The most important topic for a travel English course

Para português, clique aqui.

A very common reason why students decide to have English lessons is because they want to travel. Regardless of the student’s level or destination, there is one very important topic to cover, which is being polite when asking people for favors and making requests.

(Disclaimer: the following post is about Brazilian Portuguese speakers, but I am sure this could be applicable to many other different cultures.)

The thing is: no matter what the person’s goal abroad is, they will need to ask people for help and/or get served, and doing so in a polite way might make them some across as more pleasant, which may affect the whole experience. As we tend to think a lot about grammar, it is an often overlooked topic. In fact, a quick test with even more advanced students in Brazil will show they often ask for favors and treat service professionals in an impolite way.

Below are the most common mistakes and how to work on them:

Thinking ‘I want’ and ‘give me’ and acceptable forms

Even if you teach someone using English 100% of the time, they will still translate in their heads. It’s normal to do so when you are learning. Well, it just so happens the minute a student learns that eu quero = I want and me dá = give me, even if the classes are fully taught in English, their brains will program themselves to translate literally.

The problem is: it’s rude. By creating a situation where the student needs to order things from a menu, get someone’s phone number/name, ask for water at a person’t house, etc. these two errors may appear. I always let them make the mistake first before I tell them you can’t actually say that.

100% of my new students, - including advanced ones - thought ‘I want’ and ‘give me’ were correct ways to communicate.

Solution: I always teach students to use ‘Can I have… please?”

I know there are other forms, but this one works for a myriad of situations. If the student has already been acquainted with them, I cover the difference. If not, I work first on reinforcing this one.

Using the imperative with a question intonation

A second thing we often do in Brazil is what I like to call “singing imperatives”. To many Brazilian Portuguese speakers transforming an imperative into a question makes it more polite. Therefore, things like “Give me a coffee?”, “Send me an email?”, “Repeat please?” sound normal. The problem is, in English, depending on the situation, these may sound abrupt.

The solution here is similar to the first one. I teach students to add ‘can I’ and ‘can you’ before any imperative.

After all, you won’t sound rude if you say ‘Can you send me an email?’, but you might if sou say ‘Send me an email’.

Ignoring the fact that please is used differently in English

I have a profound difficulty to say please when making requests. I often finding myself opening a big smile and singing my question like I’d do in Portuguese, which doesn’t necessarily work in English for the purpose of being polite. Many other Brazilians do that too; we charm our way through service. The rule of English is: every new sentence with a request/favor requires a new please. I’ve noticed to native speakers this is such a given, such a basic cultural thing, that they often don’t even remember to explain to students that. To them it’s a given: you ask for something, you say please. Basic politeness rule. Actually, no; Brazilians would most likely never say please more than once in a conversation. Instead, we sing when we talk and say friendly things to whoever is serving or helping us.

The following video is a great example of anglophone usage of please :

Two fun exercises to do class:

  1. Ask students how many times they think the two customers will say please in the first 47 seconds of the video.

  2. With B1 or higher levels you may also create a situation where the student needs to imagine how they would order a latte, then an espresso, then brownie , and show them the video to compare afterwards. It’s important that they don’t make the whole order in one go, so you can use flash cards they draw from a box, for example.

My students always conclude they are not being polite enough when they compare.

Thinking ‘I’d like’ is used in the same way as its literal equivalent ‘Eu gostaria’

Textbooks often teach ‘I’d like’ in the context of hopes and dreams. No problem with that. The issue is that books bring the correct situations, but not the wrong ones. I haven’t yet found a book that showed when not to use ‘I’d like’. This, of course, could be due to the fact that because books are general, they can’t focus on the specific challenges of every speaker of every linguistic background.

It just so happens Brazilian students get exposed to the topic and start using it as a way of being more polite, which means sometimes they are overly formal, but sometimes they may sound demanding. When I worked with f2f lessons I taught at my place and I frequently had students say ‘I’d like a water’ to me in class, so I’d go to the kitchen in the middle of a lesson and got them a nice glass of cold water and felt like a proper waitress. Great use of grammar, almost made me say “Anything else, sir/ma’am?'“. as for context it wasn’t an appropriate way to ask for a water. After all, in requests and favors ‘I’d like’ can come in two situations:

  • if the person has offered to serve us/help us

  • it’s the person’s job to serve us.

Students need to know that because the minute they learn ‘I’d like’ they are very likely to associate it with “Eu gostaria” in Portuguese, which, to us, is just a more polite way to ask for a favor.

Anything else you find important in the topic of politeness?

I’d love to hear from you