Nov 072010

I can’t remember ever visiting (or even noticing) a nail salon in the UK, but there seem to be lots in the US. It took me several years to venture into one and then several years to go back, because the smell of the chemicals is powerful. But now painted toenails are a sign that summer’s on its way in our house. (I like wearing flip flops.)

The salons are generally staffed by immigrants. I’ve often wondered about their backgrounds and lives and some have answered my questions and chatted a little, but mostly they don’t. Many seem to have very limited English, although some have lived here for many years.

So I was intrigued when one of my students on an MA TESOL course chose Nail Salon workers for a needs analysis project. It was a tough assignment because the technicians didn’t want to talk to her – I’ll let you read why. But the results were fascinating and she’s very kindly agreed to let me publish them here.

So I’m delighted to share ‘English for Nail Technicians in New York’ by Connie Sargent:

Some things that struck me in particular were:

  • [The ESP need to] Teach American ideas of relaxation and indulgence
  • [That] Interaction is made more complicated by physical contact
  • Every [customer] interview referred to a fear that nail technicians are talking about them to other nail technicians

Did you find anything striking too?

 Posted by at 3:32 am

  10 Responses to “Nail Technicians in NYC”

  1. A very interesting project! Teaching the employees conversation patterns rather than/in addition to specific phrases, so they know what general things to expect, would be useful here.

    The nail salon industry here, and its thriving ownership by Vietnamese immigrants, has a really interesting history that can apparently be traced partly to Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds”–seriously! Here’s one article about it: There are more academic writeups, as well. I was really surprised when I first read about it. (The industry may be dominated by Koreans and Chinese people in NYC, but it’s mostly Vietnamese-run in the south and west–I don’t know what may have led it to be different there. I can think of some reasons, but I don’t have any data, and the upper east coast is such a different world from the rest of the US that I hesitate to speculate.)

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, Clarissa. Clarissa said: English for nail technicians in NYC: at @vickihollett's blog […]

  3. That’s absolutely fascinating. What an interesting project.

    Did she get to try and implement such a course or what it simply a research project? Would nail technicians be able to afford such a course.

    The whole thing really intrigues me. Please post any follow-ups.

  4. Well, I’d have to add “learn how to compliment sincerly” as a bit striking.

    Still, fascinating reading.

  5. Thanks, Nick! It was a research project, though Connie has mentioned that she’d love to try to help these workers by implementing such a course. How they could afford it is a problem, of course. (So if anyone knows any sources of funding available for a very worthwhile project…)

    I’m hoping Connie will be able to stop by and tell you more herself sometime, because she had some other really interesting thought on this. (She’s working towards a deadline on a large literature review project at the moment)

    Ah yes, compliments Toby. That struck chords with me too because I am still struggling to learn that.

  6. […] via Nail Technicians in NYC. […]

  7. Sorry your post has only just appeared, Clarissa. What a fascinating read that article was! Thank you for that. I’ve only been into a couple of salons in Philly, but they were both staffed with Vietnamese technicians.

    In the interests of full disclosure, Connie has asked me to point out:
    “The conclusions are based on a VERY small sample size: No beauty schools (despite me pestering 2 schools in NYC, I could’t get past the receptionists to actually speak to teachers and no one returned my calls), 5 non-native speakers, 2 owners/managers, 2 native speakers, 5 customers. Just wanted to be upfront about that. In real life, would this be enough? I noticed in the article about the hotel maids, the sample size was not large there either.”

  8. Hi Vicki – thank you so much for posting the presentation. It would be fun to actually create a course for this profession, but getting past all the suspicion on the part of the managers/owners might require a Korean-speaking intermediary.

    Meanwhile, I ran across this survey the other day while researching something else:
    It corroborates some of my findings and is a much larger sample (100 customers).

    As for the article about Tippi Hedren — how interesting! She was married to Peter Griffith. He picked me up once when I was hitchhiking, and by the time we got to town I was his new secretary. Sometimes life supplies an amazing arc of coincidences!

  9. This is a fascinating post. Thank you very much. I don’t know about the rest of the nail salons in the UK but those my wife frequents also employ a lot of Vietnamese. I would be interested to know if the same issues are prevelant in UK salons. A contrastive analysis moght show if nail salons across the world are discourse related or if the findings here are specific to a local culture.

  10. Thanks for an interesting question, Ed. My money would be on discourse related with the structure of the task in hand (pardon the pun) structuring the talk. But at the same time, as Clarissa’s pointed out, there immigration patterns involved as well, and no doubt the history of nail technicians is different in the UK.

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