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Training: Speaking the lingo

06 April 2006 by
Training: Speaking the lingo

Ever since the European Union opened its doors to 10 new states in 2004 the hospitality industry has seen significant changes to its workforce. After suffering years of recruitment difficulties in housekeeping, waiting and cleaning, hotels in particular could now look forward to eager and committed employees from countries such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

For most employees from these states, working in the UK can prove lucrative. About 60% of new EU immigrants are Poles, who readily find work throughout the country in hotels, restaurants and the building trade. Average earnings in Poland are about £4,000 per annum. Assuming a Polish immigrant earned the minimum wage of £5.05 per hour and worked a 40-hour week, they would earn £10,504 a year in the UK. It's clear to see, therefore, why immigrants are willing to leave their family and work even in occupations below their skill level at home.

The attitude towards the new EU immigrants by hotel employers is certainly favourable, particularly as positions for room attendants, house porters and public-area cleaners are often hard to fill with UK nationals. However, this change in the profile of the housekeeping workforce also raises the question of how much English is needed to understand initial technical training, to understand supervisors' instructions and to interact with hotel guests when needed.

Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a good deal of variation in how hotels support and encourage immigrant staff to improve their English skills. Some hotels assume that housekeeping staff provide a largely unseen service with little or no interaction with guests, so the emphasis falls only on initial training for the job.

In this case, a translator can be paid to put the hotel's technical procedures into written form in whatever language is required. These notes, combined with practical demonstrations and on-the-job experience, are usually enough to convey the procedures and standards of room servicing the housekeeper expects. Some hotels have developed experienced immigrant workers so that they can present the training in their own native tongue to new employees.

Other hotels anticipate that their guests will encounter room attendants and expect staff to be able to fully engage with their queries or complaints.

The Savoy way
Jutta Asta, executive housekeeper at London's Savoy hotel, has taken up the challenge of improving the assimilation of her staff. Of her staff, 34% are Lithuanians, 11% are Mongolians and 9% are Poles, with a further 23 nations represented among her housekeeping team.

For newly hired staff with a basic grasp of English, Asta gives a language-free visual presentation explaining servicing methods and standards expected at the hotel. The programme is something that Asta and her team created themselves, setting up rooms, staff and equipment and taking digital images to compose the bespoke training. After that, new staff learn housekeeping procedures through demonstrations, practice and working with experienced staff.

In addition, for two hours a week, Savoy staff can learn English on a website funded by the Learning and Skills Council. For staff who wish to learn more, a qualified tutor from Kensington and Chelsea Further Education College provides tuition over 20 weeks, at no cost to the employee, towards the Cambridge Certificate for the more able and the Individual Learning Plan Certificate for the complete beginner.

The Hilton way
At the Hilton Coylumbridge hotel in Scotland's scenic Aviemore resort, Marie McKenna heads up the housekeeping department of 35 staff, plus 40 casual staff for the RCI timeshare lodges. The dominant language groups are the Poles and Latvians, who together comprise 60% of her staff. McKenna deploys one of the Polish staff with good English to translate for her as she trains. Some parts of the training manual have also been translated into Polish.

At Hilton hotels, new employees take the Spirit of Hilton induction course, which introduces them to development opportunities available through the "Hilton University". Each hotel has a "learning zone", with computers and course books available. As well as a wide range of courses from operations to management level, there is a one-year course in English as a foreign language available through the website of GlobalEnglish. Employees use the language programme at their own pace and are assessed as they go along.

The American experience Throughout its history the USA has absorbed immigrants into its society and workforce. The majority of these did not speak English on arrival.

Audrey Goh, executive housekeeper at the 455-bedroom Halekulani Resort Hotel on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, has 20 years' experience at executive housekeeper level. In the course of managing housekeeping in a series of large five-star hotels in Singapore, Hong Kong, Hawaii and the USA, she has acquired extensive experience in dealing with non-English-speaking employees.

"In Dallas and Los Angeles my housekeeping employees were mostly Spanish-speaking. Especially for five-diamond or five-star hotel settings, we believe it is essential to conduct the interview in English and have the application form filled in on our premises and not taken home to fill in. By so doing, you can gauge their level of English proficiency."

When Goh recruits immigrants not conversant in English and with no clue about hotel vocabulary and terms, training sessions involve the more visual "show and tell" method. But Goh will also work on their English by listing words for items and amenities, which they have to learn to spell and say for homework.

She feels it's important that the employees master some simple phrases right away and try to relate to the guests. Even if they make some mistakes, the guests appreciate a sincere effort. "Our global clientele finds it charming if an employee says a simple greeting such as ‘Good morning, sir, how are you today?' in their own language and follows it up in English," she says. "This is especially attractive here in Hawaii, where the people have a natural giving-and-caring aloha spirit."

In Goh's view, the hotel's management has a responsibility to encourage and, ideally, facilitate language acquisition in staff. In most hotels, management realises it must invest in its employees to ensure consistent standards and services. She believes English classes should be readily accessible, and if an employee completes a course themselves, the fee should be reimbursed by the hotel. Management should also make a genuine effort to learn about the culture and language of its immigrant employees, as this shows respect.

"In some hotels I have worked in the employees' dining room would celebrate Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo or Filipino Independence Day by serving ethnic foods, which shows the employees their ethnic diversity is valued. From this, mutual respect for co-workers from different cultures is enhanced," she says.

W cxym moge pani pomuc? The transition from being able to say "W czym moge pani pomuc?" in one's native language of Polish to being able to say "May I help you, madam?" is not to be underestimated. As we have seen, some British housekeepers - not forgetting the managers above them who support them - are taking committed, practical steps to integrate new immigrant employees into their housekeeping team. Everyone wins with this approach: the employee, the customer and the hotel.

The hardest journey, though, is for the incomer from abroad. Yet if the hospitality industry makes learning accessible, these workers cannot help but be motivated. And if the hospitality industry is hospitable to newcomers to this country, they will surely be hospitable to its guests.

Teaching English Teaching English to immigrants is a special skill requiring proficient ability in all aspects of English usage, expertise in how best to teach it as a foreign language, an appreciation of the native culture of the immigrant, patience, sensitivity, imagination and never-ending enthusiasm.

Around the UK many local colleges, community centres and adult education centres offer English language courses for adult learners at reasonable prices, or there are the options of attending a private language school or hiring a tutor.

A course curriculum

  • Courses for English learners will develop pronunciation, which includes learning sounds, stress and intonation; grammar; vocabulary; and discourse, which means using appropriate and structured language.
  • Students learn about the forms of words, the tones of voice and non-verbal communication (posture, proximity, gestures) that are considered polite or otherwise appropriate in the UK culture.
  • Language classes use everyday situations as a familiar setting to introduce vocabulary and numbers. Early exercises involve role-plays such as learning to ask directions to an address, making requests for information at the bus station, or ordering a meal. When teaching hotel housekeeping workers, one could think up situations where guests ask how to get to the spa and fitness suite, or how to deal with a complaint.
  • It is essential to teach at a pace and level that employees can cope with. Especially in the early stages, going too fast and expecting too much can rapidly discourage the less-robust learner.
  • Tutors often produce exercise sheets or workbooks that gradually increase in difficulty. Some off-the-shelf language programmes with CD material can be incorporated into a tutor-led course.
  • Language teachers will attest to the vital importance of the personal motivation of the individual when learning a foreign language. However, the adult beginner who needs to learn in order to earn a living is considered highly motivated.
  • A good overview of the complexities of learning the English language is given in The Practice of English Language Teaching by
    J Harmer, published by Longman (ISBN 0-582-40385-5).
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