We Teach English Many Time Last Weeks

54 Commentsby   |  07.27.11  |  Chiang Mai, Thailand

I would venture to say that everything is going infinitely better even than when we first arrived because we’ve really adjusted to life here and have been able to make it more like home—at least for a little while, of course. The language is still a daunting challenge for all of us, but then again English is quite the struggle for most Thais. So we’ve all figured out how to better communicate with people in a mix of broken English and the occasional Thai phrase, since we’ve picked up quite a few in our last eight weeks of semi-immersion. Also, as a warning to our friends and family back home: we’ve become more accustomed to speaking simplified English even among ourselves, so be prepared for a lack of conjugated verbs and strings of very simple sentences. Expect phrases like this: “Yesterday, I buy some pineapple from the store.” Since there are no conjugations in Thai, saying things like “I bought” or “We taught,” produces in people who are just beginning to learn English those same blank stares we give when people ask us anything in Thai.

Speaking of English, we’ve been teaching quite a bit more lately, and as an English major, I think it’s fascinating. I’ve gotten to work with a range of English levels and have probably learned as much about English as my students have. Two of the students, Shell and Nam Fon (“rain”), speak very, very basic English. Let me say that again: very basic English. Similar to my level of Thai. So we’ve conjugated the verb “to be” as a starting point, then gone through things like basic greetings and adjectives, which they can use with “to be” and actually say quite a few things. Feeling accomplished is always a good sense when learning a language. But without a Thai-English dictionary and with only my charade skills at my disposal, it’s actually quite a challenge explaining what words like “embarrassed” or “lonely” mean. Or when I said, “Fantastic job today,” they thought I said “Atlantic,” and an inside joke was born. We’ve all laughed a lot and been very patient, and become friends who communicate mostly by laughing and smiling.

Then there are those like the three Chinese students who come to study vocabulary for the TOEFL exam. Melody, Celina, and Lohm usually come twice a week, and we go through a workbook that I’ve copied for them (see the previous post about the copy shop for more information about that). Yesterday we studied idioms. Strangely, I found that in defining idioms you often use other idioms, which produces the same blank stares and smiles. For instance: explain “that’ll teach you” without using phrases like “serves you right,” or “what a drag” without defining it as “that sucks.” Other idioms elicited some good laughs; after all, imagine not speaking English and hearing that we say “a little birdy told me” when we know someone’s secret, and “gesundheit” when someone sneezes. And I never did figure out how to explain “knock on wood.”

As much as we’re teaching English, we’re also of course learning a lot more Thai and learning 1) how it feels to not be in the dominant language group, which is a good perspective; and 2) how to communicate without language. So we can go like we did last Saturday and just spend an afternoon with children at an orphanage, which was fun for everyone I think. A little girl named Nuna held my hand nearly the entire time and became my friend for the day. If I may digress on a tangent for a moment: at one point, she led me into their bedroom area and through where the children eat—the rooms were dark and stuffy, and the beds were so close together you could hardly move. Thankfully they’re currently building a new facility, but I can’t imagine even one kid getting sick without all the others being sick, and with one hundred little kids and only about 15 adults, it was no wonder all the kids were just wanting to hold our hands and be close to us.

Anyway, we taught them the hokie pokie, and they (mostly the little girls) showed us some Thai dances and what we’d call “playground rhymes.” Then I pulled out my camera and all they wanted to do was take pictures with us, which was fun. But then it was time to leave, so with all the kids following us we got in the car and left–just like that, probably to never go back again. And we’re not the first to have done that, and I doubt we’ll be the last. So if you’ll allow me on a soapbox for just a minute, I think we all should be careful about how we approach things like missions and volunteering and understand that we’re creating relationships wherever we go—and be very aware and very cautious about how those interactions affect the other person, not just the rich farongs who have gone to have a new experience or whatnot.

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