English for travel

Ad for ‘English for travel’ classes ( www.gaba.co.jp/ad)

A few weeks ago, my family and I went to Jim Thompson’s special sales at BITEC in Bang Na, a short train ride from central Bangkok. The special shuttle bus waiting at the station for bargain hunters was full of Japanese JT fans, and I struck up a conversation with an elderly Japanese couple. As they looked ‘non-tourist’ and at ease with the surroundings, I first thought that they were retirees living in Thailand. It turned out that they were actually tourists, and the main aim of their trip was to stay at the newly-opened prestigious Okura Hotel. They were enjoying the hotel, but “we actually prefer the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. We stay there every time we come to Thailand”. Curious about “every time”, I asked how many times they’d visited. They looked unsure, replying “We’ve lost count…”. Finally, they figured that, since their first trip some 20 years ago, the husband, a retired real estate sales manager, had visited about 30 times, and his wife, a retired bank worker, over 40 times!

Seeing my disbelief, Mrs. Tanaka (pseudonym) enthusiastically explained how easy and pleasurable each of their visits had been. They quickly added that neither of them could speak English or Thai, but they have never had a serious problem or unpleasant experience. They love Thai culture and for Mrs. Tanaka, “Bangkok has become home”. Before we parted, they also talked about their wish to move to Thailand permanently, but that would happen, they explained, only after they had fully fulfilled their duty to farewell Mr. Tanaka’s elderly mother, who is 100 years old.

Although they claimed that they can’t speak any English, it’s probably the case that they can communicate in English to some extent. After all, they were able to get to the sales venue by themselves by using the BTS Skytrain where information signs are mostly in Thai and English. At the same time, their multiple trips to Thailand and their sense of belonging to the country despite their claimed lack of English or the local language, challenge the discourse of トラベル/旅行英会話 (English for Travel Purposes), a multimillion-dollar branch of the huge English teaching industry in Japan.

Compared to English for Academic Purposes, the king of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Travel Purposes (ETP) has received less scholarly attention. But ETP provides an amazing variety of courses and materials and has a strong hold on the psyche of many Japanese. What we find in cyberspace, for example, are countless numbers of ETP-related publications, websites of private language schools, vocational schools and universities that offer ETP courses, free and paid online lessons, seminars conducted by major travel agencies, websites run by travel English experts and enthusiasts, etc. Many 英会話学校 (English conversation schools) such as the three major schools, AEON, ECC and Gaba, offer ETP courses, and the discourse in the ads of these three schools is strikingly similar: ETP courses are for people who wish to make their overseas trip more enjoyable.

Gaba, for instance, recommends their ETP course for those who desire to (1) travel alone, (2) travel without guidebooks and (3) communicate with local people. Furthermore, ECC teacher Mika Fukube explains that ‘good English’ rather than ‘broken English’ will get tourists better service overseas:

海外旅行先でのホテルやレストランなどではブロークンな英語ではなく、しっかりとした英会話を話すことで、より良いサービスが提供されます.  (If you can communicate in proper English, not in broken English, you will be able to receive good service at hotels and restaurants in your destination.) [my translation]

Then, how much and how long does a tourist need to invest in getting that better, service-winning English? AEON offers a one-year ETP course and charges JPY118,440 for a weekly group lesson (plus the registration fee of JPY 30,000 and possibly extra for textbooks), while Gaba’s one-on-one course over 8 months is pricier with JPY437,850 for 60 lessons (plus JPY 18,900 for textbooks).

All in all, the ETP business in Japan thrives on promoting the idea of English as a magical tool to make overseas travel safer, more fun and meaningful.

The flip side of the discourse, however, works to instil a profound sense of anxiety and helplessness in prospective travellers as travelling overseas without English emerges as hard and dangerous, if not impossible. I’ve lost count of the Japanese people I’ve met, who shyly or anxiously claimed “I’m scared of going overseas because I can’t speak English.”

None of this linguistic burden, anxiety or any sense of exclusion was evident in my hour-long conversation with the Tanakas. They marveled at the land of smiles and all things Thai – its people, food and cultures – that are found alongside the wide variety of Japanese signs, products and services to which they can turn should the need arise.

Bangkok was recently named the world’s third top tourism destination for 2012, after London and Paris. Hedrick-Wong, MasterCard Worldwide’s global economic advisor, pointed out Bangkok’s “tolerant culture” as the winning aspect. In light of the Tanakas’ experience, Bangkok obviously offers more than ‘cultural tolerance’. It is a multilingual city where an elderly Japanese couple are able to enjoy their stay on their own, to have meaningful contact with the locals, and to be highly mobile, all without that so-called ‘service-winning proper’ English.

Indeed, the discourse of ETP makes little sense in the ‘real’ Bangkok as an overseas tourism destination; its linguistic landscape and multilingual service provisions help to make visitors welcome and demonstrate that in contemporary Asia you can get fantastic service without English.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 - 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Rosemary Kuwahata

    They were staying at the Okura Hotel. Would that have had any bearing on the ease of their basic experience?

  • Thanks, Kimie! The flip-side of the Tanakas’ experience of getting on just fine without English – and another way to put the ‘English for travel’ hype in perspective – is traveling in places where English doesn’t actually get you very far …

  • Khan

    Very interesting post, Kimie. Fear or anxiety is something on which most of the business thrive, I suppose. Bertrand Russel in one of his famous essays “Why I am not Christian” (Ref: out of my head) argue that religions also thrive on fear. While I dont want to stretch the interpretation of your blog too far, it certainly brings out this aspect superbly in the context of English for business travel. Superb!