Obviously, if you are teaching EFL in an English speaking country, then the opportunities for your students to use their newly acquired language skills are endless. Every time they leave the classroom they have the chance to practise – whether that is when shopping, eating out, travelling on public transport, socialising with fellow students of different nationalities, eavesdropping on the conversations of others, or simply walking the streets. The teacher can turn such experiences into more formal learning activities by organising field trips to the supermarket, a café, or to the cinema, for example.
The situation for students studying EFL in their own countries, however, is very different. Their classes are monolingual, so the temptation is always to lapse into their native tongue with their classmates. Outside of the classroom, students have little opportunity to speak English. As an EFL teacher in this situation, you have to be a little more creative, but if, like me, you are fortunate enough to live and teach in a place which attracts large numbers of English-speaking tourists, then you have a solution.
Taking groups of students to a popular tourist attraction and getting them to speak to tourists is a great confidence booster for them, but to get the most benefit requires some preparation. It is not enough merely to accost total strangers in the street; you need to have a plan.
For lower level students, having a questionnaire is always a good idea. That way they know what they are going to say to people, and are less likely to get tongue-tied and nervous. Writing the questionnaire is a useful classroom activity in itself, and the students can practise on each other, or on students in other classes, before venturing outside. Subjects for the questionnaires should be innocuous – reasons for visit, length of stay, country of origin, etc. Controversial topics, like religion and politics, should be avoided.
For more advanced students, general conversations with tourists should be encouraged. To this end, a range of open-ended questions should be explored and practised in class beforehand. Again, subjects which may cause controversy should be discouraged. When rehearsing the use of these questions, it is important that the teacher highlights any cultural differences which may arise between the students and the people they are talking to; which questions are inappropriate and why?; what misunderstandings could cause problems?.
Whichever level students you are dealing with, you need to role-play conversation openers before you let them loose on the public. Get them to write possible introductions and try them out on each other in front of the group. Encourage feedback – what works and what doesn’t work? I live and work in Istanbul, where tourists are often approached by strangers in the street who invariably want to sell them something. Consequently, they walk around constantly on their guard, ready to rebuff the advances of anyone who comes near. So, in the preparation for a field trip, we have to discuss ways to overcome that suspicion. It is also important to tell students not to be disheartened if they suffer rejection. This makes for a fun-filled activity with some students playing themselves, earnestly trying to engage someone in conversation, and others acting the reluctant tourist!
Having prepared thoroughly, you can launch your students onto the public! If possible, choose a location with plenty of seating – somewhere where tourists are likely to take a breather to consult their maps and guidebooks. In Istanbul, we have the perfect location – an area between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, where there are plenty of public benches.
In my experience, students are always nervous at first, unwilling to make that first move, but, once they have and have had their first successful encounter, particularly if it is with a native speaker, then they are delighted and want to do it again and again. Field trips such as this have, in my time in Istanbul, given the students the confidence to repeat the exercise at a later date without me being present. They have also led to friendships being made with tourists agreeing to maintain contact with students via Skype after they return home. To those people, and to all those who have had conversations with my students in Istanbul over the last two years, I offer my heartfelt thanks.
And to all tourists in foreign parts in the future, if a student approaches you and asks you to spare five minutes to help them practise their English, then please say yes. If they try to sell you a carpet, you have my permission to be as rude as you need to be to get rid of them!