Back to Index
 IATEFL ESP SIG Newsletter nº4 November 1995

TEACHING THE ENGLISH OF TOURISM

Robin Walker

Among the many vocational and professional areas that go to make up the world of English for Specific Purposes, that of the English of Tourism must surely he one of the more attractive since all of us are tourists on countless occasions throughout our lives, and hence, as teachers, can bring our own real experience and opinions to the language classroom. However, teaching of the English of tourism is a little more complex than simply knowing how to change a flight reservation. Our work must avoid turning out students whose smattering of ill-learned set phrases make Manuel of Fawlty Towers appear bi-lingual.

Course books or non-text approach?

Anybody approaching the teaching of the English of Tourism for the first time will probably feel comforted on reviewing the bibliography of published materials. If not exactly abundant, the full list certainly seems adequate, with several titles specifically written to cover the complexities of work as different in nature as that of a travel agency to that of waiting tables in a quality restaurant. Certainly, for training courses aimed at those already employed in the sector, the available material is probably enough for the situations we are likely to encounter.

However, for anybody teaching English in one of the numerous tertiary education establishments offering an initial qualification of a broader nature, the published course books may soon prove to be of only limited value. As has just been suggested, a great deal of what is currently available (English for Hotel Staff, Nelson; May I help you? Cassell; etc.) is too job-specific for the requirements of those following courses in Travel and Tourism at Diploma or Degree levels, since many such students are often uncertain as to which of even the major divisions of tourism attracts them most. In addition, the many of the job-specific courses have a predominantly functional approach, which at best gives students the minimum language needed to survive in a first job or on industrial placement. Too often, however, it reduces ESP to a specialised foreign language phrase book. Moreover, the jobs, covered by these books tend to be those of waiter or receptionist, whilst many tertiary students aspire to managerial posts and are therefore necessarily interested in the wider issues of tourism.

Further complications arise when we go on to take into account the realities of our students. With English now being taught from a very early age (8-10 years old) throughout Europe and beyond, almost al¡ incoming students start higher education having studied English for anything from 3-8 years, as a result of which almost al¡ of the available course books prove rather elementary. This can be highly demotivating for the more serious students, and in Spain the situation is made even worse by the strongly cyclical nature of language teaching in the national curriculum. Thus, on reaching the country's Escuelas de Turismo at the age of 18, many students have already met the main elements of intermediate English on at Leas two occasions, although normally the majority still have a fairly imperfect command of this work.

Given this inevitable heterogeneous nature of a typical student intake, an intake whose target situation is still largely undefined, it should be apparent that attempts to organise course content along essentially linguistic lines are doomed to failure. What is the value of (re-) teaching the differences between present and past or past and perfect to students who are already happy discussing the finer points of the present perfect simple continuous use?

Alternatively, what value is an all-inclusive tour to some distant palm-fringed golden shore to a student barely able to ask for a trip to the coast?

Teaching the English of tourism, then, is probably better achieved through the topic-based focus outlined below. Correctly handled, such an approach fulfils the double role of providing a meaningful framework within which they can improve their language knowledge and skills, whilst at the same time integrating language classes into the students’ wider experience of tourism. It avoids the too-obvious, up-front repetition of language items they have already seen, although frequently only partially comprehended. Moreover, a topic-based approach such as this helps guarantee that the language items covered are those genuinely needed within the field chosen, and not perhaps those considered ‘essential’ at this level by ESP staff approaching tourism English from a more language-centred stance.

Contents & Methodology

Our Department has been working for some time now to overcome the difficulties describes above, difficulties which 1 suspect are common to other areas of ESP. The topics we currently use follow, tourism-wise, a chronological development, which from the point of view of incoming students at least, appears relatively natural. In First Year, we approach through such topics as travel agencies, tour operation, transportation, etc. (See Table). Year 2, in contrast, supposes that we have been successful in getting our customers to their chosen destination, and consequently deals with the tourist on holiday, covering areas such as arrival, immigration and customs, car hire, accommodation, restaurants and so on. The theory of tourism as a major international socio-economic activity forms the basis of the 3rd year course, with students examining topics as varied as the effect of tourism on the environment, tourism and the developing nations, theme parks, the future of tourism, and so on.

This apparently obvious organisation is proving to have high face validity among our students, resulting in increased motivation. It also proves interesting if we examine some of its linguistic implications. Within the limits of a common minimum core of language and skills, for example, we find that with groups of students of different levels of language competence within the same year group, it is possible to give the same theme /unit appropriately different treatments. Thus, a topic such as Making Plans (Year 1) will require knowledge of at least the present simple and present continuous with future meaning (common minimum core), whilst leaving more advanced groups free to explore other options such as the future continuous. Similarly, whilst the basic description of a country (The Geography of Tourism - Year 1) would be limited to acquiring the essential lexis, stronger groups would be free to build on their known vocabulary, investigate patterns (-an and -ese endings for nationality), study collocations or connotations, etc.

Secondly, in linguistic terms it is also interesting to note that not only do we now have the freedom to tackle each topic at the level suited to a given group of students, but that the exact sequence (of structural items at least) is sometimes markedly different to the more traditional order. In Year 1 for example, present and, particularly, future tenses dominate over those of the past, which barely need make an appearance until well into Year 2. Moreover, in a purely natural way, we see that the genuinely linguistically complex tasks, such as those of complaint and regret (3rd conditionals, structures using 'wish', should+have+past participle, etc.), together with those of abstract ideas, discussion and debate ('Tourism - a cure for all ills?'), are required in the final year in order to communicate ideas and opinions satisfactorily. Thus, by following this topic based organisation, there is a clear and, as has already been suggested, natural progression from the linguistically simple language of the travel agency to the much more complex language needed to discuss, say, the future of world tourism.

Of course, if genuine progress is to occur, progress signifying not only meeting new language, but the firm consolidation of previously encountered items, it is necessary to invite students to partake in serious reflection as to their understanding and/or misconceptions. If traditional methodologies of the 60's and 70's were guilty of concentrating too much on the language system, one of the problems of the more simplistic task-based approaches is their tendency to give rise to students' mistakes becoming fossilised, as learner's become increasingly adept at 'getting by' with the same, often limited level of imperfect English. There is a need, then, to make judicious use of a variety of activities to help students become aware of their own, individual deficiencies, and hopefully, therefore much more receptive to any language work which is offered. The key, in this respect, would seem to be finding the balance between time spent on the often highly-motivating activities designed to bring about synthesis, the use of language to communicate, mistakes and all, and time spent on analysis, on the surface a less appetising task.

In order to achieve this balance, my colleagues and 1 are now moving towards a combination of individual units and longer, multi-theme consolidation blocks. The former give the context for any language analysis undertaken, although naturally never to the exclusion of suitable communication tasks. They also give us strong guidance as to the relative importance of the different language skills to receive attention. With a unit such as 'Brochures and publicity' for example, which could clearly give rise to a discussion as to what makes good publicity, the emphasis nevertheless tends to fall on improving students' descriptive writing skills and the associated vocabulary work. In contract, a unit such as 'The hotel reception - dealing with complaints' places a much greater emphasis on oral skills, with particular attention being given to aspects of pronunciation such as tonic placement or choice of tone, given their importance in conveying an apologetic attitude on behalf of the hotel staff.

The consolidation blocks, as well as bringing together the various formal language content of the previous units, try to provide a plausible context for an extended activity/project in which correctness is desirable, but throughout which effective communication is the main goal. By 'extended' we are contemplating anything between one and three weeks work, which in our school translates into between four (an absolute minimum) and 12 hours class time. Added to this is the time students choose to employ outside the formal teaching timetable.

The final product of such projects varies both in mode and, for obvious reasons, in quality. The exact mode is determined by the nature of the project itself Consolidation 3, for example, '(F)Iight entertainment', immediately suggests the production of news items and articles for an in-flight magazine, although recently one of our groups suggested that a video was an equally valid mode of presentation. 'Siberia's selling well', on the other hand, as a full-scale simulation of the promotion and selling of unusual holidays, leads up to a basically oral skills final product, with students operating as tourists, travel agents or tour operators, speaking to each other either directly or through relayed messages.

Tried and Tested?

I am aware that nothing of what has been said above is new. Indeed, the overall picture I paint of the way we go about teaching the English of tourism is a very traditional one in many respects. However, my colleagues and I have arrived at our current approach after a fairly extensive journey, which began with our abandoning English for Tourism course books, passed through an attempt to work exclusively through projects and 'authentic' materials and evolved into the present situation where we freely combine both the latter and the published texts.

What we are much more conscious of now in the Department is the real need, on the one hand, to allow multiple facets of the materia-prima, tourism, to determine the language content of the course, and not vice versa, however uncomfortable this may make us feel initially as language teachers, especially on seeing that certain supposedly important language items are simply not going to be covered.

Secondly, we are now firmly convinced that the mere completion of even the best thought out sequence of tasks or projects will not guarantee real language competence if we do not require our students to stop and think about the language each task involves. Use the topics to confront students with the language they need/need to consolidate but go on from there to get students down to serious formal and explicit language study in order to achieve competence

Lastly, the combination outlined here allows us to make constant and valuable use of the students' knowledge of their chosen vocational area. The individual units to a certain extent, and the consolidation projects from beginning to end, give our students the opportunity for personalisation, as they introduce their own expertise into the language classroom. This is essential both because it creates a more dynamic relationship in the classroom ("I bring in the tourism. You provide the language."), and because it relieves us as teachers of the burdensome responsibility of gaining a full and detailed knowledge of the field of tourism.

The teaching of the English of Tourism, in conclusion, is really only superficially different to the teaching of other ESPS, and success is most likely to come from allowing the specialist area to guide us as to the exact language content, whilst at the same time we strive to avoid the dangers of poorly mastered, situational, recipe-like language, by leading students into explicit study of the English they themselves see as needed.

Robin Walker, Escuela de Turismo de Asturias, Spain.

Course Contents: English for Tourism

Year One

1) Inside the travel industry

2) The geography of tourism. 3) Tour operators.

4) Brochures and publicity

Consolidation 1 - Off to the Fair (Presenting your country at an international tourism fair)

5) Travel agents

6) Accommodation - types and trends 7) Choosing a holiday

8) Visas, regulations and insurance

Consolidation 2 - Siberia's selling well (A travel sales simulation)

9) Before you go - advice from the experts 10) Ferries and cruises

1 1) Rail and coach travel

12) Air travel and airports

Consolidation 3 - (F)light entertainment (Producing an in-flight mag./video)

Year Two

13) Arriving - immigration and customs

14) Accommodation - finding the right place 1 5) Car hire and road directions

16) Welcome Do's and don'ts for your safety and security Consolidation 4 - Finding our feet (An arrivals hall simulation).

17) Tourist information - local food and culture

18) The hotel reception - dealing with complaints 19) Restaurants - understanding the menu

20) When things go wrong - health and other problems

Consolidation 5 - The food's not so hot ... (Preparing a training video on dealing with complaints)

21) Tourist information - advice on the weather, shopping and sightseeing 22) Wish you were here! - writing home

23) history and heritage - monuments and museums 24) Guided tours - city walks and local tours

Consolidation 6 - Al¡ in a day's work (A live, guided tour of a historical city/site)

Year Three

25) The traveller reports

26) Dealing with dissatisfied customers

27) Tourist or traveller: package or person? 28) Alternative tourisms

Consolidation 7 - Bringing the Past to Life - (Designing an interactive museum).

29) Adventure tourism

30) The environmental impact of tourism 3 1) Tourism and developing economies 32)Leisure parks and Theme parks

Consolidation 8 - Who wants Disneyland anyway? (A public enquiry and debate on leisure parks)

33) The history of tourism

34) Business travel, incentive travel and conferences 35) Tourism for the 21st century 36) Careers and job applications

Consolidation 9 - Job-shop (Job adverts, applications and interviews - a full simulation)