort to communicate, had to resort to mimicking, since they did not have a minimum working knowledge of the language of the country they were visiting. I was once told about a foreigner visiting England who, in order to convey the idea of the dish he would like to order in a restaurant, started to imitate a chicken by spreading his “wings” (Oops! I mean “arms”) and uttering clucks. While such scenes may be funny and amusing to “spectators” standing by, they remind us that being minimally linguistically competent in the language of the country one is visiting plays a major role in turning one´s stay into a more pleasant one.
Bearing this introduction in mind, I now turn the spotlight to us language teachers. How can we better help prepare our students in order to interact in English in the various situations that are likely to come up during a business or vacation trip? And what are these situations? As resourceful and experienced teachers we should be aware of how crucial the syllabus for such an endeavor is. That´s right, the syllabus: the summary of main topics to be tackled. What should the syllabus include? Check out the table below for different situations and the language items that are likely to derive from them. Far from being thorough, I believe that the table below includes, language-wise, what is most relevant for someone who is traveling to a foreign country.
ANALYZING THE SYLLABUS
SITUATIONS A TRAVELER TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY IS LIKELY TO COME ACROSS AND LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADRESSED.
SITUATION: Airport & airplane
LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADDRESSED: Common phrases used by the traveler when checking in at the airport; usual check-in agent phrases; specific language used by the crew on the airplane; language the traveler is likely to need to interact with the crew on the plane; customs officer´s phrases and traveler´s phrases when going through customs; etc.
————————————————————————————————————–SITUATION: Means of transportation
LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADDRESSED: Key phrases used at train, subway and bus stations (to buy tickets and elicit information); usual phrases to interact with a taxi driver; car rental agent phrases; traveler´s phrases for renting a car; language to be used if the rental car breaks down; etc.
LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADDRESSED: Usual phrases to make a hotel reservation, to check in and out of the hotel; language to express requests and needs such as in the case of room service; key phrases to ask for directions and make a phone call; etc.
SITUATION: Food & beverage
LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADDRESSED: Names of food and beverage items; usual phrases to interact with the waiter in a restaurant; names of typical dishes of the country the traveler is visiting; etc.
SITUATION: Tourist attractions & Leisure and entertainment
LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADDRESSED: Language for choosing a sightseeing tour; theme glossary for leisure and entertainment; etc.
SITUATION: Going shopping
LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADDRESSED: Key phrases to interact with the clerk at a store; names of clothes items; names of stores and services; theme glossary for store items; etc.
SITUATION: Health & emergencies
LANGUAGE ITEMS TO BE ADDRESSED: Language to express how you feel and interact with the doctor; theme glossary for the human body and symptoms; key phrases used in emergencies.
It goes without saying that each of the language items mentioned above entails lots of vocabulary words and expressions that are related to them. For instance, words and expressions such as toll road; trunk (U.S.)/boot (Engl.); insurance; free mileage; speed limit; detour and GPS would inevitably be essential items under “car rental agent phrases” and “traveler´s phrases for renting a car”.
Another important aspect to be pointed out is that besides language components, culture tips are a must, and can definitely enhance communication a great deal. Being culturally savvy will no doubt make a big difference when traveling abroad, helping you interact more effectively. Some key topics to be addressed are listed below:
Currency: being familiar with the most important bills and coins of the country you are visiting pays dividends!
Food: what are the typical dishes of the country you will visit? Be sure to know in advance what´s going to replace your rice and beans while you are away!
Measuring units and temperature scale: miles, feet, inches, pounds and Fahrenheit. Get acquainted with these terms for they are the norm in many English-speaking countries.
Local customs and traditions: learning about them previously will pay off. After all, remember the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Also, remember that the way certain things are in the country you are visiting may differ from your home country. When renting a car in the U.S., for example, you should be aware that most American gas stations are self-service and therefore you should be prepared to pump gas into your rental car yourself!
Popular holidays: being aware of important holidays of the country one is visiting will help one better understand the mood and behavior of the local people on those days. We should also not forget that many words and expressions are intimately connected to certain holidays. Take Halloween for example and expressions such as “trick-or-treat” and “jack-o-lantern”.
We should also not forget the differences between American and British English, the two most common “Englishes”, since in some cases there are certain vocabulary variations that might lead the less attentive traveler astray. It should for instance be relevant to remind our students that in England an elevator is called a lift, and that the trunk of a car is called a boot. Some other key vocabulary differences crucial to the business or vacation traveler are listed below:
Zip code postcode
Crosswalk pedestrian crossing; zebra crossing
Trash can; garbage can dustbin; litter bin
Subway underground; tube
Parking lot car park
Taxi stand taxi rank
Cell phone mobile
Pay phone public phone
Shoulder hard shoulder
Where there´s a “need” there´s a way!
We are all familiar with the saying “where there´s a will there´s a way”. For the sake of this article please allow me to introduce a slightly different version: where there´s a “need” there´s a way. An explanation is due: language learning takes place much more naturally when there is a real “need” for communication. As a teacher you may have sometimes experienced the lack of interest your students have in learning words and phrases. Let´s remember they may not always be to blame since the situations created to teach those language chunks may seem artificial to them and won´t really grab their attention at the time. Now, once the opportunity of traveling to a foreign country comes along, where speaking the right word and phrase in English will make all the difference, then that´s the time when learning will take place more naturally and rapidly. On a recent trip to the U.S. I was happily surprised to see how quickly my eleven year old son picked up the phrase “Can I see the menu for dessert, please?” and used it effectively with the waiters at restaurants. There is definitely no doubt that when the need for communication is crucial, it instills a prompt and more appropriate response from people.
Make no mistake, linguistic competence in the language of the country one will visit will surely guarantee a more enjoyable and successful trip, and that is precisely where we teachers come in: in our capacity to ensure that our students are language-wise prepared to get the most out of their trips!
José Roberto A. Igreja has a BA in English and Literature from PUC – SP. He is the author and co-author of several ELT books, including: