First published in Modern English Teacher, Volume 10, number 3, 2001
The photo at Disney’s California Adventure Park,Anaheim, CA shows Peter with a real “Streamline” train.
One of the long-term penalties of teaching English as a Foreign Language is the acquired habit of speaking clearly and simply and saying everything in several different ways. You can spot the ELT teacher arriving at a party.
“Do you mind if I hang my coat up? Shall I leave my coat here? Is that OK? May I put my coat… my jacket… here? That is, can I put my coat … this blue one … here … on the hook? On the wall?”
Years of ELT experience has taught her to cover all the possibilities. If the host can’t understand ‘hang up’ she’ll try ‘leave’ and finally try ‘put’ just to make sure. Just to be certain. Just as a check … oh, no. Now I’m doing it.
An experienced teacher, whether a native speaker or a non-native speaker, will have a sense of what vocabulary to use, and which structures to avoid when communicating with a beginner. This will be partly intuitive, partly based on knowledge. When I first started teaching English full-time, my then Director of Studies, Alan McInnes, asked me which level I thought I would prefer. Having just completed an MA in American literature, I said “advanced.” He said that I would never learn anything about ELT unless I started with beginners, and worked through the levels in the order that students experienced them. He believed you should spend at least a year at each level before moving up. He was absolutely right too. When I taught higher levels, I knew the process that the students had been through. Non-native teachers are generally better at knowing this than native speakers. So an experienced teacher will guess that someone who does not understand the past will not understand the present perfect, because the past is taught before the present perfect in nearly every course in the world (Access to English was the 1970s exception that proved the rule). Simple English is something that should be practised, encouraged and even taught in situations where people will be confronted by non-native speakers.
Let’s take a situation where large numbers of non-native speakers are trying to understand English. I made notes in Orlando, Florida on the problems facing visitors, or rather “guests” as Disney calls them. The rest of this article is going to use several trademarked names, and US companies have become so jealous of their names that they expect you to write like this:
Julie was driving her new Ford™ towards Walt Disney World™ when she decided to stop at Wal-Mart™ to buy some Perrier™ and a Hershey™ bar. She then went past SeaWorld™, which is near Universal Studios™. She drove into the Disney™ parking lot and parked between a Chevrolet™ and a Lexus™. Someone dressed as Minnie Mouse™ greeted her, and she got on the boat to The Magic Kingdom.™ The man next to her was holding a can of Seven-Up™ and was about to light a Marlboro™ when the attendant told him that smoking was prohibited on WDW™ transport.
This is not a joke. It’s happened to me in the editing stages of American books. I happen to think that “™ ” impairs readability, so just imagine that most words from this point with capital letters have ™ printed after them.
Animal Kingdom sign, Orlando: “We suggest you avoid …”
When I was last in Orlando, Brazilians were by far the largest group of non-native speakers (it was January), followed by Japanese then Russians. Of course you can enjoy a theme park without understanding much of the language. For safety, all warning signs are in both English and Spanish. The Brazilians can get the gist by guessing from the Spanish to Portuguese in most cases. The Russians and the Japanese have more of a problem. However, the joy of Walt Disney World and Universal Studios rides (as opposed to much of their competition) is that there is a strong narrative element. Disney’sSplash Mountain isn’t just a water ride. It’s a water ride incorporating the tales of Brer Rabbit from Song of the South. The end of the ride consists of your boat hurtling down a nearly sheer drop into what appears to be a briar patch (an area of sharp, spikey, thorn covered bushes). Just before you take off, you hear Brer Rabbit appealing “Don’t throw me in that briar patch …” before you plunge downwards. Comprehension is not essential to the ride, but it adds a dimension. This goes through most of the rides, and is even more important in the 3D shows at the parks.
Nothing can be done on any practical level to help those with little or no English with this problem. But there are huge numbers of people out there who do speak and understand “elementary English”. They’ve done two to five years of English. They can communicate in survival situations. These people can be addressed. I vividly recall a Russian with his family vainly trying to work out where he was supposed to go in an Animal Kingdom show, and protesting loudly, “I’m trying! I’m trying! I can’t understand!”
Universal Studios sign, Orlando. “If you are susceptible to …”
The park operators are careful when safety is a consideration. The very best instructional sequence is visual in Star Tours (possibly because it was being put into Disney-MGM and EuroDisney almost simultaneously). We see a short video of Star Wars characters boarding the flight simulator, stowing their bags in the nets provided, being frightened by flash photography and so on. This is an example for all the rides. The Jaws and Back To The Future rides at Universal make an attempt to use symbols on the warning boards as well as words. The latest Disney ride Countdown to Extinction has a long and funny verbal explanatory section which was completely lost on the Brazilian party next to us. During the Muppets 3D show, we were unable to hear a thing because the mother in front of us was loudly translating line by line into Spanish to her children, and who can blame her.
The staff at the theme parks could and should be trained to use simpler, more straightforward instructional language. I would assume that they are already working from a script, but the script needs rewriting with an international audience in mind. Let’s take a few examples:
The monorail train stops. The message?
Please gather all personal belongings and take young children by the hand.
I doubt that anyone below post-intermediate level gathers belongings. They could try:
Do you have all your bags? Be careful. Hold children by the hand. or
Don’t forget your bags! Be careful. Hold children by the hand.
Universal Studios sign, Orlando. “Persons with the following medical conditions are advised …”
Legoland sign, Windsor, UK “In the unlikely event of an evacuation …”
Take In the unlikely event of an evacuation … a wording favoured by theme parks, who want to stress how unlikely a problem is. What’s wrong with:
If there is a problem, and you have to leave the boat …
and instead of …
must be able to transfer in and out of the raft unassisted …
First, why call it a raft? In this case it’s a circular floating object with six seats. It’s neither a raft nor a boat, but everyone knows ‘boat’ and it’s near enough. How about:
climb / get into and out of the boat without any help …
Or if you want to stress raft because it’s going over rapids this raft rather than the raft makes the reference clearer to those who don’t know raft.
Here are a few more:
I’d like to call your attention to the montage … (Universal Studios)
If you have any questions, step right up to the podium … (Universal Studios)
Please refrain from (smoking, eating, drinking, flash photography) (Disney)
Step all the way forward and fill in all available space around you … (both)
Caution. Stand well clear. (Sign at Universal)
Please find a seat in the row corresponding to your number and move all the way across … (Disney)
Stand clear of the doors (Disney)
If you are susceptible to motion discomfort you are advised not to ride. Please protect or store cameras or other property susceptible to water damage. You will get wet. (Jaws ride at Universal)
For your safety, comfort and convenience … (Disney)
Smoking is only permitted in the designated smoking area … (Legoland, Windsor)
Please stand by (Universal, Back To The Future )
There are some teaching considerations from this. I’ve hardly ever taught the verb step, but I heard:
Step right up
Step this way
Don’t step back
We incorporated a few common phrases in a recorded text in Grapevine Three, (and in Main Street 5 ) which introduced a unit on rules and regulations:
Welcome to the Ghost Train. For your safety, comfort and convenience at this time we ask you to keep your arms and legs inside the car and remain seated at all times. May we remind you that flash photography is strictly forbidden. For the health, comfort and convenience of your fellow passengers, please do not eat, drink or smoke during this ride. Please do not try to leave the car until it has come to a complete standstill. Welcome to the Ghost Train. For your …”
Legoland sign, Windsor, UK “to stay seated”
Generally, signs in the USA are far wordier than in Europe or Canada (Turning Vehicles: Yield to pedestrians for example lacks snappiness or instant readability, as does Violators will be subject to prosecution ) , and little thought has been put into the problems of foreigners trying to understand them. The convoluted language in theme parks is almost certainly the result of detailed legal advice so as to avoid liability in the case of accidents. We heard some lurid tales of accidents, which have the status of urban legends in Central Florida. Like classic urban legends, you’re always told that this really happened to a friend of a friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother-in-law. The legalisms spawned by the fear of liability are made worse by a large dose of euphemistic, over-polite forms. It’s a world where you refrain from doing things, you remain seated, and where people don’t tell you anything, they ask if they may remind you of things. It’s a world where persons who do not meet the minimum height requirement may not ride. It’s a world where you can only smoke in designated areas and be happily free from physical limitations or less happily susceptible to discomfort.
Peter with an “American Streamline” style Chevrolet Corvette, Disney Village, Paris
Do these parks take their icons from Streamline?