Saturday, February 22, 2020

Want to learn English? Buy a ticket at the cinema 

Nov 07. 2018
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Re: “As Thai English proficiency drops, a timely lesson from China”, Have Your Say, November 6.

Dirk Sumter makes a striking point with his anecdote about the Chinese translator who had taught herself English by reading the novels of Jane Austen.

I used to teach English at a Thai university. In one class I encountered a student, a Miss Wanwisa, whose spoken English approached native-speaker quality. She had been misplaced in an elementary speaking class, a common phenomenon at an institution that had fairly rigid requirements; ie, you had to go through the required sequence of English courses even if your English-language skills rivalled those of the late Sir Winston Churchill. 

I first became aware of Miss Wanwisa’s abilities in an early class on parts of the human body. I covered these from the head down, and when I got to the bottom/buttocks/derriere/posterior sector (demonstrating by wiggling my own well-padded bottom, to the appreciative laughter of the class), Miss Wanwisa raised her hand and inquired, “Can we say ‘butt’, ‘bum’ and ‘ass’?” 

“You can,” I replied, “but those terms are considered somewhat low class, and are not normally used in polite company.” I further advised the class that if they wanted to learn the names and functions of certain organs relating to reproductive and excretory activities, which were not covered in class, they should watch a few Eddie Murphy movies.

After class I asked Miss Wanwisa where she had learned her spoken English. Had she studied abroad? No, she had never ventured beyond Thailand’s sun-kissed shores. She watched English-language movies. By doing so, she had imbibed an impressive vocabulary of almost perfect American-accented English expressed in perfect grammar, if you discount a few of Eddie Murphy’s linguistic idiosyncrasies.

I should add that too many Thai students do not study English with the aim of communicating with foreigners who might conceivably have something interesting to say. Nor do they have the purpose of accessing the rich treasure trove of literature and culture available in English. They study it to pass tests, earn grades, fulfil academic requirements, and possibly get an English-related job after graduation. They know that if anybody has anything even remotely interesting to say, he’ll say it in Thai. And if any English-language book has any value, it will have been translated into Thai and probably made into a movie or video. 

So long as that mindset persists, English-language teaching in Thailand is going to have a fairly rocky road. 

S Tsow

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