A Woman Learning Thai...and some men too ;)

Learn Thai Language & Thai Culture

Author: Nils Bastedo

Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?

Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?

Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?…

After noticing a survey that declared that Swedes are the best learners of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), Catherine asked me for my perspective on why Swedes are so successful. Though there are many points to consider, one aspect of EFL in Sweden and other countries known for good English is that teachers there are generally non-native speakers of English and that all speak the local language. In the English teaching industry here in Thailand and in other developing countries, non-native speakers are considered unsuitable teachers of English. However, if the proficiency of English is high, it can be argued that a non-native speaker would generally make a better teacher since he/she shares the learning experiences and culture of the students and is the best possible model of a successful learner.

That Swedes are such successful learners of EFL may of course also depend on several factors unrelated to the use of non-native speaker teachers:

  • Swedish is closely related to English.
  • Much of the Swedish TV programming is in English with near perfect subtitles.
  • Swedes listen to a lot of English language music.
  • Swedes are frequent travellers, and few non-Swedes speak Swedish.

In these respects, people in Sweden learning English are quite different from Thais learning English or native speakers of English learning foreign languages in their home countries. Successful learners in other Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands have the same advantages.

Though linguistic closeness high exposure to English, and strong motivation to learn may seem sufficient explanation of why Swedes are so good at English, the use of non-native speakers to teach EFL puts Sweden and other successful EFL countries (including India) in direct conflict with the idea that native speakers are by default the best teachers of a language.

Unsurprisingly, in an industry dominated by native speakers the reliance on native speakers to teach English is strongly advocated and many international schools request teachers with experience of the UK or US educational systems. However, teaching of foreign languages in the UK is notorious for producing very poor results indeed. The same might be said about the US. If, teaching in the countries which are best at English as a Foreign Language is done by non-native speaker teachers of English, shouldn’t that suggest that they are better at teaching foreign languages than Americans and Brits? Indeed, it seems inescapable to conclude that being a language teacher from the UK or other native speaker countries is not a suitable criterion for selecting a good language teacher.

In the global English teaching industry, native speakers are held in high regard, with teaching positions often reserved exclusively for them. However, the faith in native speaker teaching abilities is based on theories on language learning that have been largely debunked; people do not learn a foreign language as they learn a native language and native speakers of a language are not necessarily the best teachers of it. Indeed, many native speakers have poor grammar and accents which are ineffective for international communication, which makes them unsuitable models to emulate. Non-native speakers with high levels of English proficiency (especially if they have same native language as their students) generally have deeper insight into the learning process and are more relevant models to emulate than even skilled native speaker counterparts.

So, if non-native speakers make better learning models, why aren’t they universally sought after as the best teachers? Well, the sad truth is that even though non-native speakers CAN be wonderful models of successful language learners with insight of what it takes to learn a foreign language, many non-native speaker teachers of English are poor models to emulate since their grasp of the English language is sadly limited. Even though specifying that teachers ought to be from certain countries does guarantee a certain minimum level of language proficiency (fluency of speech in particular), some non-native speakers may have outstanding proficiency and accents very suitable for successful international communication. Therefore, the exclusion of them from teaching jobs constitutes indefensible discrimination. Sadly, this discrimination is based not only on nationality, but also on race. The native speaker stereotype is Caucasian, and native speakers ‘of color’ are discriminated against because of factors unrelated to their competency as teachers just as surely as non-native speakers are.

For the readers of Women Learn Thai, this has bearing on whether hiring a native speaker of Thai is a must. Simply put, it isn’t. However, high proficiency in the target language is fairly rare amongst non-native speakers, which means that going to a Thai national for help is understandable, especially if one is only out to reach conversational fluency. For me personally, the implications for the highly discriminatory policies of English teaching institutions in Thailand are paramount.

In short, this is some of what we must consider when hiring someone to teach a language: Language proficiency and teaching skill are better predictors of suitability than any passport. When selecting a teacher, assess his/her ability to lead you to the level of proficiency you desire and do not dismiss anyone based on nationality or ethnicity.

If anyone wishes for further documentation supporting what I have written above (that the theories of Krashen were never supported by empirical evidence and have in fact been contradicted by such, that there is institutionalized national and racial discrimination in the English teaching industry, and that non-native speaker teachers may in fact be generally better suited to teach EFL), I will gladly forward my dissertation and other academic papers from my studies in Edinburgh.

Be well and keep on learning,

Nils Bastedo
M.Sc. TESOL, Edinburgh University
Author of Tenses for Thais
Founder and Chief Instructor of Lunds Songahm Taekwondo Klubb

Share Button

Learning Styles and Language Learning

Learning Styles and Language Learning

Learning Styles and Language Learning…

Not long ago I was asked to write a post about language learning styles for Women Learning Thai. Having recently received my Master Degree and in the process of looking for a job, it seemed like the perfect time to engage with such a project. Even though I am not an expert in the neuropsychology involved in language learning, I figured I might reference my experience as a teacher and language learner to contribute something on the topic of how theories on learning styles can be applied by teachers and learners of Thai in the hope that it might stimulate the comments of other, more knowledgeable authors.

Learning is Variable…

As learners and/or teachers of foreign languages, we have tried different learning methods with varied degrees of success. Not only does what works for one person not always work for another, but the success of a single method may vary for the same person, possibly since no two learning situations are identical and the mind is ever changing.

By reading the stories of successful Thai learners on this site, thinking of how we learn ourselves, and observing the world around us, we can see how some learn by studying theory, some by listening, some by jumping in and doing, some by working by a computer, etc. Although no two situations are identical, it is commonly believed that there are different types of learners and that that a language student will pick materials up more efficiently if he/she is given the opportunity to use the learning style that fits him/her best. Today, this theory is a part of many, if not all, teacher educations.

The Proof is in the Pudding…

Though intuitively appealing, it has not been empirically shown that identifying a student’s learning style and teaching in order to accommodate that learning style will optimize learning outcomes. Not only has the efficacy of tailoring teaching to fit each individual student not been proven, but the categorization of different learning styles is anything but straightforward; suggested categories vary from model to model and take into account both internal and external factors related to leaning outcomes. Understandably, the possibilities for categorization are therefore quite a few.

That individual students learn differently is a theory that I personally do not doubt at all. The question for me is not which or how many learning styles there are, but rather how the realization that learning is quite complex and varied can be used to improve myself as a teacher and learner of languages.

How can theories on Learning Styles be applied?…

When it comes to understanding learning styles, I am primarily influenced by my own experiences of learning languages and by the training I went through to become a certified instructor of Songahm Taekwondo. The learning styles we studied during that training were Visual, Auditory/Aural, and Kinetic (VAK). In order to accommodate different types of learners, we were not taught to evaluate each individual student. Instead, we were taught to teach the same materials using multiple methods, thereby making the classes more varied and fun whilst giving students with different learning styles the opportunity to learn without dividing them into sub-groups based on learner type. Even today I believe that varying the method of instruction is the best way to incorporate knowledge of different learning styles into one’s classes.

When reading of different definitions of learning styles, it quickly becomes apparent that they differ depending on the source. Therefore, adopting a single definition as the ultimate truth is not advocable. However, even though the definitions may vary, they may all have merit and one can get ideas on how to vary the learning process by studying all the proposed definitions – the more the merrier – and trying to create learning situations based on them (individual vs. group exercises, written exercises vs. aural, translation vs. listening, etc.). All styles can appropriate, and the learning environment will be more stimulating with variation.

Identifying one’s learning style may help every language learner select the most useful types of input and exercises. I have even heard examples of people learning a language well by using a single method. However, I do not believe that one should limit oneself exclusively to one type of learning since other types of learning may provide new perspectives and increase retention, develop deeper understanding, prevent boredom and even work better in specific learning situations or as one’s mind develops.

Other Teaching Tips…

Other instruction skills I transferred from Taekwondo into the language classroom include setting direct goals, referring to the students by name, using positive yet realistic correction and reinforcement rather than criticism, building confidence, teaching the concept of personal victory, and having fun. As a very experienced instructor of PPCT (Pressure Point Control Tactics) once told me, ‘breaking things down into easily mastered components and giving the students an early experience of success increases retention and motivation’. Having witnessed such an approach being successful on numerous occasions, I am a strong believer in breaking even complex topics down into smaller segments that are easier to master and then letting the students experience success with the component parts, building confidence and enthusiasm, before combining them again.

Developing Oneself…

An additional resource or challenge is related to the concept of ‘learning how to learn’. Many students may not have been exposed to multiple methods of language learning; while an unfamiliar method may be difficult at first, they may become better at using it with added exposure and a person’s preferred learning style may evolve over time. The changeable and varied process of language learning supports my belief that using different methods is a useful strategy to develop language skills. Other advantages are that multiple learning methods will reduce the chance of boredom and stagnation and that varied input may improve overall brain function or prevent degeneration for those of us who are approaching old age.

Concluding Recommendations…

Taking the lack of evidence that teaching according to learning styles improves learning and that individual learning patterns are complex and varying into account, the advice I would give to those who wish to learn Thai is as follows:

  • Use a variety of approaches. Enter different environments, work alone, work in groups, use dictionaries, immerse yourself, etc. Sometimes, the penny may drop when you least expect it to. You will find the ways that work best for you and stimulate mental development by experimenting. It will also reduce the risk of boredom that so often interferes with continuous learning efforts.
  • Set limited goals so that you may experience success quickly and build confidence and enthusiasm by tracking specific improvements.
  • When finding suitable people to help you, use their ability to break language down into understandable and manageable components that don’t seem overwhelming so that you can focus on a few items at a time and build from a strong foundation.

Oh yes, most importantly… Don’t be afraid of mistakes and try to get feedback from people who aren’t afraid to point out things that you can improve, especially ones who can explain how and why. In Thailand, pointing out that someone is making mistakes is often considered rude, and people are generally very supportive. However, if your intent is to do better than simply getting a message across, you need to find out what and how to improve. People who do not want to point out that what you are saying sounds bad are doing you a disservice. If you get positive feedback even when making mistakes, habits will form which may prove hard to break later on, hindering your progress and possibly preventing you from reaching your full potential as a language learner.

I look forward to reading the comments to this article and deepening my own understanding of this topic.

Nils Bastedo
M.Sc. TESOL, Edinburgh University
Author of Tenses for Thais
Founder and Chief Instructor of Lunds Songahm Taekwondo Klubb

Share Button

How to Gain Insight into the Thai Language from How Thais Learn English

How to Gain Insight into the Thai Language

Just how DO Thais learn English?…

Tenses for ThaisHaving recently written a book (Tenses for Thais) designed to help native English speakers and Thais who wish to teach English to Thais, I received a friendship invitation from Ms Wentworth, whose roving eyes had detected my work. At her suggestion, I will try to ‘turn the tables’ and offer the readers of www.womenlearnthai.com a few insights into learning Thai based on how Thais learn English.

Three separate issues leap to mind:

  1. Thais unwittingly impose many of their own rules of pronunciation on English. By listening to how Thais pronounce English, insights into how Thai is pronounced can be gained.
  2. Thais generally impose their own language structure on English. The student of Thai must forsake the structures of his/her native language. Likewise, we must forsake the structures natural to native English speakers.
  3. The importance of culture in learning language is greater than many presume. I believe it was Hegel who hypothesized that a language is more than just different words and structure; it is the reflection of a culture. If you merely translate the words of your own language into the new one, regardless of grammatical correctness, your alien status will become quickly apparent. In order to speak another language perfectly, you need to understand the culture it represents.

Pronunciation…

Inserting Unwritten Sounds:
To Thais, many consonant combinations that seem simple to native English speakers are very difficult to pronounce. Just like they insert extra vowels into ‘simple’ words like STOP (sa-top), we need to insert vowel sounds between certain Thai consonants even when none are written.

Changing Pronunciation of Final Consonants:
Final consonant sounds in Thai are often not fully pronounced. This is also common in English to a varying degree based on regional dialects. Please think of words like ‘stop’ or ‘it’, where we don’t finish the consonant sound, but rather ‘swallow’ the end of it. Still, we can easily hear which consonant sound is used. I have in my classes referred to such sounds as ‘silent’ final consonants, though technically they ought to be referred to as unreleased. In Thai, many ending consonants will not only be unreleased, but will change consonant sound altogether. Final -s or -j in Thai becomes an unreleased -t (as in the English word ‘it’), final -g becomes an unreleased -k, final -l becomes a sounding -n etc. The lack of certain ending sounds in Thai leads Thais to mispronounce seemingly simple words like ‘yes’ and ‘hotel’ (yet, hoten) and is once again a useful hint as to details we need to observe when learning Thai.

Using ‘Thai English Pronunciation’ to Improve Your Thai:
Knowing these rules will not only help you understand the mispronunciation of English by Thais but will also help you with your own pronunciation of Thai. The pronunciation of Thai vowels is, though difficult, not an issue since Thai vowels have only one sound (albeit with varying tones). This is the opposite of English, where vowels have very inconsistent pronunciation but consonants are relatively consistent. I often contrast English to Thai in my classes since speaking and writing are direct opposites in several ways. In English, we separate words in writing but often pull them together in speech; In Thai, they do not separate words in writing, but they do separate them in speech. Since the commonly used systems for writing Thai words with our alphabet are sometimes misleading, I have even created a small chart for Thais wishing to learn English in my book. That chart is certainly useful for Westerners wishing to pronounce Thai words as well.

Tones:
Tones in Thai are notoriously difficult for native English speakers. When listening very carefully to examples of ‘tones’, it occurred to me that Thais do not always change the pitch of their voice. Instead, tonality is a combination of tone and relative vowel length or ‘tone contour’. When studying Thai, I graphically drew the pitch and vowel length for the 5 different tones, which helped me greatly. If you truly wish to master the tones, please consider listening with a different focus than mere tone of voice. Hopefully, it will make tonality less difficult for you as it did for me.

Structure…

Question Words:
The first thing I teach my Thai students (provided they have a working vocabulary) is how to use question words. In Thai, these tend to be placed at the end of sentences. In English, they are placed at the beginning. Not paying enough attention to the question word can lead to answering the wrong question. If you ask a Thai person “How are you doing?”, you will more often than not get an answer to the question “What are you doing?” Anyone learning Thai should learn all the common question structures in Thai. Also learn where to insert the much appreciated polite words or phrases. Please also remember that question words are sometimes used differently; the question “Bpen arai?” does not mean “What are you?” or “What is it?” but “HOW are you?” even though ‘arai’ is usually translated as ‘what’ and ‘how’ is usually translated into ‘yang rai’.

Verbs:
In Thai, it is not necessary to use verbs in every sentence as we do in English. My early teaching of questions for Thais focuses greatly on the use ‘to be’ or ‘to do’ in questions and answers. All present simple and past simple questions in English use these verbs, directly and by implication, as do correct answers to the questions. In Thai, questions such as “Car color red or plain (or not)?” or “Married or not yet?” are perfectly acceptable. No added verbs are needed.

Another aspect of verbs in Thai is that they do not change form to reflect time; instead, words determining time (such as ‘will’ or ‘already’) are added. Learning the words for future (dja), past (laew), ongoing (gamlang … yoo) and just done (pung dja) and where they are placed in relation to the verbs is a a good start to referring to time in Thai. To the surprise of many though, all the English tenses can be explained in Thai. Thais just don’t bother to go into the complexities of time as much as we do in English. When learning to understand Future Perfect and Future Perfect Continuous, Thais have to change their usual way of thinking quite significantly.

Singular & Plural, Classifiers:
The absence of pronounced final s’s (under Pronunciation) in Thai leads into the topic of countable and uncountable nouns since Thais rarely pronounce plurals correctly. Many mistake this for ignorance and explain it by saying that Thai nouns have no plural form. This is true – sort of … Though no one seems to realize or teach this, all Thai nouns are uncountable in structure. In Thai, “two glasses of water” and “two cars” are structured “water two glass” and “car two unit” – exactly the same. Uncountable nouns in English are treated much the same in Thai, with similar units of measure that can be translated. However, ALL Thai nouns have units of measure. For countable nouns, the grammatical term for these units is ‘classifiers’. Unfortunately, many classifiers are devoid of meaning on their own and have to be learned by memorization. For any student of the Thai language, this means that every single noun must be accompanied by a unit of measure or classifier in order to be used correctly in conversation.

The Thai teacher who assisted with translations into Thai in my book, Mrs. Nampeung Khonseuh de Escobar, is currently writing her Master’s thesis on ‘The Thai Classifier’, which I am looking forward to reading.

Articles:
Many say that Thai lacks articles. This is of course not true since ‘a’ and ‘an’ mean ‘one’ and Thai has numbers just like we do. However, as with uncountable nouns in English (and nouns are ALL treated as uncountable in Thai), the quantity need not always be specified. The definite article ‘the’ is indeed not a part of the Thai language. If you wish to refer to a specific object, a self-explanatory context or proper explanation is needed.

Thai Culture…

When in Rome, do as the Romans!:
Thais have a different way of thinking than we do in The West. Even in different Western countries and indeed parts of countries, cultural thinking differs significantly. Sometimes, the difference is so great that Thais do not understand us even though we have done a pretty good job selecting the right words and grammar to express ourselves. We all tend to use our subjective references when having conversations and the fact that we think and express ourselves differently may cause communication to fail, even when using the same language. Therefore, try to adopt the mindset of a Thai, sensitive to overt expressions of disagreement, relaxed about time, and using the most polite language you are able to. If languages are truly an expression of culture, consider the lack of tenses and disinclination to say NO directly as clues to how one should communicate with Thais. Please note however, that there are many punctual Thais and that all generalizations can backfire if applied automatically to everyone. Just as native speakers of English are all unique individuals, so are Thais of course.

References…

As in my book, what I write is based on personal experience. Though fluent in several languages, I have not studied linguistics and sometimes find grammatical terminology cumbersome. Therefore, I usually opt for explanations that help the learner understand rather than focusing on linguistic terminology. One major part of my book is actually recommending a simple change to terminology in traditional English verb conjugation in order to simplify the English tenses dramatically.

In this text, I used the word ‘classifier’ at the suggestion of Catherine Wentworth and the terms ‘unreleased’ (consonant pronunciation) and ‘tone contour’ after feedback from Rikker Dockum, who stated that tone pitch and tone contour are the two aspects of tones in Thai. Previously, I had never heard any reference to tone contour or even vowel length, but I am happy to see that this method of explaining tones is already known. Mr. Dockum also pointed out a few areas where I had not made myself completely clear, after which I expanded a few of my explanations and added examples.

Thank you Ms. Wentworth and Mr. Dockum for your feedback and suggestions.

Nils Bastedo
Facebook: Tenses for Thais

Share Button