Why Language Students Should Work in Hotels
Many years ago when I was a student back home in the UK, I worked part-time as a waitress in a busy hotel restaurant. My weekends and evenings were spent desperately trying not to burn myself whilst doing silver service at banquet dinners; busily taking orders in the restaurant from either really nice or really rude guests; or painfully dragging myself out of bed on Sunday mornings and running down the road to catch the bus to work at 6:30am (I missed that bus many times!). We had all kinds of guests: the most memorable were a couple who stayed roughly once every six months and complained. A lot. Every time. On purpose, just to get free stuff. There were also some really friendly, kind people who loved to hear our stories.
Our hotel staff comprised many different nationalities from all over. In that team, were we just that: A team. In the three years I worked there, I do not remember one political or religious debate or tension whatsoever. I do, however, remember lots of fun parties, learning some random words in various languages, the romances, day trips, etc. Many years later, I still refer to that hotel as one of the best places I ever worked and am still great friends with most of the staff. Every single one of us had some kind of story, either about their former careers, their home country, or their reasons for moving to the UK to learn English.
As there were only a small handful of native British people working there, we usually ended up being the ones who helped the others with their English. Looking back, I guess my whole TEFL experiences really started there, whilst polishing cutlery or counting linen at the end of every shift. It was a great experience.
Not long after, I moved to France and ended up in a reverse situation: Now I was the foreigner improving my language skills relying on the others to help me. As my first degree was in tourism and hospitality management, I naturally gravitated towards hotels and this time ended up as a receptionist- which is a whole other ball game.
My first job as a hotel receptionist at a busy four-star hotel in France was horrible. Utterly, totally, completely horrible. My “welcome” speech on my first day was my reception supervisor waggling her finger and shouting at me: “Nobody is going to speak English with you here! You are here to learn French, so speak French!” As they were short staffed, nobody was happy about being lumped with the foreigner with rubbish French who’d never worked on front desk before. One guy would take the wireless phone, go upstairs to check the floors, call me on the downstairs phone and tell me how much he hated me. Just for his own twisted pleasure. Another girl would make a whole list of things I’d done wrong (even make up things I hadn’t done!) and give it to the boss at the end of every shift. Another girl would sit and stare ahead of her in total silence during quiet shifts and just… say… nothing. There were some seriously awkward moments. This went on for around six months until my French improved, I got better at work and could start working shifts alone, got to know the city well and the mean staff finally quit. Much nicer staff joined and I finally made friends and ended up training them.
By the end of my first year at that particular job, my French was fairly fluent, my boss finally entrusted me with many important tasks, I had friends and, most importantly, I didn’t totally lose my mind.
It was thanks to that horrible job that my French improved enormously. I learnt the hard way. I put myself in a number of different situations, each of which included a different variety of new vocabulary. Later on I worked in other hotels, a restaurant, started driving lessons and went university in France: all of these situations only served to increase my vocabulary and better my French.
So, here are my main reasons why I think anybody wanting to learn a new language should try to find work in a hotel (or restaurant) whilst living in a foreign country:
This is the most important lesson. It doesn’t matter if you work in the biggest, most luxurious, beautiful hotel known to man: You will get complaints. Lots of them. You just simply cannot please everybody and many people love to express their opinions. As a receptionist, it’s hard not to take it personally as you are the “face” of the hotel and just simply have to suck it up and find the best solution possible. However, as a language student, complaints are the perfect vocabulary builder. You will hear about everything from noisy neighbours, blocked pipes, stained carpets, bed bugs (very common in warm climates and constant use, no matter how nice the hotel is!), broken air conditioners, no hot water, small rooms, price issues, lifts breaking down… The list goes on and on…
2. International Guests (and Staff)
If you live in a tourist-rich area, the guests will be from all over. Every day at work, I speak at least two languages: French and English. On other days I switch between Chinese and Spanish (which I do not speak as well as French). My proudest moment came when I had to interpret between my French boss and a Chinese guest (peppered with a few English words and phone-dictionary checking when I didn’t know them in either language!). It was my first time interpreting between those particular languages, and we managed to solve the problem.
As for the staff, I mostly speak French at work. Our housekeeping manager is Spanish speaking, so with her (and her son who also works there), we speak a mixture of Spanish and French. My hotel manager speaks English fluently, so occasionally we switch between English and French. Although I’m the only member of staff in this particular hotel who speaks Chinese, we have a Japanese member of staff, so we regularly compare the writing systems, which is very interesting and good character writing practice for me.
3. Problem Solving
With complaints, come solutions. Find them quickly, smile at the guest and all will (hopefully?!) be well. As with the complaints, solutions also come with a whole host of vocabulary: who you need to call to fix the issue (ie, job roles), and what they need to do, and then calling the other person or company and explaining the issue to them, etc. Also grammatical usage may change, such as conditional tense, subjunctive, and future. This however, is not always possible. I distinctly remember a recent guest I had to out-book to another hotel who called several times afterwards, screamed various threats, and hung up on me every time without giving me a chance to speak! (I later checked with the new hotel where they said he was very nice and perfectly content with his new room).
Hotel or other hospitality jobs means working horrible hours. Early mornings or late evenings. Sometimes even both if you have split shifts. Sometimes nights. Perfect for students, as we can work around class times. It’s long and tiring but it’s worth it when your language skills improve.
This, however, will also depend on your contracts and the country in which you work. France has very strict rules and my contract had to be changed because my school hours changed each semester, meaning my work hours changed. I was lucky enough, this time, that my boss was good enough to help with this, as she had also been in the same situation (a student working in a hotel), and understood.
5. The Phone
For any language student, using the telephone is a huge hurdle. People generally speak fast, there is a lot of background noise, or poor signal meaning it’s difficult to understand and you can’t see the person on the other end. Don’t worry: in hotels, the phone rarely stops ringing… so you will soon overcome this. For me personally, I still dislike the phone, mainly because it stops me from doing other tasks on busy shifts and I have to stop what I’m doing every few minutes; but also as I still struggle with odd company names. Make sure you learn the company phone etiquette in the very beginning and always have a pen and paper to hand to quickly jot down everything you hear.
To conclude, whatever your situation, be it a student, trailing spouse or just needing some extra work to top up your other activities, hotel work can be fun, energetic, busy, difficult and full of problems to solve, but guaranteed to help you with your language skills when living abroad.