For hotel staff all over the world, English language skills are vital. In some markets, knowledge of another second language is also an asset of course – in Thailand you will see employees trying to pick up Chinese or Russian to communicate with visitors – but in countries which do not speak English as a native language, English is the key skill employers are looking for.

If the mother tongue of your hotel’s staff is not English, chances are you’ve been thinking about the question of how to improve your employees’ abilities in this area, because poor English hurts your customer service standards. Here are some of the things you can do to make a difference.

Better English starts with recruitment. Obviously it’s a good idea to hire staff whose basic English skills are already in place, but if you can’t do that, the next best attribute is the right attitude. Speaking a foreign language requires a certain degree of self-confidence, with minimal fear of making mistakes or even appearing foolish. People who truly want to communicate and enjoy engaging others in conversation will make faster progress, so you need to hire people who have a genuine interest in other people, are fairly outgoing and friendly, and who really want to learn and improve. People who are not particularly talkative in their native language are less likely to be talkative in English, and in many cases they simply won’t be speaking enough to make the progress you want to see, even if they can perform very well on paper.

The next step may be to arrange some training, but you need to put some thought into this before you start looking for language schools or trainers. There are a number of mistakes you can make that will reduce your chances of success when it comes to language training, and the first of these is to have vague objectives. You need to know what you want your staff to learn, or what you want them to be able to do by the end of their training – because if you don’t you’ll end up learning general English, which won’t necessarily help with the specifics of the job.  Related to this is the fact that you also need to know who will receive the training. Employees in different departments may have different language needs, so you can’t put everyone in the same class.

In practice this means that if you want your F & B staff to be able to work more effectively in English, you need to arrange training that will focus on restaurant communication with guests, enabling staff to explain items on the menu, take and check orders accurately, and communicate payment processes. The course must be designed to accomplish this, and the materials used must support these aims. Good training providers will have materials available that cover this type of content, and the best will be able to incorporate your hotel’s own menus into the course, and produce some tailor-made content especially for your staff. But if you try to add a handful of housekeeping staff to this group, things can rapidly fall apart.

It’s also not a good idea in some cultures to put senior and junior staff in the same class, especially if there’s a chance that the younger employees might have better language skills. The outcome can sometimes be that the juniors won’t speak up properly for fear of embarrassing their bosses, while the supervisors won’t participate for fear of looking bad in front of their staff. The wrong mix of personalities can severely inhibit progress in a class.

When you know what you want, and for whom, it’s time to find the training provider. Some hotels will approach a language school, while others may decide to hire an in-house trainer. Both methods can be effective, but there are pitfalls to either. The best language schools are not necessarily the ones you’ve heard of, or the ones with the big advertising budgets. Quality language training ultimately comes down to the teacher, and the best teachers usually gravitate to the schools which offer the best pay and conditions. If you can figure out which schools those are, your chances of success just increased significantly. It’s also important that when you explain what you want, the school will communicate that directly to the teacher, and will provide a course outline that meets your needs. You’d be amazed how many schools will send a salesperson to promise the moon and sell you a course – and then fail to tell the teacher what they’ve promised to the client.

If you decide to hire a teacher directly, you need to know a little bit more about qualifications, and you’ll also have to think about materials. The main international qualification you’re looking for is the Cambridge CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) or equivalent, while the DELTA is considered the gold standard, though you’re much less likely to find a candidate who has one. The point of such certification is that it pretty much guarantees that the teacher will know what they’re doing and will be able to organize and teach a series of effective lessons. The materials problem can be trickier. Some teachers will have their own books and other resources, but you may need to arrange photocopying.

The final thing to worry about is the classroom itself. Hotels usually have meeting rooms rather than classrooms, and they’re not always ideal in terms of size, shape, and layout. The best thing you could do is give the teacher a choice of rooms to use, so they can pick the one that best suits their style.

The last thing to keep in mind is that the teacher wants everything to go well, and wants your staff to succeed in meeting their objectives. Keep a close eye on things and offer support where necessary – and as long as your expectations are reasonable and your staff truly want to improve, you’ll start to see the benefits in the quality of customer service you can offer.