Hotel English: Prepare ESL Students to Work in Reception, Management, Housekeeping and More!

Speaking English is a highly regarded—and essential—skill in the world of business travel and international tourism.

These industries are booming and that means one thing: Jobs.

One key element of this industry is hospitality, and it is becoming an attractive option for international students seeking employment.

No matter if your ESL students want to work in a five-star hotel chain or at a no-star backpacker’s hostel, there are tons of necessary vocabulary words that are specific to the hospitality industry. The faster your ESL students learn the industry-specific words and phrases, the sooner they will be hired and promoted.

As ESL teachers, we must equip our students interested in hospitality with both language and culture lessons. For example, hotels, restaurants and bars are classed as being in the service industry sector and, consequently, the two most important words for all staff to use frequently are “please” and “thank you.” However, your students might not be aware of how often they should use these phrases with clients.

Another hospitality skill ESL students need to develop—no matter where they work in the hotel—is to smile. This universal sign is an automatic gesture of acceptance and goes a long way towards making people feel welcome. It also helps to bridge any language gap.

These are the sorts of things we will explore now, so keep reading!

How to Teach Hotel English

  • Role plays. No matter if you are doing one-on-one tutoring sessions with a concierge or teaching the basics to a cleaning staff, role plays are a great way to get your students involved. They may recognize familiar situations and phrases that they have encountered already doing their work. Students will also get to see both sides by being both the guest and the hotel employee. If your students have not yet stepped foot in a hotel, this gives them great insight that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
  • Naming items. Write the names of things on flashcards and tape them to items around your classroom. Bring in additional items that you might find in a hotel. If you are teaching English within a hotel, perhaps you can grab a hotel room for an hour to play with your flashcards. This strategy works with everything from onions in the kitchen to detergent in the laundry room.
  • Field trips. Ask a local establishment if your ESL students can visit during a quiet time. Talking with hotel employees and being able to ask questions will help them better understand what it means to work in a hotel.
  • Work experience. Match students with a hotel mentor and encourage them to learn as much as they can, both in terms of language and expected skills. The hotel industry is particularly open to work experience as it is a way they can access and recruit employees.
  • Use resources from hotels. Visit a hotel and explain that you are teaching English. Then ask for materials such as restaurant menus—which you can use with the restaurant and kitchen lessons—bar offerings and a checklist for room cleaning.

5 Key Areas of Hotel English to Teach ESL Students with Hospitality Ambitions

1. Front Desk and Concierge Speak

The front desk truly is the front line. The people who work behind the front desk are often the very first employees—except for the door people in upper-market hotels—that a client will encounter. First impressions are the ones that count and that they are not a dress rehearsal.

Teach your students that, in such a role, they will be responsible for representing the entire hotel.

Greeting guests

Although hotels can vary from the stiff-upper-lip to casual and friendly, it is better to error on the side of formality.

Teach as“Good morning/afternoon/evening, may I help you?” is always a good one.

Why not “Can I help you?”? Because “may” is asking permission, while “can” is being able to do something.

Asking for reservations

The next question is “Do you have a reservation?” If “yes,” the employee should ask for the number which may be a printed copy of the confirmation or a photo on a smartphone.

If “no,” the employee can say, “I will check to see if we have any rooms available,” and then do it as quickly as possible. What international customers will expect from hotel employees in terms of speed and efficiency of service is important to inform students of as well.

Taking a copy of the credit card

“How will you be settling your account?” is the next step. This phrase if is more polite than asking how people will be “paying your bill,” so teach students delicate phrases like this one.

The person will tell you which credit card and the employee will then need to ask something like, “may I please take a copy?” as this is standard practice in anything about a two-star hotel.

Recommending local attractions

As front line people, desk staff and concierges are often asked to recommend places of interest. Many hotels stock tourist maps, so make sure you know what is available so you can help your ESL students with the vocabulary they need.

Another good tactic is to visit the places with your ESL students so they can make personal recommendations. “I particularly enjoy the park one block from here as it is a quiet place. But if you want to shop/eat/go to a bar I can suggest _______.”

One great activity is to print out a local map, have students explore the area and mark their favorite businesses that they can recommend.

2. Restaurant Vocabulary and Phrases

Greeting and seating diners

When people enter a restaurant they like to be made to feel welcome. If it is a wait-until-you-are seated place, “Do you have a reservation?” is the first question.

Have students practice smiling, speaking to customers, asking for reservations and finding seats for them.

Knowing the menu

Use the menus from local hotel restaurant to teach ESL students to understand the dishes on offer. The Internet offers a wealth of hotel restaurants featuring their menus online, so print some of these out if you can’t find any from local places. Working in a hotel, serving in the hotel restaurant or taking room service calls, your students will likely have to understand terms like “baked,” “fried” and “boiled” when customers make orders. Have them underline key words like these and make vocabulary lists in their notebooks, or have them count the frequency of certain key words like these.

A trip to the grocery store would be helpful for the ESL students who don’t understand the English terms for fruits and vegetables. Pictures can be clipped out of coupon books from grocery stores and used as flashcards.

Taking food and drink orders

Begin with “Our special of the day is buttered chicken with vegetables. Also on offer is _____ and _____.” Have them list other popular dishes when delivering the menu. Then teach ESL students to use the phrase “May I take your order, please?”

This is an ideal situation to use role-plays and your printed menus. The diner can ask questions and the server can respond.

Proving good service

Serving food properly is an art and diners appreciate people who take the time to do it. And that is where tips come in. Teach your students how to respond to customer compliments, complaints and requests during meals.

At the end of the meal, ask the diners “would you like anything else?” before presenting them with the bill.

3. Bar English

Working behind a bar may look like a dream job to some, but it can also be hectic and demanding. Bartenders need to learn the slang of the occupation if they want to work “behind the stick” in a “three-deep” bar that has “staff meetings” at the end of a shift.

For the older crowd of students who are interested and able to work in a bar, you may want to introduce them to some common slang for bartending work.

Greeting and seating customers

Much of the formalities will depend on the type of place. Expectations will vary from seating guests with reservations to people strolling in and plopping down where they want to.

“Good evening” and “welcome” will cover it initially as the server hands out bar menus.

Learning the bar menu

Generally bars list the ingredients in the cocktails, which makes it easier. Still good bar staff need to know the difference between scotch, bourbon and whiskey. Fortunately the bottles are generally labelled and that helps.

Taking drink and food orders

“May I take your drink order?” is the phrase ESL would-be servers need to know. If nuts or other snacks are complimentary with the order, now is the time to serve them.

Servers may also want to mention that food is available, particularly if people are drinking heavily A sentence such as “There is a variety of food listed on the back of the menu and the kitchen takes orders until 10:30.”

Keeping an eye on service

Part of being a good server is to monitor when drinks are running low while not being obtrusive. “Would anyone like another drink?” will cover it.

With regular customers, they will be able to nod to the server and their favorite tipple will magically appear.

Have a round of role-play activities where students take turn being the bartenders and the happy customers hanging out at the bar.

4. Kitchen Must-know Words

The kitchen is the heart of any restaurant and the chef is the artery. Cooking is a high-stress job so everyone in the kitchen needs to speak the same food language.

Knowing the dishes on the menu

Just as with the serving staff, use the menu with your ESL students and make sure they are familiar with all the terms.

And don’t forget to stick file cards to everything from a double-boiler pot to a bag a potatoes if you can get access to a commercial kitchen. Use pictures if you can’t.

Understanding phrases and slang used in the kitchen. Like the bar, the kitchen has its own lingo. Teach ESL students a few phrases like “back of the house,” “deuce” and “hockey puck” and they will feel like insiders.

5. Cleaning Staff Essential Vocabulary

Of all the staff in a hotel, the cleaners may need the least English to get by. Then again, they may come from different countries and it could well be the only language they share in common.

As cleaning is often an entry level position, someone who knows English can be expected to be recognized by peers and management.

Asking if the guest would like the room cleaned

Of all the phrases in English for hotel work, this is perhaps the most important: “Would you like your room cleaned?” This will come in handy on off-days when cleaning is not necessarily scheduled, but customers may well want a bit of cleaning done.

ESL students also have to know and understand phrases such as “I would like more towels, please” and “I need more soap.” There’s a fantastic list of words, phrases, questions and responses for hotel workers here, and yet another critical hospitality vocabulary list here.

Specifying the names of items used to clean is the starting point. Cleaners need to know the names for sheets, towels, blankets, soap. Flashcards with photos and sticky notes is a good way to help ESL them with the process of learning the terms.


Learning hotel English is an ideal way to launch a career in the service industry where the possibilities range from entry-level through to management.

As with learning any specialized vocabulary, the key is repetition, repletion, repetition. Use a variety of activities to keep your ESL students interested in increasing their hotel ESL and remind them that jobs are available as a result.

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