It's Time to take Language Learning Seriously

Tourism update

Time to take language learning seriously
By: Joleen du Plessis
It is a bonus for any tourist guide to be multilingual as it will mean increasing the possibility of jobs and/or increased client satisfaction. Government departments thus regularly make money available for tourist guides to acquire more languages. My company has been the recipient of some of these funds to facilitate programmes in Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese. Despite warning the funders of the possible low success rate because of the length of the proposed programme, the programmes always went ahead. Unfortunately, experience has shown that because of a variety of factors, almost no real benefit to the guide or the industry has ever been evident.
The acquisition of a foreign language for South African tourist guides would need a very specific (rather lengthy) programme, a skilled facilitator and a specific kind of learner to make a success of it.
Adult language learning has been around for centuries. In our quest, as a human race, to communicate with others, we have sought to cross language barriers and language teachers have grappled with the best way to teach a second or foreign language for as long as this need has been evident. Questions like who should learn a second or foreign language and why, have through the years resulted in terminology like SL (Second Language), EOP (English for Occupational Purposes) and others, for the study of English. Similar terms exist for acquiring other languages (some that are difficult for South Africans) and lie at the foundations of how to teach a language.
Mother tongue, second and foreign language learning are all different processes, with the latter far more challenging. But not even second-language learning is a cut-and-dried process and little is known about the actual way in which it takes place.
Second language acquisition is defined as acquiring a language that is different from your native language and is a long process with several stages. Acquiring a foreign language implies learning a language that is not indigenous to your own country and is thus not widely spoken in your native country. The language learner has little or no exposure to hearing or speaking the language. As language acquisition implies hearing, if you want to speak, and reading, if you want to write, acquiring a foreign language poses a challenge.
Although almost all South Africans have the privilege of learning English as a second language from a very young age (which happens to be the only language that can be seen as a basic benefit for the tourism worker), frontline workers in the tourism and hospitality industries often have to deal with visitors who speak a number of European and Asian languages – all foreign languages.
Not only is the spoken word a tool in meeting the needs of tourists, but also the written word in the marketing of a destination. Being multi-lingual in the tourism industry thereby becomes a step to better employability, greater income and job satisfaction for frontline workers. Investing in language learning for them becomes one of the most important areas of learning in the industry. It will foster more commitment towards the organisation and could be the solution to the high employee turnover, resulting in better service delivery to the visitors.
Because they are the face of the destination, it makes particular sense to equip tourist guides to speak a language that will help them to provide better customer care. But then, when it comes to guiding, there are a few factors that have to be considered. A tourist guide has to be knowledgeable about – not necessarily an expert in – a vast array of topics and issues. Added to that is the fact that intercultural competence is not only knowing about the differences between their own and the cultures of the clients, but it has to do with listening and meeting needs, which all contribute to building trust – a necessary component in delivering a memorable experience to our clients – and this needs a high level of language competency.
Communicating in a way that will excite, entertain and educate visitors in the care of the tourist guide for days at a time requires proficiency in both conversational and formal or informative language usage, which requires an in-depth knowledge of a language. This can only be acquired through lengthy studies and near constant exposure to the language.
Because acquisition is non-linear and therefore not easily programme-able, programmes have to be expertly planned if they want to equip the learner to be fully communicative and functional in the specific industry. This takes time and poses a challenge to any language-learning programme, but especially in the tourism industry where workers have to produce effective language in a great variety of situations, answering to various needs.
The inevitable length, staffing and selection of suitable learners for an effective foreign language programme for tourist guides in South Africa will require sizeable funding.
An adult learner’s readiness to learn is often determined by an experienced need and there is not necessarily a need for gaining full understanding; the problem needs to be solved as soon as possible. Functional and communicative use of a target language is therefore needed. The need for global effectiveness in the boat-based whale-watching industry, for instance, calls for ‘just-in-time’ language learning – education and training delivered in small segments when, where and for whom the problem or need arises. However, because of the limited scope, functional language acquired in a shorter time in this case (and in that of an ostrich farm or Cango Caves guide, for example) is attainable, but is not nearly sufficient for guides who have a wider scope.
Another factor that also determines the ultimate success of a language-learning programme is the ability of a tourist guide as a language learner. Language learning is different from other kinds of learning. It is acquired (as opposed to learned) and its acquisition cannot be fully measured. Author, Michael Lewis, said it “involves a small element of factual knowledge, but consists largely of procedural knowledge; it is not about knowing how to, but about being able to”.
In the tourism industry, facilitators will have to be multi-skilled as the industry and the educational needs of the learners demand knowledge and skills in a wide variety of fields e.g. history, geography, project management, accounting, marketing and language skills, to name but a few.
Furthermore, teaching does not cause learning and teaching does not guarantee acquisition either. All facilitators can do is give exposure, facilitate noticing and understanding and hope for the best. Merely facilitating acquisition, not guaranteeing it.
Various methodologies are available to assist the learner to acquire just-in-time language in the specialisation field of the guide. However, taking the demands on a tourist guide’s work over a number of days in a variety of places and situations, this ‘just-in-time’ becomes an almost inhuman/insurmountable challenge.
Starting to work on a way forward, programmes would have to be presented over much longer periods where a researched need has become evident and be funded accordingly. Facilitators who understand the industry and are skilled foreign language facilitators for adult learners would have to be selected and the risk of experimenting with a variety of teaching methods will have to be taken. The learners would have to be pre-assessed and would have to display an aptitude and a readiness to acquire the skill of using a foreign language in their profession.
In conclusion, in facilitation for the guiding profession we know the basics of who should learn a foreign language, why learners want to acquire one or more of these, what they need to learn and what we want to teach them, but a lot of research still has to go into how such a foreign language-learning programme has to be taught to reach maximum language acquisition efficiency.