Students' Work Experience Contributes to Course Development: English
Courses for Hotel and Tourist-Industry Personnel
||Communication in the workplace is increasingly
recognized as a problem confronting employees (Huckin 1988; Schleppegrell and Royster
1990; Ray 1993). Language accuracy is not the sole problem; there is also the problem of
mastering specific terms to fulfill the employees vocational needs, as well as using the
language appropriately (Huckin 1988; Maier 1992). According to the report on Technical
Institute Graduates, English and the Workplace (Cooper et al. 1992), a project financed by
the Hongkong Bank Language Development Fund, English is the principal language of
communication in Hong Kong business across a wide spectrum of work sectors. In larger
firms, proficient speakers of English are utilized for client contact, and smaller firms
can lose business because of inadequate English skills among their staff. To improve
communication at work, employees will need to engage in more conversational activities,
giving personal reactions to something heard, read, or viewed (Copper et al. 1992:12).
Their ability to deal with different English accents, cultures, and acceptable norms for
English communication are also in need of attention. There is also a need to take into
account the changes in the workplace in order to help employees improve their
||In designing and developing English courses that
aim to improve workplace communication, students can be a valuable source of help to
course designers and teachers. Strevens (1988:42) points out that one area of difficulty
for teachers of ESP courses is the gap between the learner's knowledge of the special
subject and the teacher's ignorance of it. He recommends several techniques to tackle the
problem, and one of them is to allow the students to put you [the teacher] right! Do not
be above letting the students correct your solecisms in the subject (Strevens 1988:43). In
fact, right from the planning stage of the course, students can help in identifying their
own needs. Hutchinson and Waters (1987:60), who favour a learning-centred approach to
needs analysis, think that in analysing the needs of students, it would be normal practice
to ask both the lecturers and the students about their English needs. They also maintain
that needs analysis is not a once-and-for-all activity. On-going, informal consultations
with students help in this continuing process. Nunan (1984:43) also believes that there is
a need for informal monitoring to identify changing needs and that it is essential to
involve the learner in the decision making process through discussion and consultation. He
suggests that curriculum design be seen as a negotiative process between teachers and
students; in a learner-centred curriculum, information by and from the learners will be
built into every phase of the curriculum process (Nunan 1989:19). Tudor (1993:25) points
out that students may well have a closer insight into their communicative needs than the
teacher, and thus they should have a say in content selection of the learning programme.
Teachers can gather the students opinions through ongoing discussion and consultation with
students on the basis of day-to-day teaching activities. Palacios (1993:44) also argues
that teachers, being constantly enriched by daily contact with their learners, should
learn continually from their students, with the purpose of incorporating everything they
learn into their teaching.
||Attempts have been made by teachers of English
for Academic Purposes to actively involve students in the investigation of English
language use in their disciplines (Dempsey Page 1987; Liebman 1988; Ronald 1988; Chase
1989). One of the benefits, as remarked by Chase (1989:4), is that sometimes they [the
students] are more motivated to learn when they have discovered for themselves what their
needs are rather than when they are informed of their needs by their English teachers. If
teachers are willing to involve the students, they will not be in the uncomfortable
position of being less knowledgeable than their students (Spack 1988:37), who are now cast
in the role of consultants.
||This article aims to report on the contribution
made by students with work experience to the development of English courses for the Higher
Diploma in Hotel Management and the BA (Hons) Tourism Management.
||There are two different modes for the Hotel
Management course, namely the Sandwich Mode for full-time students and the Mixed Mode for
part-time day-release students who come into the Polytechnic once a week for English
classes. It is the Mixed Mode that I would like to report on in this article as all the
students are working in hotels and their experience contributes to the development of the
courses. Under the present Credit Accumulation Scheme for the Mixed Mode, the students
have to successfully complete English courses at two stages, namely the Foundation Stage
and the Professional Stage. At each stage the students have three hours of English per
week for a term of 14 weeks.
||The BA (Hons) Tourism Course began in October
1991. About 40 percent of the first batch of students came from the tourism industry, and
some are still taking part-time tourism-related jobs. In addition, they receive
operational training in the tourism field at the end of Year One. I can draw on their work
experience to build up this relatively new course. There are two hours of English per week
for 28 weeks in Year One, and three hours per week for 14 weeks in Year Two.
||Students take up a wide range of positions in
hotels ranging from the relatively junior level of waiters, front office receptionists,
and room attendants to the intermediate management level of assistant managers and
assistant housekeepers. English is the predominant language of communication at work, as
the clients are mainly tourists. Even those at the junior levels perceive a real need to
learn English their medium for client contact. This is a different situation from that
identified in the Hong Kong business report mentioned above, where the employers saw a
need for their junior staff to know English (Cooper et al. 1992:10), but the junior staff
themselves did not. This contrast between the hotel industry and business in general is
probably due to the particular demands of work in hotels. As for the tourism field,
English is also used widely for inbound and outbound travel and in client contact.
English for hotel management
||One of the contributions that my students have
made to course development is their involvement in syllabus negotiation. When I have
doubts about the usefulness of certain topics in the syllabus, my part-time day-release
students often make suggestions based on their experience in the industry. A couple of
years ago when facsimiles appeared to have taken over most of the telex traffic in
business communication, my colleagues and I doubted whether telex writing was still a
valid topic. I checked with my students, who told me that telexes are still extensively
used in hotels because they are cheaper and also legally binding. There were other
occasions when students requested the teaching of certain topics that had never occurred
to me, e.g., how to make entries in the log book. It seemed to me that making entries in a
log book was a simple task similar to note-taking. However, my students suggestion made me
realize that taking comprehensible and sensible notes was not an easy job for them. So to
prepare for teaching the topic, I asked them to provide authentic materials from their
hotels (with permission from their superiors), so I could analyse their problems based on
||How to address royalty also poses a problem for
some of my students who work in deluxe hotels. The problem is more difficult when royal
families from Southeast Asia have titles that are unfamiliar to us. I had difficulty
solving this problem myself, but fortunately one of my students provided me with a handout
given by their own training officer. This kind of sharing has enabled me to adjust the
course to the needs of the students.
||My part-time day-release students often raise
problem situations in class and ask me to help them with the appropriate language. An
interesting problem, especially for female staff, is how to reject unwanted invitations.
In such situations they need polite but firm language to deal with the guests. My approach
is to ask the class to do role simulations in which they have to apply their
problem-solving skills to the situation. Other interesting situations include how to ask
the guests to follow the dress code without embarrassing them, how to ask children not to
run about in the restaurant, and how to stop the guests from taking away properties of the
hotel (like ivory chopsticks, etc.). Often, useful solutions can be worked out from role
simulations, when the students share their own experience with their peers.
||The above are isolated incidents showing how the
students help in the design of a needs-based course. A more important overall contribution
to course development is the information the students provide on changes in workplace
culture. Hotel staff are expected to be polite to their guests. The standard for
politeness in the past was submissiveness the customers are always right. However, this
kind of subservient politeness is giving way to a more outspoken, decision-making
politeness. Hotel staff are now expected to be able to explore alternatives with the
guests, to take initiatives and make decisions whenever necessary. In some local hotels,
even junior staff are given the authority to make decisions relating to the guests needs.
A well-known incident in the local hotel industry a couple of years ago involved a junior
staff member who made a decision to buy a vase for a customer when the vases available in
the hotel were not of the right size. The employee was not only reimbursed for the cost of
the vase, but also awarded for his initiative. In general, hotel staff are expected to be
able to converse at ease with the guests, to chat about Hong Kong generally while offering
personalized service. This implies that the course should help students build confidence
to carry on a general conversation with guests, besides teaching them specific terms and
phrases for work (e.g., language to describe food, English for the front office). Such
information about the changing demands on hotel staff is essential to designing and
modifying English for Hotel Management courses.
English for tourism management
||Since Tourism is a new course at the tertiary
level, it is quite a difficult task to write the English syllabus and develop the course.
Fortunately, the first batch of students helped us by sharing their rich experience in the
industry. They made suggestions in class as to what has to be learnt in order to cope with
real-life vocational needs. On the topic of itinerary, they pointed out that there are two
kinds. One is for individual customers, simply stating the time and place of arrival and
departure with a brief list of excursions; the other is for package tours, containing
detailed and vivid descriptions of places to be visited. In the course book we are using,
only the first type of itinerary is mentioned.
||Teaching the topic replying to a letter of
complaint, I also learnt that in some companies, often two replies are sent out to a
letter of complaint. The first reply acknowledges receipt of the letter and informs the
recipient that immediate action will be taken to deal with the matter. The second reply is
sent out later informing the recipient of the result of the investigation, and (if
necessary) of the compensation the company is ready to make. A student also told me that
it is dangerous to put down in black and white It is my fault . . . because it induces
legal liability. The class then had an interesting discussion on the different kinds of
compensation paid in complaint cases.
||There was also considerable sharing of
experience among the students on the topic disciplinary interviews. I had had no
experience either attending or conducting a disciplinary interview, but one of my students
who worked for an airline company had a lot of experience conducting such interviews in
English with his junior staff. Naturally, he was the ideal person to roleplay the part of
the interviewer for the class.
||On the topic coping with tourists questions
about Hong Kong, I prepared an initial list of questions that tourists are likely to ask.
But I was able to enrich the list every time I taught this topic as I elicited from the
students the questions that they had encountered on the job. Questions like where and how
to hire a helicopter or a boat, and where to get acupuncture or chiropractic treatment are
very common. Students also pool their knowledge to give good answers, as they know much
about Hong Kong and are familiar with the tourist literature. They are also able to take
note of the constant changes in Hong Kong and supply up-to-date information. In these
ways, the work experience of students can inform both the immediate learning environment
and subsequent course planning activities.
||To help improve communication in the workplace,
course designers must be well informed of the workplace culture, the vocational needs of
the workers, and the constant changes that are taking place. People with first-hand
experience in the travel/hotel industry can inform the course designer and the teacher
about their vocational needs and the changes in industry demands. This will enhance the
awareness of the course designer and allow him/her to design better courses. Teachers
should encourage an open atmosphere in the classroom to make participation possible and
negotiations central. As it is important for students to explore alternatives with their
clients in workplace culture today, it is also essential for the teacher to explore
alternatives with the students about their learning programme.
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Leung is a lecturer in the English Department, College of Degree Studies at Hong
Kong Polytechnic. Her recent research projects explore communication problems in the Hong
Kong hospitality industry