Despite many years of living in Thailand and countless hours of self-study, my Thai language skills are still not as good as desired. Some people praise my Thai language skills as being near fluent while others are amazed at how little I have picked up over so many years. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
With a family, and having spent much of my first 7 or 8 years in the country earning two graduate degrees while working full-time (often at more than a single job to keep the family out of extreme poverty), improving my Thai language had to be placed down on my list of priorities to some extent. Add to this, while I have maintained a residence here in Thailand where my family has stayed, I have spent around 9 months a year over the last few years working outside the country, limiting my opportunities to practice and improve my Thai skills. So like so many language learners, I have not had too much trouble in finding excuses for not improving my skills to the level where I want them to be. Speaking multiple languages is really cool, in theory, but these skills for most of us only come from hours and hours of hard work and study, which is not so cool.
I felt, although I had continued self-study for many years, I hit a plateau and was not really improving. However due to some changes in my professional life, I have a bit more flexibility in work schedule and I decided now was the time to get serious and therefore I have begun an intensive Thai program at one of the country's better known universities.
It might be interesting to share some thoughts from the language student's perspective.
First off, a question popped into my head when I started the program. What makes a formal program different from self-study? After all there is no shortage of study materials available, books, tapes, and websites, for use for self-study. My answer, the difference is having a teacher, or in my case, teachers.
Teachers of children perform a dual function in society, that of teacher as well as of babysitter. In a modern society where both parents often work, warehousing our children in schools during the workday is often the most cost efficient method of child care. Also children rarely have the self-discipline or understanding of what knowledge is needed, or expected by society, at an early stage in life to effectively engage in self-study and therefore need to guidance of an adult. But what value is created in teaching adults? Why does a university student need a teacher of economics when he/she can read (and these days listen online to) the ideas from the world's best known professors of the subject?
In a modern society, we don't need teachers to pass along information, after all the answer to most questions is only a few clicks or touches away on our computers or phones. But as humans, we do seem to be hard-wired to learn from personal interactions which normally take the form of a teacher/master and students. Maybe it is because we are conditioned by the parent-child experience to learn in this type of hierarchal human relationship.
Teachers seem to add to the learning experience in a manner which cannot be duplicated by mass-produced books, videos, blogs and web pages. Teachers provide structure, discipline, feedback as well as an authority figure for the student to seek to please.
It is surprising how easily we change behaviors and attitudes as we assume different roles in life. I was recently in a class with a number of highly educated and somewhat professionally successful individuals (many of whom have both financial and professional status in society higher than the teacher) who paid their own money to learn Thai. Yet when we sat in the student seats we took on the role of a student and acted accordingly. Even though the students came from a wide range of cultures, both Western and Eastern, we all understood the universal relationship between a student and teacher and followed expected behaviors of a student. In the classroom the teacher automatically assumes the authority figure and this is generally accepted by the students.
A few additional observations from the pupil's seat
Not every student appreciates exactly the same teaching style and techniques. Students come to a class with varying existing skills and experiences as well as their own cultural and individual expectations and preferences. Techniques which work for other students don't automatically work for me. The more diverse the class is in regards to skills and culture, the less effective a teacher can be in meeting every student's needs.
The most popular teachers are not always the ones students learn the most from; although the least popular teachers are usually the ones students learn the least from. While personality is important in a teacher, so is experience and preparation.
Learning a foreign language is difficult and words, phrases, and grammar need to be put into context to be really understood. Teachers who can put the language into context are more effective than teachers which expect students to memorize language without showing how it is used in the real world.
Criticisms of Thai teachers and Thai teaching methodology are pretty common amongst the foreign teachers working here in Thailand. However from my view from the seat of the student, my Thai teachers have been excellent. While each teacher I have had is unique and of course I have preferences, each one has always acted professionally and has come to the classroom prepared and has put into each class energy and effort. No doubt there are countless examples of poor Thai teachers which can be found, but from my experience as a student and teacher in a number of different countries, there are plenty of examples of poor teaching in every country.
I have been quite impressed with my Thai teachers and their knowledge and use of modern teaching techniques.
For the most part, I was teaching (in a variety of different capacities) during the years I was also pursuing my graduate studies. Now once again I am alternating between the front and rear of the classroom, and this can be an effective method to help one to keep the student's perspective in mind when the time of the day comes for one to assume the role of teacher.
Scott Hipsher is the author of a number of books, book chapters, academic journal articles, conference papers, magazine articles and newspaper pieces.
His books include
The Nature of Asian Firms: An evolutionary perspective
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking free from the colonial paradigm
Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries
The Private Sector's Role in Poverty Reduction in Asia (coming soon)