All generalizations are dangerous, even this one
Six months ago I was in a staffroom of a language school in Japan venting to my coworkers about how glad I was to be done teaching Japanese students. I was suffering from a slight case of burnout after having done a year of six, sometimes seven day weeks to supplement my income in preparation for moving to Thailand. I found sarcasm in the staffroom to afford me some degree of insanity insulation. To my mind at the time, the Japanese were collectively the most dull, timid, narrow-minded nationality in the world and in turn every lesson was a slog through shyness and stereotypes. It was simply a question of time until I would be teaching a new nationality of students, and though I didn’t have any romantic illusions of the Thai as ideal, little language learners, I am a firm believer in the notion that a change is good as a holiday. Even if I had to sit through endless hours of “…but Thai food is spicy,” it would be welcome relief from “Can you use chopsticks?”.
People love generalizations and stereotypes. They make the world more comprehensible and more comfortable. They aid in decision making. They are fun. They are overstated. I wish that in order to make life easier for the English teacher in Asia, I were able to summarize the differences between Japanese and Thai students in some succinct manner. Thai students are fun. Japanese students are serious. Unfortunately for would-be pigeonholers, I find any comparison between Japanese and Thai students to be an exercise in hair splitting. I am limiting the scope of my statement to students, not to the general populace where differences are more apparent.
World over the language classroom is fraught with hesitancy, under confidence and apathy. How many of us remember High School French or Spanish? I don’t recall any raucous debates over societal ills, or long oratories on metaphysics. What does come to mind is a group of mostly bored students passing notes and randomly repeating words the meaning to which was unknown. When comparing nationalities as language students, we note that even individual personalities flatten under the pressure of a foreign language, not to mention national characteristics. The fun loving Thai outside the classroom may become the boring (and bored) student once the lesson begins. The eternally embarrassed Japanese schoolgirl isn’t suddenly going to come out of her shell after mastering irregular verbs. A foreign language reduces the beginner to infancy, the intermediate to childhood and the advanced learner to the state of confused adolescence.
In Japan and Thailand the language classroom and the communication limitations within it are further compounded by some of what I will term Pan-Asian issues. The first is groupism. Groupism tends to make doing plenary (the teacher interacting with the students as a group) activities difficult. To simply throw a question to the group is a recipe for silence in cultures where standing out is frowned upon. The second issue is rooted in the rote learning that goes on in Asian schools. I find that students in both Thailand and Japan have difficulty formulating independent questions, not due to a lack of grammatical competency, but because they are simply unable to come up with an idea for a question due to the fact they are not encouraged to form questions as part of their formative education. Another frustration that exists for teachers in both Japan and Thailand is in getting students to expand on thoughts. This may be partially based in linguistic deficiency, but I often feel that it goes back to the idea of exceptionality being frowned upon. To talk at length about a recent trip may be construed as overly personal or impolite. This flows into my final Pan-Asian issue, reticence. Although it manifests itself in different ways in Thailand and Japan, both societies hold some idea of polite distance in social relationships. Americans sit on the opposite end of the pole feeling a compulsion to reveal the most intimate parts of their biography within minutes of meeting a stranger. In Asia social dialogue often centers on such ‘neutral’ subjects as food, food and food. All this hesitancy to delve into non-gastronomic conversation matter makes for more frustration and silence in lessons related to life activities other than stuffing one’s face.
Asian language learners (I suspect this is global, though can’t testify) are often ignorant of their role as students. Learning a foreign language is a student-centered activity. Unlike History or Science where the teacher imparts and the students intake information, learning a language requires the student to be highly active in the process. Understanding a new word in a foreign language doesn’t make that vocabulary part of the learner’s active (usable) vocabulary. The student must actually use the new word, probably several times, in order that they are able to add it to their active lexicon. Asian students often have a sizeable passive (understood) vocabulary, but are able to come up with the most basic of sentences due to the dormancy of their knowledge. It’s analogous to grasping the theory behind a good golf swing - it doesn’t amount to jack squat unless you practice over and over. The problem lies in the belief that attending an English lesson is the same as going to a History class. Most students in both Japan and Thailand incorrectly assume that showing up to class and listening passively is all that is needed to master English. This manifests itself in a lack of classroom effort, sometimes construed by the teacher as laziness, but more likely a confusion on the part of the students as to their role – they believe it to be passive, but it should be active (Truthfully, the teacher’s role is to communicate to the learner their role, so I won’t pin all the blame on the students - but it is exceptionally difficult to convey the idea of learner role in a foreign language to beginner students of that language, so I’ll pin some of it on the students or school staff). The sum of this learner role misunderstanding is that classrooms in Japan and Thailand are filled with students who sit back and wait for the teacher to work magic.
In spite of the similarity between English students in Japan and Thailand, I have been able to tease out a few, minor differences. With magnifying glass and razor blade, let me proceed with the hair strand division: Thai students tend to be less punctual than the Japanese, slipping in and out of class at about any point in the lesson. Japanese students tend to be more grammar focused, often to the point of seriously reduced fluency, as if speaking English was a precision shooting event in which there was no time component. The Thai, by comparison, are less concerned with grammar and slightly more fluent. Japanese with its relatively simple phonetic system and flat intonation makes for clear, monotone pronunciation of English by its speakers. Thai, on the other hand, with its complex tones and bizarre consonants (‘ng’ in an initial position) lends itself to an incomprehensible pronunciation of English words. Simply put, the Japanese are easier to understand. Thai students do value a certain amount of sanuk in the classroom; games are a mainstay of many lessons. Japanese students tend to demand more grammar foolishness, and seem to feel that a lesson on tense differentiation is highly valuable (For many reasons, I am convinced that it is an absolute waste of time, at least in a classroom with a native speaker of a language). I might add that any of the above observations are gross generalizations and from student to student it is possible to find the very opposite of what I have asserted.
Six months of hindsight have brought about a small epiphany on teaching English as a foreign language – it’s the same game wherever you go. The most striking differences in teaching come with a change in age group or class size, not nationality. The most concrete adjustments I have made in my teaching since coming to Thailand have to do with planning lessons for longer periods of time and larger groups. I can hardly speak of tailoring my lessons more toward Thai students other than using games a bit more frequently than I did in Japan. For a teacher seeking a professional change, a different school may well be worth a different country - something to bear in mind when setting out on a new experience, especially when that experience comes with a change in salary as well as setting. More on that next month.