Is knowing and speaking Thai necessary?

Is knowing and speaking Thai necessary?

Useful in everyday situations but what about in the school environment?


"Although I have heard many times that it is not necessary to be able to speak Thai language to secure a teaching job in Thailand, there must be occasions or situations within the school environment when knowing some or a decent amount of the local language comes in handy?"

This is a common question from many a new arrival. It goes without saying that in everyday situations such as ordering dishes in a restaurant or explaining to a bus conductor where you need to get off, a knowledge of spoken Thai is going to be invaluable. 

But how about speaking Thai in the classroom and within the school environment? Is it something that schools frown upon? What do some of the more experienced foreign teachers in Thailand say?  

Richard has taught at the same Thai school for almost three decades. He says "It's useful to know Thai at school, but we forbid the foreign teachers to use any Thai in front of the kids. We have a few teachers who are nearly fluent, but none of the kids know that. If they did, then they would only speak Thai to them. 

We've had complaints from the parents in the past that their kindergarten aged kids spoke Thai with a "farang accent". So we are now quite strict. The foreign teachers are here for the kids to listen to English, not badly spoken Thai"

Complaints from parents. The last thing a school wants. 

Tonya agrees with Richard. "Speaking Thai in class is a no-no. Besides, if you don't know Thai well you could be passing on bad grammar or tonal pronunciation to your Thai students. Further, their parents are paying for you to speak to them in only English. Give them what they want. Learn at least basic Thai for daily life though, definitely"

Teacher trainer Eric - "I interviewed three teachers on this subject a while back. Each of them stated speaking Thai is useful (obviously) but needs to be limited in the classroom"

"I was taught to NEVER speak Thai in the classroom" says Troy, "I also believe it's better you don't let on that you can speak Thai because it works to your advantage in many many ways"

Sounds like Ged sometimes uses his Thai language skills - "If you can speak Thai a little bit, then use Thai and then follow it up with English so the very young children know what you are talking about!"

Sean, another long-term foreign teacher in Thailand - "Certainly, knowing Thai helps. But, to school administration, it's a liability. I think they see it as too risky, that you may use it because you can. In most classrooms, the foreign teacher will sound ridiculous using any Thai. It is certainly frowned upon (but not by all). I've also been with very low level learners and the use of Thai was needed and welcomed. But, this is the exception, not the rule.  In my current role, Thai is neither needed, nor allowed. But, I can tell if the students are following the lesson or not by following their Thai banter in class. Like I say, very useful. But, looked at as a liability by most"

Mark takes a more light-hearted approach to things - "If I use Thai in the classroom it's for comedy relief only. For example, I have learned the Thai words for past, present and future and my pronunciation of all three of them is horrible and provokes an outpouring of merriment. But it makes the lessons interesting and fun!

Teacher Diana certainly sticks up for the Thai speakers - "Of course speaking some Thai comes in handy" It wouldn't be the expression I would use though since it's more of a necessity in my opinion. If you can't communicate with your colleagues and employers, then everything will surely be a lot more difficult for you.

Let's leave the last teacher comment to another Mark, who simply says - "The more you know, the more it will hurt"

As for me, I only taught adult students during my years as a language teacher and although I rarely ever spoke Thai in the classroom, knowing what students were talking about amongst themselves was priceless. One incident at one particular language school always comes to mind. 

My group of eight students were about to take a two-hour test which would determine whether they were able to move up to the next level and obtain a certificate. When I handed out the test papers and students had their first chance to look over the question sections, one lady turned to the rest of the group and said "what's this section about? the teacher didn't teach this!"

In Thai, I then said to her "actually I did teach it. But looking at the attendance sheet, you were not here. So it was your responsibility to catch up with work that you missed"

On another day, this student might have marched up to the front desk and complained to the reception staff. But thanks to being able to understand Thai, that situation was well and truly avoided.


We would love to get some more comments so let's hear your opinions in the comments box below.




Comments

I speak Thai constantly every day because I work at a bilingual kindergarten that leans much more Thai than English and I'm the only native English speaker. There are some other English teachers, but English is their second language so they lack confidence and don't really know how to manage or just casually speak with the kids in English outside of lesson time.

When I'm teaching regular lessons I use pictures, songs and TPR to keep it immersive, so once the students have learned their basic classroom commands I speak almost entirely English. But outside of lesson time, when I'm carrying kids throwing tantrums into school in the morning, calming kids down so they can sleep at naptime, talking to their parents about what they did that day when sending them home or explaining things throughout the day to coworkers, I do it mostly in Thai or kind of flip/flop between languages.

Admin wants me teaching the other teachers English, but if I speak only English to them they do that Thai thing where they just smile and nod and I can't tell if they understand what I'm saying or not. So usually I'll speak English and then repeat myself in Thai if they don't say anything.

I do the reverse when I'm casually speaking to the kids outside of class. I have a pretty good understanding of what English the kids do and don't know so I can mostly stick to English, but if I'm communicating something they haven't learned I'll say it in Thai once and then repeat it multiple times in English. I'll also translate things I hear the kids saying in Thai into English, which usually gets them excited and shouting new English phrases at their friends.

I've also had students who used to go to international schools, but were switched to my school because their parents don't know much English and were worried their kids wouldn't be able to speak Thai at all. The kids are so excited when they start coming to a school where they actually understand what people are saying to them, and they love talking to me because I'm the only farang they've ever met who understands them when they're speaking Thai.

I had this one student who would keep testing me to see if I would respond to things he was saying or not in Thai and then yell my name and hug me. After about a week of this he started speaking to me only in English and excitedly repeating all the new English words I would teach him. He liked speaking English, but liked the security of knowing he could speak Thai as well if he needed to.

A large part of kindergarten is relationship building. The kids need to love and feel safe with you in order to respect and listen to you. It's hard to do that when you're a tall, pale alien ignoring everything they say and making strange noises they don't understand.

By Kindy TEFL Teacher, Thailand (6th November 2022)

A bit cliche for those who have been here for awhile and can speak Thai. I would actually say being able to speak Thai can be at times a distraction.

Once you are able to speak Thai, this opens up a window of realizing the views and often unprofessionalism Thai staff have including towards you.

I myself am reluctant to tell staff I can speak Thai..it's for the better most places..

By FarmerFrank77, Thailand (14th October 2020)

When I was a kid, studying at a school in England, we had a French teacher from Senegal. Her English was pretty poor. As a class we cut her to pieces and made it a nightmare.

In my experience those who say we shouldn't speak Thai in the classroom aren't teaching 40-50 kids once per week who understand very little English. Likewise, those who argue that speaking and understanding Thai is essential probably aren't teaching advanced students on a well run English programme.

Having taught in both contexts (as well as at schools in between the two), context and appropriate judgement is key. However, it's important not to be completely reliant on using Thai to solve every issue as there are more effective strategies you can use in the classroom

By Justin, Phu Khieo (2nd October 2020)

The difference for students learning English is that nearly every other language has an element of English in it!
This along with songs, movies and international market place products, means most students have been 'dipping their toes into the water' of English language for years.

By Phetpeter, Thailand in the middle (1st October 2020)

It depends. Do you see yourself as an adult Thai student who will mispronounce words to the chagrin and amusement of your students, or a the classroom leader who represents himself as the expert in a foreign language? I think these are two distinct roles, and I recommend teachers stick to speaking English. In fact, some schools will try to trick teachers in job interviews and ask if they like to speak Thai with students ... just say, 'No!'

By Guy, California (6th February 2018)

Polyglot

I think you hit on a point I was searching for. Whether Thai should or should not be used in a classroom would not seem to be an all or nothing answer. Immersion would seem to work well for very young children, maybe even at a beginner level, but it seems for adults immersion at the beginner level does not really work.

My experiences are similar to yours, I have always started at the beginner level of a language with being guided in English, and only after getting to a pretty high level can I actually learn from being immersed in the language.

But I can't imagine in any situation the occasional use of Thai in a classroom in Thailand would actual damage the learning of the students. If you got it, why not use it?

If we could never use Thai in the classroom we could not use the word found in the title of this website in a classroom.

By Jack, Around here (5th February 2018)

Well, in many cases students DO get instruction in THAI via Thai teachers. This is especially true for English grammar which is almost always taught by Thais. My Russian teachers at uni - a long time ago - were not Russians for the most part but they were very good with the language and explained stuff in English at beginner levels. At advanced levels all the instruction was in Russian.

By Polyglot, BANGKOK (5th February 2018)

"On another day, this student might have marched up to the front desk and complained to the reception staff. But thanks to being able to understand Thai, that situation was well and truly avoided."

Nope, she would have complained, you would have shown the attendance record and the outcome would have been the same - nothing to do with understanding Thai.

By Steve C, bangkok (4th February 2018)

Immersion is key but as Jack has pointed out, there are many foreigners living here for years with hardly any knowledge. I work in an international school so it is an English language-only school.
When you study CELTA also, you are told never to use the learners native language when learning.

By James, Bangkok (3rd February 2018)

I am surely not a natural with foreign languages or a professional in linguistic, but I have studied foreign languages for a good portion of my life. Yet I have never taken a foreign language class, or used a textbook or any other foreign language learning material which did not have any instructions and explanations in English. I can’t image what my high school Spanish class would have been like if the teacher came in on day one and only spoke Spanish the entire time with explaining what the words meant in English. I can understand the philosophy behind trying to immerse students in a language, but I wonder if any native English speaking teachers have learned a second language without any guidance or explanation in English, at least during the early stages of learning the language? Would different teaching techniques be used when teaching English to non-native speaks than the techniques used to teach foreign languages to native English speakers?

As teachers, I think it is sometimes useful to reflect on our experiences as students as well as our experiences as educators and our knowledge from studying educational research and theory. What has been the teachers' experiences in learning a foreign language? Immersion or guided in one's native language?

While immersion does appear to be able to work in some situations, the fact we have all seen many foreigners who have lived in Thailand and surrounded by the Thai language on a daily basis for years and have not gone beyond the basic beginner stage would seem to indicate immersion alone is no guarantee of producing fluent speakers.

By Jack, Around (2nd February 2018)

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