TEFL Problems for learners in Thailand

Since we expect, D.v., to be in Bangkok, Thailand, from this January to May to teach English it seems quite appropriate to explore some of the challenges that we may encounter.

During our previous year in Chiang Mai our Thai landlady came monthly to collect our rent money and always stayed to visit for an hour or so to practice her English. She consistently expressed frustration saying that ?my English has gone back to my teacher.? This probably rather common problem seems to stem from the Thai educational system?s approach to teaching English in the classroom. Typically English is taught from the earliest grade in school along with Thai, classes are often quite large, 30-40 students or so, and the style of instruction is by rote. It is hard to imagine that the student gets much, if any individual attention in that size class or any opportunity for conversational practice or correction on pronunciation, intonation and other expressive aspects of English. Therefore, it may be a significant challenge to get the students to feel free to express themselves in the context of a small (6 ? 8 students) class of conversational English. We will certainly need to find some very creative and lively engage activities to get the communication started, to overcome shyness and to provoke motivation.

Depending on how well they remember or ever really learned the English alphabet and correct phonics there may be a challenge in transition from the Thai alphabet which is quite different. We may find a number of students in the ?false beginner? category. The intonation patterns of English are quite different from Thai which is a language with five tones, depending on which the same group of letters can have five entirely different meanings. Thais also have a significant challenge with consonant blends and tend to pronounce each letter individually with an added vowel in between, e.g., Sprite becomes Sa-prite. There are letter sounds in English which do not occur in Thai and take much practice to reproduce correctly, e.g., in squirrel the challenge is not only ?sq? but also the ?rr.? As demonstrated in the video a second consonant is often dropped in pronunciation which causes great confusion between ?can? and ?can?t.? Some loan words from English become hard to identify!

The grammatical structure of English is also quite different from Thai and will require careful explanation and demonstration where possible. For instance, what English expresses in quite a variety of verb tenses and voices Thai seems to express with marker words rather than changes in the verb form. The complexities of relating pronunciation to quite inconsistent spelling in English seems like a huge challenge for Thai learners.

There are a number of cultural differences, taboos, which may make problems cross-culturally in understanding between a native English teacher and a native Thai learner. As westerners we often use our hands freely to support what we are trying to express and pointing, for instance, is taboo in Thailand, more offensive yet may be how we use our feet. Voice modulation is important also and raising ones voice to emphasize a point may be intimidating to the Thai learner and make him feel much less free to participate in the lesson.

Work style is also quite different in Thailand than in the US. For instance, when leaving a car for repair in the US an individual mechanic will work alone to complete the repair. In Thailand, a group of mechanics will work on the car together and have a lot of fun in their interactions along the way. As we saw in the demonstration video, the Thai learners seemed anesthetized by the grim, individual teaching approach and much more interactive and participatory when the teacher was obviously having fun too and having the students work in pairs.

Resources for this essay are the ITTT TEFL Teacher Training, our previous experience in Thailand, and Culture Shock Thailand, by Robert Cooper.

Author: Jean Depp

Date of post: 2007-04-11