Man on the bus

In this article you will:
√ Learn useful phrases while conversing with native English speakers in transit.
√ Practise being polite when asking for directions and help.
√ Master common commuter words and phrases to make daily travelling a breeze.

Take public transport

So the other day I was taking the bus home after a day of teaching and I spotted an unlikely pair waiting at the Camps Bay bus stop. He was a cool kid in his twenties wearing ripped jeans; she was probably in her 60s, wearing a floral sweater. So I’m thinking, maybe grandmother and grandson? They were nodding and smiling at each other as they talked but I couldn’t hear what they were saying behind the window. I was curious so I observed them as they boarded the trusty MyCiti 118. “Sit at the front,” said Mrs Flowers, gesturing at the front seats. “Yours is the next stop.” He frowned, speaking with an accent. “Next stop?” Mrs Flowers showed him the bus route map to indicate what “next stop” meant. Jeans got off the bus but not before saying thank you to Mrs Flowers for all her help. She beamed at him. It was really heart-melting stuff to see English connecting people from completely different generations, cultures and with wildly contrasting fashion sense!

In South Africa you’ll find lots of people like Mrs Florals. The bus is used by hardworking South Africans to commute to work so you’ll find ample opportunity to converse with native English speakers. It’s natural of course to be reserved but you’ll find many people are interested in talking to people from overseas, especially when a long tedious bus journey lies ahead. (Of course there are also the not-so-friendly strangers who would rather befriend your wallet so proceed with caution). Many students use the bus or Uber to get around and these are great opportunities to practice English outside of the classroom.

The magic words

“Please” and “thank you” will go far in endearing you to people while you’re in South Africa. The other essential phrase is, “Excuse me”. The reason we use this is to politely signal to someone that we’d like their attention. You can use this in multiple ways while on the move. First, as a phrase on its own. For example, if you’re trying to get past someone who’s waiting in the queue for another bus, or if you’re trying to squeeze past people to get to a seat. (But if you step on someone’s foot, it’s better to say, “Sorry!”). Bear in mind that in spoken English we often shorten “Excuse me” to, “Scuze me”.

Second, we use “Excuse me” to precede a request or question. Here are some useful phrases for speaking with a range of people you may encounter on the move, from bus drivers to station managers and fellow passengers.
“Excuse me. Where can I get on Bus 109?”
“Excuse me. Is this the bus to Clifton?”
“Excuse me. I’m a little lost. How do I find the bus to Claremont?”
“Excuse me. Is this seat taken?”

Another way you can use “Excuse me” is in an uninterrupted sentence with “But”. For instance: “Excuse me, but I think that’s my seat.” It’s so much more polite than saying: “That’s my seat!”

Phrasal verbs 

First off, let’s look at common verbs and phrasal verbs associated with travelling using a conversation between two students, Ahmed from Saudi Arabia and Shariele from Brazil:

A: Hey Shariele. How do you get to school every day?
S: Hi Ahmed. Well, I usually take the train but sometimes I take the bus or I take an Uber. And you?
A: Well, I catch the bus to Clifton and then I change buses to go to Seapoint.
S: Oh, so you take two buses? How long does it take you?
A: My first bus usually leaves at 7:05. If I miss it then I have to wait for another one. But if I’m on time it takes about 45 minutes. Once I got on the wrong bus!
S: Oh dear!
A: Yes. I had to get off at the next stop. It took me ages to get home.

Lost in translation

There are a few go-to English phrases that will go a long way in helping you find your way around a new city while you’re studying in South Africa, so you don’t end up (like one student I heard about) ending up miles from where you are supposed to be. Don’t be shy to ask for help and practise your English at the same time.

“I’m lost. Can you help me please?” – If you don’t know where to begin, this is a good start.
“Where can I find…” – We use this phrase to ask for help to find the right bus/ bus stop or train/ train platform. For example: “Excuse me, where can I find the platform for the train to Claremont?”
“Is this the bus/ train to…”— We use this phrase to confirm if we’re on the right bus or train.
“What is the stop for Sandton?” — We use this to confirm at which stop (a point on the bus route) we should exit the bus.

En route

So you got a little lost but no worries. Now is a great time to start engaging in some pro bono English conversation. Don’t know where to start? Use the FORD technique, which stands for: Family. Occupation. Recreation. Dreams. You can use this in any particular order. This is a useful acronym, not only because it’s a handy cheat-sheet when you get stuck halfway through a conversation, but because it allows you to practise various tenses, verb patterns, and common questions. It’s best to start off with some warmer questions.

Here’s a sample conversation between a passenger (P) and a student, Mohammed (Mo):

Mo: Hello. I’m Mohammed. Nice to meet you.
P: Hi. I’m Sam. Nice to meet you too, Mohammed.
Mo: Are you from South Africa?
P: Yes I live in Cape Town. Where are you from?
Mo: I’m from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
P: Oh really? Are you on holiday?
Mo: No, I’m a student. I’m studying English at ELC here in Cape Town.
P: Oh, that sounds interesting.
Mo: And what do you do?
P: I’m a secretary.
Mo. I see. Do you enjoy your job?
P: I enjoy interacting with people, but it can be quite stressful. Are you enjoying learning English?
Mo: Yes, I’m having a lot of fun. I still make mistakes but I’m learning every day.
P: Have you done much sightseeing?
Mo: Yes, I’ve been to the Waterfront and on the Garden Route. Can you suggest any other activities?
P: Yes, you should go to Boulders Beach to see the penguins. Otherwise… Hmmm…. What are your hobbies?
Mo: I like running and hiking.
P: Okay cool. Then you should go hiking up Lion’s Head and go running on the Sea Point promenade.
Mo: That sounds great. I’ll do that. Thanks for the ideas.
P: My pleasure.
Mo: Do you have any siblings?
P: Yes I have two brothers and one sister. And you?
Mo: Yes, I have six siblings. My eldest sibling lives in the UK and is a doctor. My youngest sibling is still in school.
P: That’s a big family! And why are you learning English?
Mo: Well, I want to study engineering at university and the course is in English and Arabic. I want to be an engineer and also travel around the world so English will be useful for that too.
P: Well, that’s my stop. It was nice chatting with you Mo. Take care!
Mo: Same here. Go well.

As you can see this conversation covered all the topics in the FORD technique. Don’t be afraid to diverge into different topics. People may also be interested to learn more about your culture and country. You can also find out more about South Africa and its many cultures and get some advice on good travel spots.

Happy travels!

By Leigh-Anne Hunter

Check our other blogs about living in the city Home away from home, Meet the locals, Volunteer in South Africa.

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