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Preparing for Study Abroad

Writer(s): 
Tiernan L. Tensai

Dear TLT, 

I really need your help! I was just asked by my department head to go as a chaperone on our school’s annual study trip next spring. We have about 25 students going, and I’m at a loss over how to prepare them, especially as their English levels vary widely. They will all be doing homestays and taking English classes during the mornings. What can I do to help get them get ready for a successful trip?

Sincerely,

Flummoxed in Fukuoka

Dear Flummoxed,

Many thanks for your query. It’s an issue that every teacher who takes students abroad faces. Yes, we have responsibilities for the students’ safety and welfare, as well as for the smooth running of the program, but on top of that we also want our students to have a worthwhile experience that they’ll not only remember, but also use as a stepping stone to further adventures. 

So, there are a few issues we need to consider in planning a preparatory course. The obvious one is, of course, their English skills. You mentioned that their English levels vary widely, but this needn’t be a hindrance. For one thing, their pre-trip motivation levels will be high as they’ll no doubt be excited about going. Also, they will be going to a supportive environment where both homestay families and teachers will be experienced in helping such learners. Having said that, there are many way you can help them prepare. 

Basic Conversation Skills

When we teach such a class, we usually focus a lot on building basic conversation skills.  For example, take the classic dining table situation—what are students going to talk about? Well, since they are just getting to know their host families, they need to be able to talk about themselves and get to know their host family members. They should practice topics such as basic background information, families, hometowns, interests, likes and dislikes, entertainment, and so on. 

They also need to be made aware of some key differences in speaking style. For example, they should do their best to avoid long silences by using repair strategies such as “Pardon?” (when someone speaks too fast), “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand” (when they are lost), or “What does ~ mean?” (when they don’t get a key word or phrase). Silence is interpreted differently in Japan than in many other countries. Here it’s not that big a deal, as there are many instances when silence is appropriate (like when a kohai talks to a sempai). However, overseas silence is often seen as a sign of disinterest or rudeness. Take care about that! 

Next, students need to be more active in conversations. This is a tough one, but if they can learn to give longer answers and talk about themselves from time to time without prompting, then it would make a world of difference. The key to this is learning how to answer implicit questions associated with any given topic. For example: 

  • Q: Do you like sushi? 
  • A: Yes, I eat it all the time. 

Here, one implicit question was “How often do you eat it?” Other possible implicit questions are: “What’s your favorite/least favorite kinds?” “What’s your favorite sushi restaurant?” or, “Why don’t you like it?” All that students need to do is pick one or two of these and tack them onto their base answer. Longer answers are seen as friendlier and more communicative. They help students give the impression that they are really interested in chatting. 

Similarly, students can practice more interactive conversation if they make it a hard and fast habit to also answer every question they ask someone themselves. This will show their partners that they are interested in sharing about themselves. This sort of initiative is a very friendly thing to do and will make for smoother interactions, like this: 

  • Student: What do you usually do on weekends? 
  • Host mother: Oh, I usually stay at home and relax. Maybe I’ll do some shopping or watch a movie from time to time. 
  • Student: Oh yeah? That sounds nice. I usually have to work at my part-time job. 
  • Host mother: Really? So where do you work? .... 

You get the idea. It’s a simple little rule: just answer my own questions about myself! This will put them in a kind of “catch ball” back and forth rhythm that is the norm in English-speaking countries. Oh, and be sure to practice reaction expressions, such as “Oh really?” “Oh yeah?” or, “Wow! I see.” This is an important aspect of friendly interaction. 

Another activity is to get the students to tell a story about a fun/exciting/strange/scary experience they have had. They would have time to prepare their stories and look up any language they need, then tell and retell them to new partners. The idea is to give them confidence in being able to tell one or two stories about themselves in detail (where, when, who with, what happened), how they felt at the time, how they feel about it now, or what they learned from it. We think that stories about ourselves are a great way to break down barriers and start a friendship process.

Resources

There are lots of resources out there that can help teachers to prepare these lessons. ESL websites such as Lanternfish (bogglesworldesl.com) have many readymade lessons for travel English. Your local bookshop will have homestay English phrasebooks that can be used for dialogue practice. There are also many textbooks available, such as American Homestay—Do’s and Don’ts (Someya, Ferrasci, and Murray, 2008) or Communicate Abroad (Cookson and Tajima, 2016).

Cultural Portfolio

Another interesting activity is to have the students prepare a cultural portfolio before they go that helps them to really consider their own culture so that they can better understand the cultural differences they’ll experience while abroad. You could have a set of about 15 different possible topics (such as Japanese, favorite meals, famous local places) but also allow them to choose their own topic that interests them. Then, they have to make a portfolio page which includes a picture and a write-up in English about the topic and the picture they chose. For example, one of our favorite topics is snack foods, and we might show pictures of dried squid, kombu seaweed, and edamame. Then we could talk about our first experiences with Japanese snack foods and what our favorites are, with a cultural mention that maybe we never would have thought that eating dried squid as a snack was possible back home!  Encourage the students to take their portfolios along with them as something they can use to talk about their own culture with their host families or in class (but be sure to tell their language teacher that they’ve all prepared the portfolios so the teacher can try to incorporate them into their lessons).

Upon returning, you could have the students create another portfolio about the cultural items they encountered while abroad using similar topics, but not necessarily the same ones. This really gets the students thinking about the culture that they experienced and what really was different about it to them.

The Cooking Challenge

Similarly, you could have the students plan to cook a Japanese meal for their host families while abroad. This is yet another way to both introduce their culture, and to compare it to the culture of the host country. They would have to choose a traditional Japanese dish and learn how to cook it before they leave. They would need to check what ingredients they can source in the country and take any with them that can’t be bought there (though check the customs restrictions first!). Once there, they have to explain the dish, then prepare and serve it to their host families. This always provides a good discussion opportunity with their families.

From both a language and a cultural perspective, there are many ways you can help your students prepare for their big adventure. We hope a few of these suggestions will be helpful to you. Good luck, and safe travels!

References

Cookson, S. & Tajima, C. (2016). Communicate abroad: Essential English for travel and study. Tokyo: Cengage Learning.

Someya, M., Ferrasci, F., & Murray, P. (2008). American homestay—do’s and don’ts. Tokyo: Nan’Un-do. 

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