It is now summer in South Korea. This can only mean any number of things. One of these is “summer camp” (think: English immersion program or band camp without the musical instruments). As a veteran of numerous immersion camps as well as various general English, practical English (I still have no idea what this is supposed to mean) and business English courses I have done my fair share of airport replays. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on why I think such role-plays might be a serious waste of time.
I don’t even want to count the times I, as a teacher, have used role-plays like this. At first it looks great. It looks like a time saver which focuses on something students need. Clear context and clear target language. It is easy enough to ignore the fact that customs and immigration are different entities in real life and how conversations at the airport tend to be much shorter and more direct than the suggested one. Taking things a step further, we might realize that there is usually not a whole lot for passengers to say at the airport.
As luck would have it, I’ve recently taken a few flights. I never said a thing at the airport. (1) Not a thing. I didn’t have to. I knew the drill. Go to the immigration person. Give my documents whilst standing on the bright yellow feet painted on the floor. Make sure they can compare my face to that on the passport. Say thank you in whatever language comes to mind and seems relevant and move along. I honestly don’t think I needed to access the vast repository of English in my brain.My superior English skills were not needed. From my view, there is simply not a whole lot of need to communicate in such situations. Sure, we need to follow the steps as outlined and expected but this doesn’t generally require much in terms of production from the prospective passenger. Situations requiring more talking would probably be intimidating and would likely require more than the basic language used in most airport role-plays I have ever seen. This means that if a student runs into trouble and needs to say a lot the basic role-play is not going to be of much help.
As I mentioned I didn’t say much and didn’t feel as though I tapped into my English abilities.
You might say I was helped by my previous travel experiences and I would willingly and happily concede this point.
You might also say I was helped by my English knowledge even though I didn’t have to actually use my words and say anything at the airport. I suppose I could agree with this as well.
You might say that the filling out of forms is really the trickiest part and is something students need to work on. To this I would heartily agree and would wonder why the need for role-plays then.
You might also say that traveling in the airport is potentially nerve wracking so the more practice the better. I would agree to this but would disagree that airport replays are really much of a solution. I might say that knowing the script (2) for each stage in the process and what the signs for various places in the airport mean is probably time better spent than doing role-plays based in the airport. I think some familiarity with how things tend to go would be very helpful for those not so experienced with travel.
Why does this have to be done in English classes? (3) I am not saying it doesn’t belong, but more just questioning the assumption that the vaunted airport role-play is a must-do activity. Perhaps it’s not really an English issue?
Also, why is this something that needs to be done with kids? Who are these well-heeled orphans traveling alone? (4) Is there something more relevant to their lives that could be studied and practiced?
Also, why does (seemingly) every immersion village in Korea need to build a replica of an airport? I suppose my thoughts on such immersion programs (and the money spent on them) and the need to create a special place for speaking English will have to wait for another day. Today’s topic is just airport replays. Where was I? Oh yeah. Reasons for the existence and persistence of such role-plays.
I think the belief that such things are motivating is a strong selling point. I have heard some people state that bringing kids to the room that looks like an airport is good for “motivation.” I am not prepared to say this is not the case but I generally think that having students walk and move to any new room and not lecturing at them is likely to be motivating, regardless of what the room is made to be. I might theorize that the act of taking a walk and entering any room and being asked to actually do something is often quite motivating and the airport factor is simply secondary.
What are some other reasons for the airport replay’s supremacy? Maybe the airport is a symbol of the aspirational cosmopolitan international lifestyle that our students *should want. Maybe the airport is the first place that people will encounter on their foreign travels so students need to be prepared for it. Maybe the airport is a scary place so students want to get ready for facing their fears. Maybe the TOEIC test focuses so much on transportation sites so teachers always feel the need to include it. Maybe everyone just thinks the airport is an important location for ESL (EFL?) so it is always featured. I just can’t shake the feeling that such role-plays are a mainstay simply because they are a mainstay. Maybe one time at English camp a teacher did an airport role-play and word of this spread so it became standard.
My basic point is that there is not a lot for people to say in such situations and there is not much point practicing speaking for what often amounts to a non-speaking role in “the real world.” (5) I think it is a lot of misplaced energy. Energy that could be spent on more useful things, things students might actually need and use. Even if teachers decide that students need to learn about airports the standard airport replay still doesn’t stack up. More time could be spent familiarizing students with the forms and scripts. Teachers, I politely suggest and ask you consider leaving those airport role-plays alone.
Finally, please note that this blog post in no way is intended to mock or disrespect the work of teachers who
- do English role-plays
- have done airport role-plays
- will do airport replays
- believe in airport role-plays
- do and believe in airport role-plays
- like airport role-plays
- like airports
- have ever been in an airport
- have seen Edward Snowden in an airport
As always thanks for reading. Please feel free to tell me what I have missed.
(1) I didn’t say much on the plane either. In four combined flights I said the following:
water, beer, sprite, chicken, thank you, no thank you.
I also pointed at drinks when they came by with the cart, just to prove I could.
While on the plane I was thinking the encounters with the flight crew were quite similar to those in restaurants and that there’s not much specifically flight related about it.
[This is not to say I didn’t talk at all at the airport but rather to say I didn’t say anything at immigration or customs]
(2) By script I mean, “how the interaction tends to go” and not what we need to say at various points. Here is some info from the good people at Incheon Airport about how the procedure goes.
(3) I don’t actually have any evidence that the airport replay is so popular. It might actually be just my imagination but I have seen airport role-plays in plenty of textbooks.It is very possible that airport role-plays are not actually as ubiquitous as they seem to me. Maybe it is just a Korea EFL thing? Maybe I am swayed by the contexts I have worked and the friends I have? Highly possible.
(4) Credit for the term “well-heeled orphans” must go to future guest poster Manpal Sahota.
(5) As a funny aside, a former co-worker assigned memorizing an airport role-play as homework. He was dismayed when only 2 of 10 students had done so. Even more so when he realized they are memorized the part of the immigration officer but were flummoxed when faced with questions from the immigration officer.