During all the years I've spent in Thailand and the rest of South-East Asia I have been approached dozens of times by students armed with questionnaires eager to interview me.
I can only applaud this way of practising English as it provides much needed exposure to actual English-speaking tourists or residents (both native and non-native speakers) and puts students in a position where they cannot run or hide and have to use their English skills creatively in order to make communication possible.
However, thorough preparation is vital for this approach to succeed, something which is often sorely lacking when Thai students go on their inquisitive tourist hunts.
Taking to the streets and talking to complete strangers is something no Thai student would do out of their own volition. It is clear that most - if not all of them - do it because their English teacher imposed it as a mandatory assignment. Many teachers - including myself - often advise students to practise their English outside of the classroom.
Doing so for listening, reading and writing is relatively easy, as the anonymous Internet provides a treasure trove of possibilities. Practising speaking, however, especially face-to-face conversation, is easier said than done. Where on earth do you find someone to talk to?
Instead of repeating myself and summing up a list of places where there is a good chance of speaking English to foreigners, just try to remember, dear reader - no matter if you are a student, teacher or other - the time when you were at school studying a foreign language, be it French, Spanish, Chinese or Swahili; be it in London, Los Angeles, Sydney or Kaapstad.
Did you roam the streets of the multicultural city you were living in with the sole purpose of finding new friends to practise your newly-learnt language with? I bet you didn't, for whatever reasons.
I haven't undertaken any formal study, but I am sure that all over the world a significant proportion of language students aren't fluent in the language they studied, even at university level. How big this proportion is differs from country to country. I am pretty sure that there is, for example, a huge ability gap between English graduates in Sweden and Thailand - without intending to idolise the Swedes and bash the Thais.
How not to
Before giving some hints and tips on how to conduct a productive interview, let me give you a few examples of how things can go wrong - and believe me, they often do. The following scenarios should absolutely be avoided unless the sole aim of the exercise is being away from the school benches and mucking about with classmates:
1/ A pair or small group of students interviewing one or more foreigners whereby only one of the students - always the strongest - asks all the questions; the others usually stand around grinning or commenting in their own language.
2/ Students letting interviewees read the questions they prepared for their survey.
3/ Students asking mostly closed questions (e.g. You like Thailand?), vague questions (e.g. What you think about Thailand?) or rather nonsensical questions (e.g. How about your holiday?) - oftentimes using incorrect structure (as in my examples).
4/ Talking very quietly - almost inaudibly really - with terrible pronunciation (e.g. You lie ee lai?).*
Time to give some advice. When students interview foreigners, it is essential that they properly introduce themselves. Nobody foreigner wants to waste precious time by participating in yet another useless time-sharing survey. The introduction needn't be long, but should be brief, clear and honest. It could go like this:
Option 1: Good morning, my name is Ploy and these are my classmates Lek and Noi. We study English and we'd like to practise our English by asking you some questions. Could you please spare a few moments of your time?
Option 2: Hi, could we ask you a few questions? We are English students at Wittaya Whatever School and we are doing a survey to practise our English. Can we ask you a few questions? It will only take five to ten minutes.
Option 3: Hello, we have to interview foreigners for our English school assignment. Could you please help us by answering some questions? Nobody wants to talk to us because our English isn't perfect. Thank you so much for saving our lives. (fairly honest, funny but possible effective)
Other variations are of course possible. Students should use language and words they are familiar with and fully understand, not just blurt out phrases they'd never use on their own. Memorising every single question isn't necessary as speaking naturally is more important than sounding like a parrot. Fluency should take precedence over accuracy when speaking in a real situation where communication is the prime objective; however, interviewers should get the very basics right by asking grammatically correct questions and use intelligible pronunciation.
I don't think there are right or wrong questions as this depends on the kind of interview or survey you want to conduct. It can either be a general survey about Thailand or be more specific, e.g. targeted at tourists and tourist attractions, food, customs etc. Let students come up with their own questions first, either individually, in pairs or small groups.
I prefer to do this in sequence: individuals devise a few questions, compare them with their neighbour and then move on to form groups of four or six. This way everybody will be at least forced to do some work as most groups won't welcome freeloaders.
What follows is a short list of questions that might be used for general surveys. I don't recommend just handing this out to students as this means forgoing the very useful stage of making questions whereby creativity and accuracy are important.
- What's your name?
- Where are you from?
- Which languages can you speak?
- Are you on holiday in Thailand?
● How long have you been here?
● How long do you plan to travel in Thailand?
● Where are you staying now?
● Where do you live?
● How long have you lived in Thailand?
● What's you job?
● Where do you work?
- Which parts of Thailand have you visited?
- Which place did you like most?
- Do you like Thai food? What is your favourite dish?
- What do you like most about Thailand?
- What don't you like about Thailand? (interviewers should be able to handle criticism)
- What do you do to fight global warming?
Most, if not all of these questions are also extremely useful for general conversation. Remember that asking questions is not only a way to start a conversation, but also to keep it going. Open questions can be used to make someone talk longer (e.g. What did you know about Thailand before coming here? Why do you like Thailand?), while closed questions will obtain specific information (e.g. Are you married? Have you had a Thai massage yet?). An effective way to keep a conversation going is by asking follow-up questions.
Example: What did you do yesterday evening? (Answer: I went to the cinema.)
● Which film/movie did you see?
● Did you enjoy it?
● What's it about?
● Would you recommend it?
● Where did you go to see it?
● Who did you go with?
● Did you see the original version or was it dubbed?
● How much does a film ticket cost?
● Who's your favourite actor?
● What kind of movies do you like?
● How often do you go to the cinema?
● How do you get there?
There are many more but I think you get my drift. Students should be given similar exercises to hone their skills.
Tips for teachers
Finally, conducting great interview depends largely on the quality of preparation and the guidance from the teacher. In general, most people aren't born interviewers. Having good conversational skills will certainly help, but decent preparation is still needed to fine-tune interviewing skills.
In this regard I can't help pointing out that most Thais aren't exactly perfectly enunciating chatterboxes - especially not when speaking English - so their choice of questions should be scrutinised before sending them into the real world in order to avoid inappropriate, incorrect or confusing questions. Pronunciation drill and exercises may be required. There are already too many conversations like 'Where you from? - How long you stay Thailand? - You have girlfriend? - What about your job? - You like Thailand yes or no? - Goodbye see you again.' Let's try to get it right for once.
What teachers should remember before sending their students on a foreigner-hunt:
- Persuade students there is no need to be shy; most foreigners don't mind answering a bunch of questions if asked by enthusiastic students;
- Give the assignment to pairs or small groups (maximum 4);
- Avoid pairing good friends in order to limit goofing off (unless you know they are competitive and work well together);
- Make sure students know that introducing themselves is important;
- Let them come up with their own questions but make sure to correct grammar mistakes in an appropriate manner;
- Ask for proof of interviews: tapes, pictures or short video clips of interviews (shot preferably with a digital camera instead of a mobile phone for quality reasons) are not only a lot of fun to watch afterwards, they are also very useful for post-interview correction and feedback;
- Practise, practise, practise: students should practise the questions often and know many of them by heart before using them in a real situation;
- Let them interview each other in a controlled, but not necessarily quiet, environment (classroom, playground, school grounds near noisy street, etc.) before doing real interviews (again, don't pair friends if possible);
- Do a dry run: ask one of your English-speaking colleagues to be a mock interviewee so students feel the stress of interviewing a stranger (if, for whatever reason, you have been ostracised by your peers, play the victim yourself);
- Help students devise a quick and easy way to record answers using abbreviations for places (e.g. BKK, CM, AYU, KCh, KSi, KSt, SUK, PHU, KRA etc.)**, languages (EN, FR, SP, CH, JA, IN, GE, KO, IT, etc.)***, countries (e.g. US, UK, EN, CH, JA, KO, Swi, Swe, GE, FR, SP, IT, AUS, NZ, IS, etc.)**** and possibly many more (food, tourist attractions in Thailand and so on); taping an interview and transcribing the answers later is also possible but involves a lot of work afterwards;
- Make the whole exercise competitive by rewarding the best students;
- If time and school infrastructure allow, set up a class blog or forum where students and interviewees can post messages and get in touch with each other; sending a class newsletter or survey results to interviewees' email addresses can be another way of keeping in touch and practise report and email writing;
- Remind students to thank interviewees for their time and patience.