"I have a very important English test coming up at the end of next week. Can you help me pass it?"
These are the words that strike fear into the heart of any English teacher and I'm willing to bet most of us have been in this frustrating situation. I certainly have. Many times.
We're approached by students who can barely string a sentence together and we've got seven days to transform them into William Shakespeare. It is, needless to say, a mission impossible.
My knee jerk reaction is always ‘how can I get out of this?' so I'll concoct a devious plan. I'll be vague as to when I'm available for a study session. I'll avoid answering the phone or returning text messages and generally do what it takes to remove myself from the situation and force the student to lose interest. But this is one request I can't ignore because it involves a family member. My wife's nephew to be exact.
I like Nui. I like him a lot. I've watched him grow up from the lively little boy in short trousers who attended our wedding, to the ambitious student now looking to get into university. When he was a teenager, he helped me with my Thai language study on many occasions and he made a fine teacher too. He's a hard-working guy with a thirst for knowledge and a good brain. He'll go far if he gets the right opportunities and no one wants him to succeed in life more than I do. He also lives next door.
Nui needs to pass something called the GAT test, devised by the NIETS (National Institute of Educational Testing Service) The examination contains about 60 multiple choice questions that test a candidate's grammar, reading skills, vocabulary, etc.
Yesterday, Nui furnished me with some mock GAT tests so I could familiarize myself with the content and also the level of difficulty involved. The test is challenging to say the least. I bet many a native English speaker would struggle to get a top score.
As much as Nui's English has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, the harsh reality is that he's still about 750 levels below where he needs to be in order to achieve a good test result. The main concern for me is that Nui doesn't realise it.
Let's look at a couple of sample questions from the GAT test to get an idea of what Nui is up against.
Firstly one from the short conversation section.
Janet: I heard you passed the screening test.
Wichai: Yes, and I'm invited for an interview next Friday.
a) I'll keep my fingers crossed.
b) See you at the interview.
c) What are you doing on Friday?
d) Don't miss it, will you?
The answer I guess is A. Janet is ‘keeping her fingers crossed' - an idiom to hope that something or someone receives a favorable outcome. It's an idiom that you either know or you don't. In the question above, although choice C can be eliminated immediately, there is a degree of logic in choices B and D. Certainly enough to cause confusion if you don't know your good luck idioms.
This question is from the odd one out section
Choose the word which does not belong
The answer is D of course. But Nui didn't know the answer because ‘grab' and ‘rise' were the only words he was vaguely familiar with. You need to have at least three of those four words in your vocabulary bank to arrive at the correct answer and Nui just hasn't had enough exposure to English.
Honesty was the best policy
I once worked at a private language school in the middle of an affluent Sukhumwit neighborhood. Not a week went by when we didn't get a worried parent coming into the reception, dragging their offspring behind them, and saying ‘help! My son (or daughter) needs to pass a university entrance English exam and it's just ten days away (or something equally ridiculous)'
It used to drive the Thai owner of the language school crazy. The owner was a very educated lady who had lived and worked most of her life in The UK. She knew that accepting a parent's money and promising miracles was unethical. She also knew it would put pressure on the foreign teacher handed the task of transforming someone from entrance exam no-hoper to a competent, intermediate level English student.
Never one to mince her words, the school owner would look the parent straight in the eyes and say ‘sorry, this is not a problem you can just throw money at'. I always respected her for that.
I often wonder if Thais are unique with this crazy, last-minute approach to exams and tests. Do other student nationalities run around the room with their hair on fire whenever an important test date looms large? Or do they simply not realize how much time and effort is involved in learning a language and progressing through the different levels of competence?
I've been studying Thai seriously for the past three years and I know exactly where I'm at. I know full well how many hours a day I would need to put in if I wanted to pass a Thai speaking test. And I would feel no shame in putting my hands up and admitting a test was beyond me if that were the case. You can't rely on miracles. Your English (or Thai) is either good enough or it isn't.
To me this is just basic common sense.
You need a Thai teacher, not me
However, what irks me most is how the native speaking English teacher is viewed as the ultimate key to test-taking success. Spend a few hours with a teacher whose mother tongue is English and passing the exam will be a breeze.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that and having just spent a couple of hours with Nui, going over mock tests in the comfort of my living room, I was reminded that what Nui really needs is a Thai teacher.
He needs a Thai teacher who is an expert in test-taking strategy. He needs a Thai teacher who can explain how to quickly locate the main topic of a reading passage or what CANNOT be inferred about birds that migrate south in the Winter. He needs a Thai teacher to highlight issues with subject-verb agreement and all that jazz.
He needs a Thai teacher who can explain all of those things in his OWN language. What he doesn't need are miracles from an English native speaker like me.