As the years go by, there seems to be an increasing number of children growing up in Thailand with either one or two parents who are not Thai nationals. The children who have one parent Thai and one foreign are called “luk kreung”. I guess you could translate this as “half breed”, though often these days it is a badge of honour. It is usually easy for a “luk kreung” to get a job in media or modeling because of their looks and also their ability in foreign languages. But, just because you have one parent who is fluent in English or another European language, it doesn’t necessary mean that you will grow up bilingual. There are a few “luk kreungs” at my school and they cannot really speak English. Certainly no better than the average Thai student. Which I think is such a wasted opportunity. The best and easiest time to learn a foreign language is during your early childhood.
For Thai people, learning English in the Kingdom of Thailand is not always that easy. That is mainly because they are learning English as a foreign language (EFL) as opposed to English as a second language (ESL) like students in say Singapore and Malaysia. This is because in other countries the students are exposed to the English language outside of the classroom. On their way home they will see English around them. On billboards and being spoken on the buses and subways. At home, parents might speak both languages and there will be some English language programmes on television. Then there will be an abundance of English language books, newspapers, magazines and movies in English. The children in these countries have clear motives to learn the language as it is more the norm. Something expected of them in order to have a more comfortable life.
In Thailand, the resources available for students to learn and also to immerse themselves in the English language have certainly improved in recent years. However, there is still a long way to go if we are to compete on the international market against our neighbours. After all, English is not only an international language of communication, but it is also a business language. It is widely accepted that if you are fluent in English then your potential salary in a future job would be considerably greater compared to your peers who might not speak English. For younger learners of English there is emerging to be a new motive to learn a second language in Thailand. Well, for Nong Grace anyway. I told her quite early on that if she became fluent in English then she would have a greater choice of both story books and cartoons to choose from, compared to her friends at school. For Nong Grace that is now paying off as a new world is now opening up for her as she becomes fluent at an increasingly fast rate.
As many of you know, Nong Grace is the daughter of two Thai nationals who were only teenagers when she was born. In fact, her father only turned 18 a week before she was born. Their marriage didn’t last and her mother ran off and her father is in prison for drug possession charges. She is now growing up with her grandparents who she calls “mother” and “father”. As her father used to be my primary 6 student years ago, I have sort of taken on responsibility for her education and upbringing. Together with a group of her father’s friends on the Internet, we make sure that she goes to the best school available and that all of her tuition fees are paid for. Friends from all around the world also send her birthday and Christmas presents. A few months before her fourth birthday, I took on the task of teaching her English. She is now five and a half and many people consider her to be fluent in both reading and speaking English. A number of people have asked me to write about the resources and methods I used to teach her English and this is what I will do now.
It seems to be the norm in families where the mother is Thai and the father is say a native English speaker that the child will spend most of her time speaking to the mother in Thai. Some fathers that I spoke to said that they didn’t have time to teach English or they didn’t think that there was such an urgent rush. But in reality, you only need to spend about an hour of quality time with your child in order to make them fluent in your mother tongue. That is all I had with Nong Grace. I picked her up after her Kindergarten class at 3 p.m. She then stayed in my office for about an hour until it was time for me to go home. Her grandfather would then come and pick her up at my house at about 4.30 p.m. or so. Other than that, I sometimes took her out with me when I visited tourist attractions that were suitable for young children. The trick, I guess, is to make use of all available time.
With Nong Grace I started with the usual lessons of ABC and 123. She was already familiar with some of the letters, but as it was her grandmother that had taught them, I had to waste some time in re-teaching her the proper pronunciation. We played games using flashcards. To start with I used a lot of Thai with her. She was so young and didn’t really know me well. I needed to build up her trust as every time her grandmother left the room she would soon quickly follow. Then, later as she became more used to me, it became easier to teach. Though the methods I used weren’t like a normal classroom. I took every opportunity to use English with her. For example, coming back in the car, I quite early on taught her “turn left”, “turn right”, “go straight” and also “u-turn”. She then became my navigator. At the traffic lights, She would say “red stop” and “green go”.
One of her first favourite English language story books was “Go Dogs, Go” which coincidently incorporated a lot of these phrases into the story. I had bought this on amazon.com along with some other Dr. Seuss favourites like “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Hop on Pop”. She didn’t always understand the words but the pictures and my own sign language helped her to both enjoy and understand the story. I guess that was the start of her love affair with story time which she insisted on having every day. I don’t think it always mattered to her if she didn’t understand the story. She began to like it as she was spending quality time with me. But, as time went by, her vocabulary increased and she could follow the stories more easily. To start with, I sometimes simplified the stories. However, I soon learned that at this age the kids often learn through repetition. As adults, we usually only want a story one time. But kids don’t mind having the same story every day. So, if I had adapted a story, I needed to make sure that I used the same words every time!
I soon realized buying books on the Internet was going to be too expensive. Often these books would cost about 300 baht each compared to locally published Thai story books that were say 50 baht. In addition I had to pay shipping costs. So, I only bought books on the Internet that I felt that would be really good for her. Probably the best two bookshops in Bangkok for English language children’s’ book is Asia Books and Kinokuniya. You can find these at many of the big shopping malls in Bangkok. Although this was a good resource for me, they were still expensive compared to Thai language books. In the West there would be discount shops or places where we could buy secondhand. But here in Thailand, we had to pay the full price. And quite often there were only hardback versions available.
These days, the best resources of English story books are from shops like Se-ed. These mainly cater for Thai people. However, there is an increasing number of Thai publishers who are now printing bilingual books at good prices. We sell many of these on our online bookstore at www.BuyThaiBooks.com as they are good for foreigners learning Thai. To start with, I was buying any English language story that I could find for her. However, these days we are more spoilt for choice and so I pick the books more carefully. In the early days, the standard of English in these books was poor, but now they are of a higher quality. However, just because it is in English, it doesn’t mean that it will be suitable. I always read the book first to myself in the bookstore as if I was reading it to Nong Grace. A few months back, another great source of English books opened for me. This was a secondhand bookshop of mainly old library books that opened at Seri Center in the market area on the top floor. They have hundreds of books starting from about 80 baht.
Another good time to buy books is during the annual book fairs at Queen Sirikit Convention Center in Bangkok. The fairs are held at least twice yearly during the March and October school holidays. I always go to stock up on books for Nong Grace. During the recent book fair, I bought some first readers for her. These are sometimes relatively expensive as you have to buy them in packages. However, the advantage of buying sets of books is that the vocabulary will increase in a sensible manner. I hadn’t planned on teaching Nong Grace how to read as such as I was thinking I should leave something for her English classes. But, she had started to pick up words from the books that I read to her every day. So, at the same time I started to teach her phonics for some of the main letters. When I gave her the first set of first readers I wasn’t really expecting much from her. But, she read straight through them with excellent enunciation. She took me completely by surprise.
I think I would attribute her reading ability to the story time we spent together, but also the many computer games that she played. These I had carefully picked. They either taught English to children or had bilingual menus. These are readily available in Thailand. She picked up a lot of words in these games without me realizing. She wanted to play the games and win, and sometimes she had to teach herself to read by trial and error. Other games were good for her because it had verbal instructions in English. The menus were also often in English. I remember going on a trip to a safari park to see some animals with her when she was about four. We were driving around the park and I pretended to be lost at an intersection. I asked her which way to get out of the park as were finished. She promptly pointed to a sign and said “Exit turn left”. I asked here what the sign in Thai said but she couldn’t read it. Even today when she is five years old, she finds it easier to read English than Thai.
I never had any formal English lessons with Nong Grace. At that age you cannot really do this as it always has to be fun for them. So, I made sure that I used English with her at every opportunity. A great way to do that is with songs. There are many songs out there with very relevant vocabulary that can be used in every day life. There are also songs that are hard to explain the meaning. But, I think at the end of the day that it isn’t always important for them to understand every word as we should see it as an exercise to practice English sounds which are so different to Thai. Nong Grace likes singing a lot and these days she can teach herself new songs. She also makes up songs. They don’t always make sense and they don’t always have real words. But, they sound like English words. She gets so good at making up new English words, that if a Thai teacher tries to teach her a new English word, but with a Thai accent, Nong Grace will automatically change it to an English sounding word without thinking.
With many song and nursery rhymes you have to teach them yourself. You can buy CDs of songs in Thailand, but until the students are used to English words, these are often too fast for them to follow. So, you need to practice your singing voice and sing at every opportunity. When we are in the car and it starts raining, we then either sing “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” or “Rain, Rain, Go Away”. If we can see a rainbow then we sing “I can Sing a Rainbow”. There are many fun songs to teach. The more the better as they love songs. In particular, they love songs that have actions or you can easily adapt on different rounds. A good source of songs is the Internet. If you cannot remember all the words to a childhood favourite or want to know the actions, then just do a search on Google. It is also worth checking out youtube.com as there is a lot of music videos there for children. This is also a good way to learn the actions. When we go on car trips, I always download half a dozen videos for her to watch on my ipod.
This brings me to the last major resource for learning English in Thailand. If you have a stereo t.v., then you will find that some tv stations also broadcast the original soundtracks. This means they could watch English language cartoons instead of the dubbed versions. However, if they are like Nong Grace, they will prefer the Thai version if they know there is a choice. Then I discovered a new series of foreign cartoons that were being released on VCD. These are like DVDs but the quality is not so high. With DVD you can often switch languages and subtitles. This is good unless your child knows how to use a remote. The advantage of a VCD is that you cannot do this and they are also a lot cheaper. At Central Department stores, they are selling two versions of foreign cartoons like Noddy, Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer. You can either buy English with Thai subtitles or Thai dubbed with English subtitles. These are only 100 baht each.
The first cartoon that Nong Grace really enjoyed was Pocoyo. This is a little boy who dresses in blue and who has friends that are a duck, elephant and a dog. It is aimed at toddlers and it was exactly the right level for her. It didn’t really matter if she didn’t understand all the words as she loved watching the funny antics of Pocoyo. At that age repetition is so important and luckily she was very happy to watch each episode many times. I think I bought about 30 CDs in the end of this series and I introduced a new one to her every week or two. I also found another cartoon that she adored called Kipper who is a dog. The level of language was slightly higher but she adored the characters. I think at that age they would watch almost anything, even if it was in a foreign language, as long as they had characters they could identify with.
Although there is now a nice selection of cartoons I could buy for her on VCD, it was starting to get a bit expensive. So, last month, during the October holidays, I decided to pay for True Visions, which is our local satellite provider. I also paid extra for a Disney package which included Disney Playhouse. I had checked out the website for this channel before and it seemed just right for the level that Nong Grace was at that time. As it turned out, the rewards were far greater. She now has some new daily favourites that not only teach her English but the world around her. Her favourites now are Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Little Einsteins. The latter teaches music through their adventures around the world. Some people say it is a bad idea to teach English through the t.v. But, many of the cartoons that Nong Grace watches are interactive as they often address the audience. There are puzzles for them to solve and it teaches them skills far beyond language. I often also watch with her which helps with the interactivity.
Subscribing to satellite television came at the right moment for her. Nong Grace can now be considered fluent for her age. Now she speaks English to me nearly 100% of the time. And I mean a lot. Sometimes she goes on and on. The other week we went out to eat with some foreign friends and she didn’t stop talking. The level she is now at, after only one and a half years, is such that she can easily teach herself by watching television, reading books and listening to songs. From now on she will be able to easily increase her vocabulary with little effort. I think this shows that even with limited access to English language material, people in Thailand do have the potential to become fluent in English. And maybe, one day soon, Nong Grace will follow in her father’s footsteps and write an English column for a national newspaper. Maybe even write her autobiography like her father did. She already has her own website which you can check out at www.NongGrace.com.
We have been posting details of resources for both learning and teaching English in Thailand over at the ThailandQA.com forums.