|What volunteers should teach |
Among Thailand’s 64 million people are 13 million students. English has been a core compulsory subject since 1999. But most students can’t speak English. That’s true of little kids and big university kids. It’s even true of many teachers, school Directors. And it’s even true of many Thai teachers who teach English. Poor English skills among students has become a serious national problem.
Nevertheless, if you assume you have to start at the beginning. You’ll be wrong. And you’ll waste their time and yours. If you’ve come all this way to teach vocabulary you might as well have stayed home. And if you’ve come here to make a difference. Sorry. But you won’t.
So you need a precise strategy for teaching. You need some specific guidance on what to teach and how to teach it. That includes pronunciation of simple words. You need some practice in controlling your voice. If you were learning Thai starting tomorrow. How quickly would you like the teacher to speak Thai? S L O W L Y. Some might argue that it is enough to speak English to Thai kids and they will benefit. We don’t agree. Try it yourself. Have someone speak a foreign language to you every day for two weeks or two months. See if that makes you more capable in that language.
This is going to sound a little harsh. But bear with us and we’ll explain.
But the fact is, if you come to Thailand to teach English for a few weeks or even a month. And if you don’t know anything about Thai students and what they really need. You might as well stay home.
Sorry. But that’s the truth.
We’ve taught at all levels of the Thai system from 6 year olds to 25 years olds. We’ve learned that every student has the same problem: They actually have quite a bit of information about English. But they have no skills in using it. It is as though they have studied bicycles for up to 12 years. But can’t ride them.
A typical conversation with a Thai student ends after “What’s your name?” And, “how old are you?” That leads many volunteer teachers to believe they must teach vocabulary to students before they can speak.
But that conclusion is wrong.
But the teacher presses on and teaches, for example, body parts as a vocab lesson. “Hair, eyes, ears, nose.” What the teacher doesn’t appreciate is that students know all those words. Or at least can recognize them. The problem is they don’t how to use the vocab they do know in conversation.
The truth is that most Thais have a pretty extensive vocabulary. Particularly for western artifacts: music, movies, sports, cartoons and super heroes. They know Batman, Superman, Harry Potter, English premier football teams, movie stars as well as most common every day objects.
But they don’t know how to use this knowledge in conversation. Because no one has ever taught them a strategy or a simple system for using it. So the unsuspecting volunteer teacher ends up teaching body parts as a vocab lesson: eyes, ears, hands, eyes and legs. What they should be teaching is a simple system for using the vocab the children already have: “I have two eyes”. “I can see.” “I have two legs”. “I can walk”. A simple system of unlocking vocab can be taught in just a few weeks. If somebody shows you how to do it. And we’d like to have that opportunity to show it to you. And it takes about an hour.
You will have to take us on faith on this one. But properly taught, a student can learn more practical conversational skills in a few weeks, than he can in two years.
Another reason why Thai students speak English poorly is that they commonly mispronounce two and three syllable words. Say the word “money”. You probably said “MONey” with the emphasis on the first syllable. Ask a Thai student to do the same thing. And you’ll get “monEY”. The emphasis is now incorrectly on the second syllable.
Doesn’t sound like a big deal. But it is. Many educators, including yours truly, believe it’s one of the main impediments to learning conversational English in Thailand. The major English skills are reading, writing, speaking and listening comprehension. When Thai students are tested, they fare the poorest in listening comprehension. Logic might predict this. It you can’t understand a language, you’ll be challenged to speak it as well.
As a native English speaker, your brain is like a computer. In it are millions of sound files for words such as “money.” Because you pronounce it correctly (with the emphasis on the first syllable), you are better able to understand it when the word is used by another speaker.
But imagine if the sound file for “money” was actually stored backwards in your brain. When used correctly by another speaker you would have more difficulty identifying it. Now imagine thousands of two syllable words are also stored backwards. And this applies to three syllable words as well. (We’ll explore that later).
So the scenario facing the Thai student is this: Two and three syllable English words come at them in quick succession. They try to make sense of them, but all of the sound files are backwards in their head.
We can see how that might be a problem. As teachers here’s how we can help. Write, “happy birthday” on the board. Most students will be able to read and pronounce it. Now you say it: HAP-py BIRTHday. Now your class: hapPY birthDAY. Repeat several times. Many students will notice the difference between the sounds you are making and theirs.
Say it this time and now use your right hand. As you say HAPpy, move your right hand from high to low. Now do the same with BIRTHday. As your students are speaking, show your hand moving incorrectly from low to high. Use other expressions such as “Harry Potter” to demonstrate the same point.
After a few sessions with your class there will be a very noticeable improvement in their pronunciation. It will be noticeable to you. But more importantly, it will be noticeable to your students. Their English sounds more like yours and they will see it very quickly. It will help to build confidence in the sound of their own voices.
For your more advanced students you can now move to three syllable words. Take the word “vanilla”. Native speakers would say “vaNILla” The loudest syllable is the middle one. It’s the same for virtually all three syllable words. Thai learners would say, “vanilLA”. Again the loudest syllable is the last syllable.
As your students improve their pronunciation keep in mind that it will also help their listening comprehension which is the greatest benefit of all