Learning Thai

One of my new year’s resolutions is to make more of a concerted effort to learn Thai. With a very long day at work and weekends that Sean and I worship (exercise, great food, sleeping in, Skyping, yoga, etc.), there isn’t much time left over for Thai classes. Also, and this will sound silly, I have a very real fear that by adding Thai to my brain, all my Spanish will fall out! (As a psych major, I’m fully aware of the inaccuracy of this statement, but irrational fears are exactly that…irrational). So anyway, my other resolution is to keep up my Spanish by reading in Spanish and attending Bangkok Spanish Club meetings. Oh and I promised Sean and his cousins that I’d learn Portuguese before we all go to Brazil in 2014! OK, one thing at a time…

One way that I’ve been learning some Thai is by switching the teacher-student roles. My IP6 students are 32 very well-qualified bilingual Thai instructors. To take full advantage of this resource, my co-teachers and I designed an 8-week unit wherein our students teach us Thai words and phrases via presentations and skits. Each time we’re able to have “class” (when they’re not dancing, practicing a play, or learning how to cook), they create a page to be added to a sort of phrasebook. The pages include words in English, Thai, and in Thai spelled with phonetic English. For example, the word “January” would be written in English, in Thai (มกราคม), and like this: mo-kah-rah-khom. Some students are even creating little travel guides with their favorite places in Bangkok and throughout Thailand.

This has been so much fun. Also, I think it helps balance out the student-teacher authority dynamic. I do sometimes feel uncomfortable teaching Thai students in the dominant global language because it’s easy for bias to creep in. I believe that English teachers abroad (and at home) have an enormous responsibility to bring English superiority into question for themselves and to thereby teach it with an understanding that just because it is so prevalent, it’s no inherently better than other languages! My co-teachers and I hope to show that we value the Thai language by turning our students into teachers.

I’ve had to explain to the 6th-graders that we appreciate their patience and understanding as they teach us a language that is so fundamentally different from English. Our attempts to say Thai words and phrases are often absolutely hilarious and/or frustrating to the students who are all native Thai speakers. I’ve also have to explain that if I laugh when I’m trying to pronounce a Thai word, the laughter is not out of disrespect, but out of utter amazement at my brain and tongue’s inability to hear and reproduce sounds I’ve never encountered. Our Thai lessons are certainly an exercise in patience for learners and instructors alike!

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