Teaching in Thailand: Newbie Tips

First Year Experiences…

Three years ago, I stepped into a Thai-Isaan classroom full of 50 unmotivated 15-year-old students who could hardly say “My name is…” in English. I could speak absolutely no Thai beyond “sawadee krap” which I murdered so badly I had best remained silent. At the outset, they were petrified from fear, and so was I.

By accident, I happened upon a technique which serves me well to this day. I asked the students to become my teachers–to teach me their language. In my neck of the woods, it’s the Isaan folk language (a derivative of Lao). Because their folk language is somewhat frowned upon in “proper Thai society,” they were dumbstruck that not only a farang was asking them to be his teacher, but that he didn’t ask to be taught “proper Thai.”

Almost as if by magic, these cowering students displayed an unbelievable confidence which bordered on delight as they reallized they could teach the intimidating foreign teacher something he didn’t know. In the process, I slipped in the equivalent English terms, basically teaching English by stealth.

It became a game of competitive learning between me and the students. We both did a lot of acting, drawing pictures on the board, playing games, etc. Weekly, we took walks around the school campus, them “teaching me” about the flora, fauna, Buddhist statues, parts of the motorcycle, features of a building, etc. I would “just happen” to mention the English equivalents at every stop, and they’d start trying to imitate it.

For one thing, they learned how much slower language comes for a 50-ish student than a middle-school student. My defeats became their delights as they “bested” me nearly every day by remembering the English faster than I could remember the Isaan terms. In the end, I know they learned a lot more English than I learned Isaan.

Yes, I did get some disapproving stares from Thai English teachers who were futilely drilling their kids on English grammar, but I know we were defintely having more fun. And, any teacher worth their salt knows that, in a relaxed atmosphere, the doors to comprehension and retention get thrown wide open.

Of course, the cleverest students caught on to what I was doing, but still enjoyed the charade. For the rest of them, probably for years, I’ll be remembered at that school as the English-speaking farang who came to learn their folk language. Lingering reputation notwithstanding, I’m a pragmatist. Whatever works, do it.

These days, teaching upper-level English majors, and master’s degree students at a large Thai university, I still fall back on the “old trick.” When I see that deer-in-the-headlights look of bewilderment or failed confidence, I just ask, “Now what’s that equivalent Thai/Isaan word?” Some clever student always comes to my rescue with the native term, and–“bingo”–class equilibrium is magically restored as well as a term gets unequivocally defined in the minds of the students.

My college professors always said you should be a lifelong student, but never knew how handy it would come in at the professor’s podium!

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