So, I am writing a lesson plan this week for my course in teaching English as a Second Language. I have a question for you. If you were to emigrate to another country. Or if you are an immigrant. And you do not speak the language of that country. You are a Beginning Learner. What piece of language learning would be most important for you?


Hullo, goodbye. Thank you. Please? (Let’s pretend we already know these) .

How to ask for and follow directions?

How to order food? Or buy the food for a recipe? I am leaning towards food – we could make food. It would need to be cold. Make a salad for instance or a sandwich – this would give us lots of vocabulary – verbs and nouns.

How to navigate a supermarket or the words you would use to describe yourself and where you come from?

How to order a coffee? ( this one I always learn before I leave home). And would make for a tasty class.

Throw out all your ideas. I like my lessons to be task based and like to add drama or role play into each class. And I would love your input.

Yes, that is my tool chair – right by my desk. One day I am going to bring in the tin tool chest from the shed that I never use because I like to keep my tools close by so I can keep an eye on them. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you own the right tool for the job but not being able to find it! And I do not see my snub nosed pliers. Someone borrowed them while I was away. Also my extra large red adjustable spanner is missing. I will put hunting those down on my list for today.

Work, work, work!


WEATHER: At last! A sunny day!

91 Comments on “A QUESTION FOR YOU

  1. excuse me, can you help me, please? what do you need? i am looking for…., i need a doctor….., a bathroom……, a restaurant…., a grocer……, a pharmacist……, a hotel……., a clothing store……., a church…….., a school…….., city offices…….., a hospital….,police station……etc. (kind of basic, but basic needs are important to have filled and will alleviate some worry in a new place.) also – how to reach emergency services wherever they may live.

  2. Love that photo, Celi, it’s as if you’ve manipulated it to shade from colour into black & white.
    About your question: For me, feeding myself and my family would be very high on the priority list. Words for meat, bread, milk, vegetables, eggs, coffee, tea, rice, pasta, oil. And after that, supermarket, pharmacy, doctor, post office, town hall, bus stop, train station, public toilet… Hello, my name is… Can you tell me where to find the…? I’m sorry, can you say that again? Here, there, left, right, No thank you, Yes please, Please help me, I don’t understand.
    Oh dear, that petered out into slightly desperate language, but it’s things people might need if they get into trouble, real or conversational.

    • I don’t understand or please repeat that slowly are good sentences to know . In my course we are learning to teach the grammar too which kind of muddies the waters I think.

      • I suppose if you’re learning a language it’s best to speak it correctly from the start, but it’s a big ask, and perhaps a barrier to actual effective, if slightly wonky, communication.

  3. Shopping, buying food and chit chat. Learning which words are the same or similar in European languages is helpful (they are not all the same across the board). I don’t know why they don’t do that with French and Spanish in schools – it would help beginners to discover words they already know. Then 5 or 6 verbs in the present tense.

  4. When I was teaching ESL, the most common questions I was asked dealt with forms. My students would bring in forms they needed help with, and I would end up working through the commonalities on the forms for the entire week, and use my offoce hours to work with students one on one filling them out.

    • When I worked in an International Scholars office, there was a Form story: a brand new foreign student had written under the “Sex” box with “Once, in Milwaukee.” The advisor said it was true. Help with form filling seems in order.

  5. Good luck on finding your missing tools! I keep secret tools now because things keep walking away…

    Great question on your beginner’s class. I found that when I moved to Israel, even though I knew some Hebrew, what I found most important was being able to speak about money, and asking for and understanding directions. The Israelis have an extremely effective language program, they have to with all the immigrants they have. And then next you need to be able to speak about food! But to travel on the buses and buy food, you really have to know numbers so you aren’t relegated to holding out your hand and having a shopkeeper or bus driver just picking the money out of your palm.

    • Agree. Knowing numbers and your money would be at the top of my list…followed by the other ….food, doctor, help etc.

  6. Basics like where are N, S, E, W, how far are things, buses, how much is a taxi ride, where is the bank, restaurants, parks.

  7. Navigation was my friends largest issues when he arrived with a wife and infant from Kenya in September 2001. Yes – that close to 9/11! They came into DFW airport, the church family that sponsored their immigration met them, took them to their small 1 bedroom apartment and then left them to fend for themselves. His story makes me mad at ‘some’ people. Then they had cab drivers drop them off in the middle of nowhere …. it was horrible.

  8. I moved to Turkey for a while and I knew zero Turkish when I got there. I used the LAMP method – Language Acquisition Made Practical. For me this meant walking around the city, asking for help, and asking those helping me to teach me the words. As I got the basics down, I played “Question of the Day” where I’d come up with a question in the morning and then ask some nice person/people I bumped into during the day to teach me how to talk about that question, ie “What is the meaning behind the Seker Bayam?” or “What does the CHP believe in?” For pedagogical purposes, you could probably create make believe scenarios for students that put them in these situations. “You are walking around Chicago and you would like to know the best place to eat pizza within walking distance. How do you ask that question?”

  9. I have not been to Europe yet but have been to French speaking parts of Canada and different states in Mexico. We got ourselves lost in both countries – I know a little French and a little Spanish – getting directions is very difficult if you aren’t pronouncing it right. I have to say that we found in Mexico the people were more willing to help us!! Both times we were looking for either a restaurant or a grocer – but knowing “ turn left or right “ is very helpful to find the food market! What a fun project you are doing!

    • Hi Becky, How I remember left or right (gauche ou droit en Français) While ‘Maintiens le Droit” – the French motto for the RCMP – means literally to “Uphold the Right” in English, or in more recent language literally to maintain the law; while left/gauche is also used as a derogatory term for someone who is unmannerly, uncouth or “common”…

  10. I agree that comprehension of the answers to questions is also very important. So hearing a lot of spoken complete sentences should be part of the drill. If the students understands what they hear, they will increase their vocabulary & speaking skills. Students might keep radios or tvs on in the background at home to hear & learn spoken English. I get a pkg. of 3 French tv channels, & I often leave one or another on all day in a low volume & feel that must be doing some good for my fading French.

  11. Numbers for buying and pricing items is crucial. Directional words to get around on foot and in taxies is also important. And I’d go with teaching verbs in the present tense along with common nouns so students can make themselves understood and begin to actually communicate ideas. 🙂

  12. Where to go: Markets-where to buy basics, their basics (what are they), spices they’re used to, street signs, places of worship
    Some idioms, local lingo (here “mooching about” is NOT a good thing, in UK, means-strolling and window shopping) <–example
    Centigrade vs Fahrenheit; money/coin
    Suggest children's TV-easy learning basics.

  13. i would think that job interview questions would be important. Being able to explain your background and skill set.
    Being able to tell a story about your home in your old country. (I know it’s not task based, but I imagine it will help bridge friendship gaps)
    Being able to talk to a teacher about your kids education. (sort of task based since I cannot imagine how they manage parent teacher meetings otherwise)
    Whatever their favorite sport or hobby is – being able to learn all the normal terms and words surrounding that. (not really task based.)
    I hope your lesson plan goes well. You seem genuinely invested in it. Which is what will make you a great teacher. 🙂

  14. When my niece Emily and I were in Germany this last spring, we found that understanding the money system, and how to purchase what we needed – especially purchasing train tickets, was crucial from the time we landed. Also, our cell phone GPS did not work most of the time. Having a paper map was so important – not many signs or instructions were in English, so reading a German map was important. Having a good sense of surroundings and where we were going was important. Most of the time young people spoke English so we looked to them to ask for help. But we found even elderly people were good at helping us by listening and watching while these American girls acted out in charades what they needed or questioned. By the time we were there a few days, we knew a few basic words of German and we could also understand a good bit. I would say overall, being able to ask about directions and instructions for basic needs (directions, food, emergency services, and transportation) are most important.

    • Oh I know that feeling. I always research the hell out of my first journey – the one from the airport to town. I still get lost. I got lost in Chicago the other night when I came out of the underground into the wrong street.

  15. I have a friend who came from the Ukraine with her mother and sister many years ago. They had no English. Some one taught the mother two words – ME WORK. She went from one factory to the next saying ME WORK until she got a job.

  16. The bureaucratic stuff is important, medicare, dentist; how to open a bank account, get a credit/debit card, paying bills.

  17. Some years ago I spent a month in Japan with absolutely no knowledge of the language. I had no difficulty in grocery stores, and even restaurants were easy because literally everywhere used ‘picture menus’ and one just pointed to the picture and magically that would be exactly what was set before you. As others have mentioned above, learning directions would be so useful: right, left, North,south, etc. And I think it was Kate who, above, suggested asking someone to repeat and that would be most valuable. Funniest thing is when people realize one doesn’t speak the language, instead of finding easier or simpler ways to explain, they simply raise their voices and repeat exactly what they’ve already said as if your problem was not language but hearing. Oh, and a phrase to request closest public washrooms. lol this is pretty critical. ~ Mame 🙃

  18. Hmm…
    Emergency Services: Fire, police, ambulance, hospital, doctor, alternative practitioners & health food stores.
    Food: contents of their favourite recipes and where to purchase them. Grocery, Bakery, Butcher, Farmers’ Markets… Learning about the food cultures of others in the class might find commonalities and form friendships.
    Religious & Community Centres and their functions
    Money: denominations and how it works. Cash, debit, credit…
    Directions: not just cardinal but sunrise and sunset.
    Weather terminology and what’s important to know in your area.

  19. May I have… Thank you very much. Excuse me please. Do you know where/Can you show me… Hello! How are you?
    Love your pile of tools “in plain sight”
    There is NOTHING more frustrating than trying figure out where X was using/would leave your… (and logic normally has nothing to do with it, because if it did, it would be right back where you left it:/)

  20. All I thought of has been suggested, but I might add one. Allergies and how to convey them would be very necessary, especially food allergies. When we visited Paris several years ago, I was immediately overwhelmed by the city. We found a street vendor who sold maps which helped tremendously. We walked everywhere as we couldn’t figure out the subway system without the language.

    • Walking was a good idea. You have to move very fast in the Parisian train system – those doors open and shut in seconds and if you hesitate you are lost – literally!

      • We would plan our day in the hotel room, Mark the map and forge ahead, several museums and then eat at restaurants that looked interesting. If was only a couple of days, but we packed in as much as possible. Lots of ideas here. I’m sure you will come up with a great lesson plan.

  21. Im the same everything I thought of has been said. I think being able to ask for directions is really important, and left and right. We do a lot of pointing and smiling when we go abroad, I find a smile helps a lot! 😀

  22. I took a solo trip to Napoli at the beginning of December, knowing precious little Italian. Per usual, my brain decided often to answer in French or mangled Spanish when I did understand and try to respond. Ah, brains are funny! I had a fantastic time, in part because Italians are such a laid back and hospitable people.

    I went to the grocery near my apartment twice and it was marvelous. That is always one of my favorite places to visit in a new country, you can learn so much there. Helpful language for ordering meat and cheese would be nice, what are the customs when one is paying – do you lay cash directly in the cashier’s hand or in a tray? Do they provide bags or is it customary to bring your own? Those are all good things to know.

    Ah, to be back on those tiny winding streets, smelling of fresh espresso and pastries in the morning…sigh. Nope. I’m here in Raleigh, bundled into my car, heading to the office. Le sigh.

  23. All the great suggestions! Mine? Two easy aids, easy and cheap. Clear plastic page protectors and dry erase markers. Dollar store kinds work fine, for easy in-class or home practice. Insert sheets with assignment & write/erase on the protector. Also, spiral bound index cards come in different sizes & can be used as a more permanent personal pack of questions as well as functioning like flashcards for memorization. My lazy emergency aid is Google Translate for those with smartphones–

      • Yes. kind of a personal help list– but to be an aid to learning rather than a crutch. Easily updated, learned phrases crossed off or whole pages torn out. And can use both sides of each card.

  24. I moved to Sweden from Australia knowing not a word of Swedish and those first few months were a scary time. I can recall thinking every time I went out “Please, don’t ask me anything” or “Please don’t talk to me”.

    The first things I learned were the polite words like “Hello”, “Thanks”, “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me” and “Where is the…” to help when I was negotiating the busy streets. I also needed to shop, so phrases like “Can I please have…” and “How much does it cost” were good to know. “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Yes”, “No” are good to know as well as “I am…”, “I come from…” and “What is your name?”

    I think vocab is easy to learn if its a subject you are interested in. For me that was food and cooking, so I concentrated on learning the Swedish for foodstuffs and reading recipes. I got recipe leaflets from the store and came home and looked up what each thing meant. I wrote shopping lists in both languages just to remember what I was buying and over time I learned the words without really having to try – just from the repetition. Having gained confidence in the area that was my passion, I was ready to branch out.

    Others have mentioned forms and that is also an area where I noticed that a lot of immigrants in my Swedish class needed help. I was lucky in that my husband is Swedish, but those without someone at home who spoke the language struggled to fill in basic forms that they’d need to register with doctor, dentist, social security, open a bank account, order broadband, rent a flat etc.

    • It is so much easier when we are engaged – working with something we are interested in. Like food. I should imagine everyone can engage with food

  25. I have a million stories about being the newly arrived expat in Hungary and, later, in France and trying to learn the basics as quickly as possible. So many mistakes, some hilarious and some embarrassing! Once I told someone I had four younger lovers when I meant to say four sons. In a class on Business Hungarian, I was asked to say ‘The Ukrainian computer market is ours!’ I would emphasize the survival vocabulary above all: how to ask for and understand directions, handle the currency, use public transportation, maneuver through the supermarket or local shop, describe a problem and ask for help. And please also teach the ‘cultural keys,’ that is, the way things are done here which we all take for granted. Queueing correctly is so important if you want to get waited on. The appropriate response to a cheery ‘Have a nice day’ or ‘Have a good one!’

      • Well, they vary a bit from one coast to the other but, in general, use of the first name immediately, saying ‘Hello’ to complete strangers one meets in passing, the notion of tipping 20% in restaurants, freely volunteering one’s time to help others, the lack of affordable health care (seen as a ‘good thing’ by so many!) are the first ones that come to mind as being so different from most European countries. And again, queueing.

  26. Others have covered what I would have said….being in Japan, having no Japanese and needing the toilet was a big one for me! How people are feling is hard too, to convey. I worked in Immigration Dept. in the late 80s/early 90s and counselled newly arrived refugees from El Salvador, most of whom had been tortured. I had no Spanish, they had basic English but no words to tell their stories. They didn’t want an interpreter sitting in either, so it was very hard, but we got there, lots of sign language, I used children’s books, those ones with pictures of faces and various feelings. We drew pictures, acted out various scenarios…..very harrowing….. as well. Laughed and cried a lot too.

  27. You could always get graphic like my husband did in Senegal (French-speaking). We needed eggs and couldn’t find them in the grocer’s, so he went to the clerk, tucked his arms up, started flapping his elbows, then made a pushing sound, and held out his hands and said ‘egg?’. She pointed him to the back of the shop and there they were in a low-down cooler! What a hoot THAT was!

  28. Mercy! Just glanced at the title of this section and thought it said “Welcome to the Language of Comments” – which makes perfect sense for today’s topic

  29. Yes to all of the above and also be able to explain your symptoms–pain in chest, upset stomach, earache, etc.

  30. Lots of great suggestions above. I was in that position 55 yrs ago and honestly can’t remember how I learned but I was young and was able to pick it up quickly at school where a lot of vocabulary was thrown at us. My parents had to go right into the work place and, especially with my mom, had a more limited, work related vocabulary, all their lives.

  31. I think food is an essential basic for new migrants, and along with that it would be helpful to teach weights and measurements since the US system is different to most of the rest of the world who uses metrics. That was one of the things I found most difficult when I moved to Australia. I simply didn’t know how much weight to order of something, what 100grams looked like, that sort of thing. Migrants would most likely buy in bulk if they can, since it is cheaper and to buy in bulk one needs to know measurements…at least a few basic ones.

  32. Good evening, c. Just back home today from your side of the pond; playing with grandchildren. The baby learned to crawl yesterday.

    And now to your question. I took a 2-months-long Berlitz course in Cantonese when I lived in Hong Kong. We spent a good portion of time studying restaurant menus, pronouncing the food names, learning which food was what, and what it tasted like, and ordering off the menu. The waiter knew we were all Berlitz students, which is probably a wise move since there were a lot of us – understanding and patience was needed. Good luck.

  33. Divide and conquer 🙂 ! According to subject matter ! I remember being the first ‘New Australian’ child in my school and having perfectly well-meaning girls ask “Do you have cars in your country’ and ‘Are there doctors in your contrary’ !!! A few of the teachers had travelled and taught abroad. They asked would I give up my ‘morning tea’ every day and they would ‘take me’ shopping and to the bank and the doctor with my parents and the library . . . what do you say when you walk up to the bank teller ? This was ‘doable’ and SO helpful and I soon became my parents’ translator as well – it came in small sound bites and did not frighten . . . if I knew I had to go to a certain place, my wonderful teachers practiced all the words I just might need ! Hands, knees and bumpsadaisy . . . .naturally a lot of phrases got repeated and gave one confidence: it did not look as ‘big’ . . . . I Oh, Celi – you’ll be the best of the best . . .

  34. I’ve just moved to a new country where I can neither read the alphabet or speak the language. I’ve found the two biggest barriers are directions and food – it’s very hard to get through the day without either of these topics being an issue! I also teach English and have found that there’s lots of fun interactive games you can think of for both! 🙂

    • Oh how wonderful- and difficult. I was/am a drama teacher so I hope to use lots of my games. And thank you – I am leaning towards the directions for the lesson!

  35. How about “does anybody speak (whatever is your birth language)? That was a joke. I have no suggestions but this reminded me of a joke my dad used to tell a gazillion years ago: A Polish (because my dad was of Polish ancestry) man was new to America and hungry. A friend told him to ask for apple pie and coffee. The poor guy was eating this three times a day for days. He asked his friend to teach him something else to order and his friend said ‘ham sandwich’ which he did but when the waitress replied with ‘wheat or rye?’ the poor man didn’t know what to answer and ended up eating apple pie and coffee.

  36. back in the early 1970’s I lived in Spain for a year with my children ages 9 and 5. I knew no Spanish, but did bring a first year college Spanish textbook
    with me- so I practiced a lesson at home and then went out and shopped for our dinner- each day…..so shopping and using public transportation might be a good lesson? Have a lovely day looking foryour red spanner!

  37. When I was in Germany, I attended a headstart program and only paid attention to the the directions on how to get home, and how to order food in a restaurant. “Gahen si geradeaus, und dan links au zweite strabe” go straight ahead and turn left at the 2nd street… taxi got me home every time with that!

  38. I had a friend who moved to France to be with her French boyfriend. She knew a little conversational French, and her boyfriend and in-laws all knew English. What she had the most difficulty with was labels in supermarkets – most things have pictures, but don’t always give the complete picture – is it in oil, brine, cut, sliced, etc? Also her boyfriend got really ill and had to go to hospital not long after she moved to France, and she didn’t always know the words to communicate with the doctors, and they were not always very helpful about taking the time to make sure she understood what was going on.

  39. Every time I’ve gone to a country where the language is different, I have wanted to be able to read a newspaper, street signs, menus, and understand the language as spoken. Most U.S. magazines are written at a 5th grade level. USA Today seems to be as well. Another thing that’s a good tool is being able to watch the news with closed captioning. It’s in the language being spoken, but it always helps me to see the word spelled. Somehow they stick in my mind then and pronunciation is easier. I also agree with comments above on supermarket and shopping trips, cooking, and other things. Lots of ways to learn!

  40. I live in US, but was at a pharmacy (chemist) and a Samalie woman was getting meds for her sick little boy. The drugest was trying to make her understand the directions and asked me if I knew any of her language (no). The mom was in tears. I do believe she ended getting a friend to come and interpret for her. So some basic medical terminology could be very helpful.

  41. I always memorise “where is the bathroom” I suppose it depends on why they are learning the language. Because we are learning languages for travel, we try to learn things about food, how to order, how much does it cost, etc. But if it’s work that they are here for, they would need banking, work environment, etc.

  42. I love the food and menu idea for a starter. Directions are so important. How to take public transportation is critical. Listening for warning words in conversations or over loudspeakers. Helpful to know if the building is on fire or if it just normal closing hours at this store you are in. Most countries have the universal signs now, but learning the meaning of exit and entrance is always helpful. Best of luck on this project.

  43. Where is the bathroom?
    Otherwise, I do not know. I think it depends on the the language and the cultures associated with it . . . as well as why the language is being learned. For example, I can speak quite fluently about work related topics in Mexican Spanish because that is what I talk about in that language. I do not know much more than that.

  44. I agree with what everyone is saying, both from having had to learn a new language and having been a TEFL teacher. The basics, some simple present verbs then move onto other tenses or auxiliary verbs. Shopping, chit chat, the weather, maybe how to make an emergency call to the police, fire etc (I found myself having to do this my first summer in Spain with very little language when the campo around me went on fire and I managed to summon the fire brigade and even a plane with water arrived…although I won’t take the credit for that!).

  45. Wow, makes me wonder how hard it was for my grandparents when they came to Ellis Island in the 1900’s from Italy. My grandfather was already here. My grandmother and three young children then had to cross the states to CA. Also needing to know how not to not be taken advantage of. That element is out there and waiting to prey on people. Saying that, there are a lot of incredibly kind and caring people out there. Having several phone numbers for a really dire emergency would be helpful. Knowing how to cope. Having a strong personal support system helps. Also depending on where they are from some knowledge of your weather would be critical. Being able to understand the weather report. Especially wintertime. What an amazing and wonderful thing you are undertaking. Hats off. Such a help you will be. I am smiling because after they meet you they will often be thinking, “Ask Cecilia!)

  46. So many wonderful ideas about things that are important to learn.

    If you go with food / groceries / shopping, you might want to include some instruction about the pictographs that are on cleaning products. Crucial information for everyone’s health, especially if there are children in the family. We know that bleach, laundry detergent, etc. should up kept “up” or “locked”, but if you aren’t sure what is in the container, or are unfamiliar with the product, there could be some unfortunate events.

    Perhaps a “pantry list”, a menu and then a shopping trip would be task-oriented enough to help them absorb the information.

    You’ll do great!
    Chris S in Canada

  47. I’m a bit late sorry, but I was in exactly this position when I stepped off the boat with my husband in Naples. The most urgent language requirement was one nobody had thought to teach us when we did Italian lessons on the boat. We rushed into a shop, bought a dictionary and found out how to say, where are the toilets? Glad to say we made it just in time.

    After that it was basic shopping words and which way?

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