When I made the decision to leave Australia in 2003 and come and live in Thailand, one of the main reasons for choosing this country was that I wanted to learn a second language. I didn't need to learn Thai to allow me to live in Thailand, of course - it was simply a goal of mine.
I was not content to simply speak Thai; I also wanted to be able to read and write it so that I could eventually master the language and, more importantly, use it. I'm still a long way from being a fluent communicator and I have trouble understanding spoken Thai (especially on TV) but being able to read and, to a lesser extent, to write has been invaluable for my day-to-day life here.
As an English teacher I am constantly reminded that I am paid to do so because I am expected to speak English at all times in the classroom. I don't have any argument with this because by simply exposing students to listen to a native English speaker for 50 minutes per week is better than nothing.
I must always be aware, however, of my speed when talking and to accentuate the sounds that we have in English but are not present in Thai. But if I did not know anything about Thai language, how could I know this?
My philosophy on spoken communication has always been that perfect grammar, extensive vocabulary and intimate knowledge of tenses are all totally worthless if the listener cannot understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.
Wherever I have taught in Thailand I have almost always been asked to teach ‘listening and speaking'. If I am very fortunate, I may be given a specific textbook to use that comes with a listening CD. These resources are typically very well written but they are never specific for Thai learners because they do not tackle pronunciation of the ‘English sounds' that Thai students need to make in order to be understood.
If you ask a Thai student to say, for example, "The dog" they will say something that sounds like "Duh dok" because they do not have the "th" sound in Thai and they do not end words with the voiced ‘G' sound as we do.
What they do (and I am guilty of this, too) is they transliterate English into Thai and pronounce the Thai words using the conventions of the Thai language. So in effect when you ask them to speak English they are really speaking Thai. Unless I knew something about the Thai language I would be totally ignorant of this.
Does perfect pronunciation exist?
This brings up a whole argument about the need to perfect pronunciation. I used to work with a group of Irish English teachers in Bahrain. I had never associated with Irish people before in any capacity and, as a language teacher, I was amazed to hear some of them pronounce the word ‘month' as ‘moont'.
I grew up watching Dave Allen and listening to Ian Paisley on the news but I had never heard ‘month' pronounced like this before. Also, these Irish teachers pronounced ‘the' exactly the same as Thai people do - ‘duh', as well as ‘dis', ‘dat', ‘dese' and ‘dose'.
I must admit, I had real problems with this when I first encountered it. I had left Thailand in 2006 searching for greener pastures and came upon native English speakers who, according to my philosophy, did not speak English correctly!
Were the Irish correct or were they speaking ‘wrong'? Should I have one rule for the Irish and another rule for Thai people? I must admit, I didn't know what to do.
After a lot of thought I decided that I was obviously in no position to ask the Irish teachers (some of whom became very good friends of mine, by the way) to start changing the way they spoke and reverted to my philosophy that as long as the spoken language is understood by the listener then everything is OK.
When my Irish friends said, "I came here two moont ago", I knew what they meant. I'm sure that if they said that to a Thai person, however, the response would be "Arai nah?" (What?) Then the Irish person would have to explain again, perhaps in a different way, such as "I came here in July" or "I came here eight weeks ago".
When I speak Thai in my everyday life I am not satisfied unless I speak with correct pronunciation. To me, correct pronunciation means speaking the language so that it is easily understood with no confusion. If I get into a taxi in Bangkok and ask the driver to take me to "Future Park Rangsit" he will probably have no idea where that is. But if I pronounce it as it is written in Thai, "Fiw-jerr bark Rung-sit" the driver will take me straight there.
I constantly advise my students that if they think in Thai they will always speak Thai, not English. I then remind them that I have exactly the same problem. If I insist on speaking transliterated Thai I am not speaking Thai, I am merely speaking English. If I do that in Thailand with Thai people I am asking for trouble.
Another reason a knowledge of Thai is priceless
This brings me to the second most important benefit of knowing the Thai language as an English teacher: the relationship with your students, the bond, the rapport with them will be so much stronger when they know (a) that you have taken the time to learn their language and (b) that you encounter the same problems that they do.
Whenever I meet a class of students for the first time I always write my name in Thai on the board. I know I should write it in English but I do this for a very important reason that is immediately evident to the students. It shows that I know about their language and then I show them that the pronunciation of my name in Thai is not the same as it is in English.
Eventually they understand that to speak English they must think in English. When this breakthrough happens (and it doesn't happen instantly) it is a huge bonus when I teach thereafter. Then I can introduce the six sounds of English that are not part of the Thai language (yes, there are only six and one of them is French) and they can gradually incorporate them into their spoken English whenever we encounter them in class.
Sadly, I find that this aspect of teaching spoken English has never been taught to any of my students before because their Thai teachers invariably know nothing about English pronunciation and their foreign English teachers know nothing about spoken Thai so that the gap between the two languages is never crossed.
Ideally, I believe that this type of Speaking and Listening work should commence as early in a Thai student's life as possible but how many foreign English teachers know enough Thai to do so?
Another benefit of knowing Thai is that I can very quickly help my students understand something if I can say the word in Thai during a lesson. I find that most students know what the words ‘verb' and ‘adjective' mean but very few understand when I say ‘noun'.
If I then say the Thai word for noun there is a collective, "Ohhh..." and the lesson continues. The same with the word ‘consonant', for example. Many Thai students have never been taught the difference between consonant sounds and vowel sounds, not even in their own language, and to be able to quickly help them to understand by using Thai is a massive bonus.
An understanding of Thai language is not a prerequisite for teaching English in Thailand and some schools will not be happy to know that their highly-paid foreign English teachers are using Thai in their lessons but in my practice the sensible use of Thai as an aid to teaching spoken English is absolutely priceless.
I recommend learning to speak, read and write Thai because it will help any teacher to convey their message in class (if used correctly) and help them live their lives much more comfortably away from the school environment.