Lizzie Lynch, a former English language teaching assistant in Thailand, explains how learning her students' mother tongue compelled her to reassess her methods.
It’s a near-universal and embarrassing truth that Brits abroad are unlikely to be able to make themselves understood in anything other than slow English, erratic gesticulations, or a combination of the two. I awkwardly realised the stereotype when I started working as an English teaching assistant in Thailand last summer. While I was staying with a host family, my attempts to mime a need for mosquito repellent, for example, or washing powder, were slow to the point of being funny.
Speaking fluently became a novelty reserved for the weekends, where I relished the chance to talk in English before returning to playing 'Simon says' with my students on Monday morning. For the first fortnight, I skipped through new material with my students, racing around the classroom to check their comprehension, marking new words on the board and exposing them to explosions of new vocabulary through games and competitions. Still, weekends of respite came and went, and my students, despite learning odds and ends of vocabulary, couldn't hold a conversation with me in English.
Naturally, the more committed students were the ones that raced ahead. They sought me out in the corridors and after school to practise new words and phrases. One little girl from my reception class made it a habit to run to my side at the end of each school day, grab a well-worn picture book and hurriedly show off her linguistic abilities to me by pointing to each animal and object in turn before shouting out what they were called in English. She loved this book, and knew it so well, that her eyes barely scanned the page before announcing what was there and, if she did falter, Thai symbols spelt out the correct English pronunciation underneath. For her, the written English on each page was irrelevant – the repetition of the exercise and the Thai sounds allowed her to pronounce the correct words without a moment of thought.
One afternoon, I challenged her, and, pointing at a picture of a dog, I asked: 'In Thai?' She looked at me quizzically, her brain whirring with the realisation that her English teacher was, to all intents and purposes, illiterate. 'Mah' she said. Not of course to be mistaken with 'Mah' for 'mother', or 'mah' for 'come' – same, same, but tonally very different. I realised how little I knew about the actual structure of the Thai language, how my own parrot-fashioned phrases of the last few weeks had got me by without my really understanding how the language worked. I spent that evening questioning my mentor, scrawling through my phrase book and other picture books from the school library.
It turns out Thai really isn't like English at all. There are, for example, 44 consonants and 32 vowels (compared with our 21 consonants and five vowels). In addition, with only three tenses (past, present and future) and little emphasis on possessive pronouns (e.g., my, your, their), it’s fair to say that Thai grammar works in an entirely different way from English. In fact, learning Thai is a different experience altogether for someone who has only ever studied European languages. Understanding the logic of my students' mother tongue made me realise just how huge a challenge it is to start learning an unrelated language such as English from scratch.
I changed my teaching tactics and started with sounds, especially 'ch', 'sh' and 'th', and 'b', 'p' and 't'. It's basic stuff – in fact, so basic that not only did it bring the high-flying students and those who struggled back onto the same page, but it also enabled all to start picking out the patterns and understanding the engineering behind the language.
We progressed slowly (as did I with my Thai), but there were small victories – the students started reading new English words without help, guessing spellings and starting to form their own sentences.
I noticed in my students the small successes I myself felt when I’d remember the correct tonal phrase or recognise the letters for 'school' on a plaque driving to town. From then on, I realised how important it was to praise even their seemingly minuscule progress.
I watched them grow in confidence, their brains alive with these new connections. They weren't by any means fluent by the end of my stay, but they weren't just parroting answers either. I too had learnt a lot, not just about teaching English but also about the lives of my Thai hosts and friends. I no longer sat there, overwhelmed by Thai conversation, but caught phrases, picked up tones and tried to guess what was that day’s lunchtime discussion. I felt far more part of the school and local community. I realised that mastering another language is a gift. Little could I have known that taking the time to learn Thai would make me a better English teacher.
Lizzie taught English in Thailand on the Teaching English Thailand 2015 programme and was the winner of the annual blog competition. Read more about her experience as an English teaching assistant.
Apply by 6 March 2016 to teach English in Thailand this summer.