When I first moved to Thailand I tried to pick up the local lingo and managed to have simple conversations after a couple of months. I used to love seeing the surprise and happiness on Thai people’s faces when I spoke their language.
At my government school teaching job I understood little things the students said in Thai and they were desperate to hear me speak Thai. After a little while saying words like, delicious, hot and fun in Thai became a common routine for me in classes. A lot of students were keener to hear me speak Thai than to learn English themselves.
It wasn’t until moving to a language school, with proper management, that I saw the negative side of a teacher speaking Thai in class. It was also at that job where I saw that some TEFL teachers are actually stuck in the routine of speaking Thai with students.
Teachers stuck speaking Thai
As I said there are some teachers who are stuck in this zone of speaking Thai with students. This is normally either those who have zero training and don’t know better or others who just enjoy showing off.
One such teacher I used to work with seemed to speak decent Thai and had the added bonus of being able to read and write Thai (the students loved that!). The problem was that, like many foreigners speaking Thai, he wasn’t as good as he thought and this caused issues in the classroom and office.
He was probably an intermediate speaker which meant he could do all the basics pretty well but made mistakes when using harder sentences which led to three problems.
Firstly he thought he could use Thai to teach beginner students as he felt he could speak better Thai than they could English. He just fell back on using Thai as he could get his point across and thought it was an easy way to do a class rather than using proper teaching techniques.
Secondly, his pronunciation wasn’t great and a lot of people said they couldn’t really understand him. This actually led to wasted time with students either not understanding him or, even worse, having to teach him the correct words in Thai.
Finally with any intermediate Thai student or above it was really a waste of time speaking Thai with them as they could communicate and discuss problems and situations in English.
In our office he also caused issues as he would speak Thai when a group of teachers and Thai staff were together. Bear in mind all Thai staff were at least intermediate English speakers so there was no need for him to use another language. One of my Thai colleagues at work even flatly told him to stop speaking Thai with her as his Thai wasn’t good and her English was much better.
In the end a lot of colleagues, foreign and Thai, thought he was purely showing off and that he was a bit of an idiot for doing so.
Not our job
As anyone who has been here a while will know, speaking a little Thai will get you brownie points with students. It gets a laugh and a lot of students think it is cool that their teacher speaks Thai. The problem is that it isn’t what we are paid to do.
We are paid to deliver lessons in English. By the end of a class your students should have learned something valuable. Sure you also have to provide a fun atmosphere but you can do this without getting cheap laughs by speaking Thai.
Several schools and language centers even have a policy where all communication is in English. I love this as it encourages people to use the language in natural situations, even when it is Thai staff speaking to each other.
In the worst case scenarios I’ve heard teachers asking Thai students to tell them English words in Thai. It is ridiculous that you’re asking someone who has paid to attend your class to help you learn.
Where speaking Thai is acceptable
There certainly are a few exceptions where speaking Thai is acceptable. For example if students are really stuck on a word and I know it in Thai I will say it if necessary. However, this is only after trying to elicit it naturally. If you are having to do this several times in a class then you probably haven’t planned an appropriate class for that level of students.
The other situation is when there is an emergency and you are dealing with children or very low level learners and need to make yourself understood quickly and clearly. If there is a fire drill or medical emergency this is of course acceptable.
Speaking isn't the same as listening
Something else teachers in Thailand need to appreciate is that you can use your Thai ability but don’t need to speak Thai in the classroom. These days I find the ability to listen to students speaking Thai and understanding them is far more valuable than speaking Thai myself. After a while you will understand the Thai phrases for “I don’t understand..” “Does he mean….” “Do we have to do this….” etc and through this you can respond in English to answer their questions.
Also English vocabulary can be difficult and sometimes students will check with each other the meaning in Thai. If you know the correct word then you can respond positivly in English if they say the word in Thai.
With very low level students this technique works well as most teachers should have at least a beginner level of Thai. If you are teaching things like “What is your job?” “I like...” and food vocabulary then you should understand if students are correct when discussing the meaning of the English phrases in Thai.
Is it the culture of edutainment?
You could argue that the use of Thai with students is partly due to the idea of edu-tainment. Teachers feel under pressure to entertain students and by using Thai that can be achieved in certain situations.
A quick look at famous English teachers here in Thailand will show you that they all speak Thai very well and use it during lessons. Whilst I appreciate the skill they have I would also say that it isn’t necessary as a teacher to speak the native language of your students. Fair play to these people who have found a place for themselves in the market though. I just hope other teachers who work in the classroom don’t see Twitter and YouTube accounts of famous English teachers and feel they too also have to use Thai in the classroom to be loved by Thai students.
The two most popular teachers in my old school seemingly thought the mixed English / Thai approach was the way to go in the classroom. Using words like Aroy, Narak and Lon Mak in exagerated Thai accents would get instant laughs from high school and university students. In the end they got lots of class requests and management let their Thai slide as students were happy.
However, if you are a teacher you should be able to plan lessons which are fun, interesting and educational without the need to speak Thai for whatever reason.
Learning a language is a great thing. I remember the joy of getting an A in GCSE French and being able to use the language well when on holiday there. I remember counting from 1-100 in Thai and my Thai neighbors cheering me on, great times.
The thing to remember is that you are working to deliver English language classes and speaking Thai should be for your benefit, not your students. Learn Thai, be proud that you can speak it well but keep it out of the classroom, OK?
Richard is co-author of a great new book on planning a life in Thailand.
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