Thais learn in a different way to farangs. This is not an opinion. This is a fact. There are a number of reasons why this is so, and unless you adapt the way you teach Thais, you will fail. You will alienate yourself from your students if you try to teach Thais in the same way you would with farangs.
Teaching Thais is no more difficult than teaching farangs. It’s just different. However, recognizing that there is a difference is only the first step. Just like an alcoholic who admits he has a problem and needs help, you have to accept that it is you and not the students who need to change. You are seriously outnumbered, behind enemy lines and dealing with a very well-established culture here. Once you have identified the differences and opened your mind to change, there is only one step left to successfully bridging the cultural gap. You must walk the walk and actively adapt your approach to suit your students.
In my capacity as an English teacher, I taught, and indeed still occasionally teach, tens of thousands of Thai students over almost a decade. These ranged from the occasional and reluctant pre-teen class all the way up to the most senior business executives. However, the vast majority of the students I taught were university students, entry level staff or middle management. I taught in a number of private language schools, each with their own slight adaptations on what constituted the best way to teach English as a foreign language. Some of these were global strategies; others were 100% developed for the Thai market. As a manager myself, I was also responsible for training Thai staff and teachers of many nationalities. I’d like to share my experiences and observations with you on the way that Thais learn and, hopefully, provide some useful pointers.
Of course, everyone is different. Regardless of national or cultural identity, people learn in different ways. Every teacher should familiarise themselves with Stephen Krashen’s theory of multiple intelligences before they are unleashed on impressionable minds. I know that I am a very visual learner but that doesn’t mean that I should teach only in this way. A successful teacher will read his or her students and adapt to them. However, this is a universal need. Thais have other specific idiosyncrasies that we need to be aware of before we consider how we can maximize the effectiveness of our instruction.
Let’s start with this: “The Thai education system is a failure”. Harsh words? Dogmatic opinion? Maybe. But let’s explore that statement. In terms of learning a second language, it is an easy claim to substantiate. Thais study English for more than ten years but rarely do you find a student who can hold a basic conversation. Why? The Thai education system deems that the best way to learn a second language is to have the rules of grammar lectured to the students. Thai students hate English because of the rote learning technique that forces them to memorize meaningless grammatical rules in a passive and non-contextualized setting.
I have interviewed countless students who had studied English in a Thai school for more than ten years, yet most were only able to function at an elementary level. What was even more shocking was that their grammatical accuracy was abysmal. Ten years of grammar lectures and they didn’t have the basics. Thais might know more grammar terminology than 95% of native English speakers, but they can’t use any of it!
After a 3-month conversation course in a language school where accuracy is balanced with fluency and where language is contextualized, the students would double their proficiency. In essence, they would learn as much in those three months as in the previous ten years.
Without doubt, the smaller class sizes in a language school make it easier, but the methodology is still a vital factor. We can qualify this by comparing the Thai model with the way other countries teach languages. Take, for example, the Scandinavian countries. The education systems of those countries focus on teaching second languages through interaction with far greater emphasis on the spoken than the written word. Grammar rules are of much lesser consequence. Scandinavians speak English fluently, and for many of them it is actually a third language.
It could justifiably be argued that Scandinavian languages share the same roots as English and this makes English easier to learn. While this cannot be denied, Thailand is also way behind virtually all of its South-East Asian neighbours in English proficiency because of the obsolete education system it employs, and all this in spite of the constant exposure from the massive volume of tourists and media flooding into Thailand.
In Thai schools, the vast majority of English language teachers are Thais who themselves can’t speak English above an intermediate level and whose speech is riddled with grammatical and lexical mistakes. Even the established and accredited curricula that these teachers use are strewn with inaccuracies. Add this to the fact that the methodology they use belongs in the 19th century and Thai students are seriously disadvantaged.
If you need proof of this, there was a case in 2007 when twelve university students who had completed their 4-year Computers for Business course at Srisophon College in Nakhon Si Thammarat were informed that they were not eligible for a degree. The reason was that the courses and the instructors were sub-standard. They were informed that they would have to take extra courses and revise their projects before they could graduate. The fact that Education Minister, Wijit Srisa-arn, is on the college’s council says a lot about the state of Thailand’s education system.
In fact, the Ministry of Education in Thailand has some rather strange criteria for developing the minds of the nation. In order to attain a teaching license, which is necessary to get a work permit for English teachers, the Ministry has a typically nonsensical set of requirements. The teacher must first have a bachelor’s degree. I know that they want to have standards, but this immediately disqualifies many of the most competent and experienced teachers with whom I have worked without considering their merits.
In stark and bleak contrast, I have also had the “pleasure” of managing a number of fully-qualified teachers who fell woefully short in terms of motivational ability, personality or cultural awareness, yet they were entrusted with dragging the English language out of the Dark Ages in Thailand. It is akin to asking snakes to cut the grass.
It gets worse. If a teacher is a non-native English speaker, in addition to their degree, they must also have a TOEIC score of 550, an IELTS score of 5.5, or the equivalent from another internationally recognized testing service. The average minimum requirement of universities in the UK, Australia or New Zealand to STUDY a course in English is IELTS 6.5. How can someone with lower-intermediate English proficiency who happens to have a degree that they acquired in a different language be considered a better English teacher than a native speaker? Of course, some native-English speakers can’t teach and some non-native English speakers make great English teachers. This just further emphasises that the only way to solve this is to have a way of evaluating individuals on their teaching ability, but I can’t see this happening because the Ministry of Education would just come up with a redundant grammar test if they did anything at all.
Unfortunately in Thai culture, having a degree or other qualification carries far more weight than proven ability. It doesn’t seem to matter how it was acquired or whether it was merited. It is a classic case of the form over substance mentality that prevails in Thai culture. For example, Thai students at the language school where I was manager would occasionally try to negotiate their level after a placement interview. Instead of trusting the placement and being concerned with developing their proficiency, they would ask to be placed at a higher level for no other reason than level 3 sounded better than level 2 to them. It didn’t matter that they could not yet function appropriately at level 2 as long as they could say they were level 3. Even when it was explained to them that level 3 would be too difficult for them and it would affect their progress and motivation, which in turn would mean that they were wasting both time and money, I might as well have been telling the sun to try rising in the west for a change. This was in complete contrast to European or Japanese students who wouldn’t care what level they were as long as we developed their proficiency. I know when I was first learning Thai, I asked my teacher if I could go back and review a chapter. She couldn’t understand why I would want to do that when I had already finished it, even though I hadn’t assimilated it.
Let’s go back to Thailand’s rote learning system and look at how it affects the assimilation of other subjects. When I was in high school in England, one of my favourite subjects was history because I enjoyed hearing about how important events and people changed the course of history. We would analyse these lessons to see what we had learned and how they affected the present. It was, to me, fascinating and stimulating. In contrast, I hated maths because it just seemed too inflexible and boring.
Having conducted proficiency interviews with thousands of Thai students, I know that history is one of the least favourite subjects in Thailand and this is simply because of the way it is taught. The students are simply expected to memorise names and dates without actually attaching any significance to them. There is no wonder they find this boring. In contrast, maths is a popular subject. Indeed, when I was first teaching English, the number of students I had who were accountants led me to believe that Thailand was a nation of bean counters. Why is maths so popular? Well, instead of rote learning names, words or dates, maths offers the students a relative degree of academic freedom because they can learn formulas and experiment with them. In an environment where everything else is so rigid, this is their chance to express themselves.
The next point to consider about the Thai education system is the over emphasis on test and exam scores. Exams should be a necessary evil interrupting the serious business of learning, but in Thailand, they are the be-all and end-all. Everything is geared towards them. Students swot relentlessly before exams as they try to memorise as many grammar rules, dates and names as possible. Consequently, students study to pass a test and not to learn.
Passive tests like TOEIC and the old CBT TOEFL were popular with Thai students because they replicated what they were used to in class. In the language school where I was working at the time, there was a rush to prepare for TOEFL tests before it changed to the iBT TOEFL with its integrated skills approach simply because it was a move away from how Thais had studied English in school – passively and with a focus on grammar.
Thailand’s two leading universities, Thammasat and Chulalungkorn, have their own English proficiency tests, TU-GET and CU-TEP, which are nothing but grammar identification tests and serve absolutely no useful purpose in terms of evaluating whether a student has the interactive proficiency to be able to study a particular course if it is taught in English.
With a system where the focus is on the final exam rather than the course work, other negative consequences are inevitable. The culture of cheating is almost pathological in Thailand. When I was an Instructional Manager, I used to conduct mock IELTS tests for both placement and diagnostic purposes. On one occasion, I was forced to leave three friends alone to do the listening section. I sat them as far away from each other as I could and explained to them that it was not important that they got a good score, but very important that we saw where their individual strengths and weaknesses were so that we could tailor the course to suit their needs. They were university students and should have been trustworthy.
When I returned to check on them 10 minutes later, they were all gathered round copying their answers. Again I explained the counter-productiveness of copying as this wasn’t a real test and that it would be better for them if we saw where they needed our help. There was absolutely no logic or benefit to their cheating. Once more I separated them and left them only to return 10 minutes later and find them cheating again. What can you do when you are up against this kind of ingrained mindset? Sadly, this is by no means an isolated case.
All of this is irrelevant anyway, because it is commonly known and regularly reported by teachers that no student is allowed to fail, whether they be a diligent book worm, an exam cheat or an idle layabout. In fact, the honest, hard-working students often end up with the lowest grades for the simple reason that their scores are a true reflection on the state of the education system in Thailand; whereas, cheats really do prosper here.
If a student is caught cheating, their “punishment” is to sit the same exam as many times as necessary until they get the desired score. It makes a mockery of education and places sole emphasis on rote learning over accumulative and analytical knowledge. Worse still, it does nothing to discourage cheating.
The fact that it is so blatant and everyone gets away with it can only discourage genuine study and be detrimental to the nation’s development. It becomes so ingrained in the psyche that a whole society is built on the idea of looking for short-cuts and easy options. If that doesn’t work, bribe someone.
We have to take all of this into consideration when we decide how we are going to teach Thais. Despite of or perhaps because of all this, Thais love to have fun, even at work or when studying. It is important with most students to win them over early on. If they think that training is going to be too serious, they will mentally switch off, turn up late, skip classes and make minimal progress. The result of this is that Thais will be more productive and learn more effectively if they enjoy the course and have a rapport with the teacher. This is deeply ingrained into their culture, and we aren’t going to change it in one course. In fact, why should we want to change it? We should be flexible enough to adapt the way we teach to our students’ learning styles.
Don’t we want to have fun while we are teaching, too? Don’t expect to “teach” anything on the first day of a course. This is the time to confirm needs, explain how you will fulfill those needs, set a tone, build a rapport and ease the students into the course.
Use games, pair-work, group-work, competitions and activities as much as possible to keep the lessons lively and fun.
The final factor to consider concerns losing face. Thai students won’t admit that they don’t know or didn’t understand something. Therefore, you should never ask closed questions such as “Do you understand?” or “Do you have any questions?” because even if they didn’t understand or they do have questions, they will not risk losing face by admitting as such. It is, therefore, vital that you gauge assimilation regularly by keeping the training interactive and having the students demonstrate or at least summarise what they have learned.
If you want to be a successful teacher of Thais, steer away from boring lectures, grammar explanations and tests. Make your classes interactive and fun. If you do, you will find that not only do your students enjoy your classes, but they also learn from them.