Although I am missing a language training this week (provided by Peace Corps in Hua Hin to support volunteers with our Thai), I wanted to share some reflections about language and the interesting connections I’ve seen between language and culture.
Language is a way to discover cultural values. For instance:
- Thai does not have verb tenses, just a word or two added to the context of a sentence to indicate the time – this seems to reflect the Thai people’s relaxed view of time (they are unconcerned with punctuality or planning ahead of time) and the Buddhist tradition of being present more than speaking of the future or past.
- Also, one word that exemplifies Thai people is “naam-jai” which means “water of the heart” and roughly translates to “generosity” – Thais value water, see it as a giving entity (a river is “me-naam” or “mother water”) and the heart as the seat of our experiences (many emotions have the word “jai” or “heart” attached to them).
- Thai people go by nicknames that are one syllable, having nothing to do with their real name, and are often shared by many others (communal). Thais will put a Pi or Non to start a name in order to indicate age (respect for elders) as well as kinship (everyone is family).
The inherent values I’ve seen in the English language that reflect at least American values are:
- an over complication and obsession with time (we have 11 different verb tenses)
- a sense of individual possession (possessive nouns)
- breaking the rules (often)
- diversity, incorporating components of many cultures (latin, modern romance languages, Germanic, Hindi, Sanskrit, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, Greek)
- continually growing and morphing with new words (an American value)
- attempting to dominate the world although it is not the biggest fish in the sea (3x as many people speak Chinese natively at 1.2 billion and 100 million more people speak Spanish than English, and yet while only 360 million people speak English natively, it is estimated that another half billion speak it as their second-language)
*to see cute mugshots of first graders and their nicknames, scroll to the end
I never wanted to be a classroom teacher. As I knew it would be, managing a classroom is HARD WORK.
The reason I accepted a volunteer position that spends most of its time in a classroom is twofold:
- I enjoy the coaching – my main goal is to empower the current Thai teachers with extra skills to improve their English teaching.
- I also enjoy language – exploring how best to learn a language and analyzing language at its most fundamental core.
One thing I am currently enjoying is implementing the basics of Phonics across all the grade levels. I even have my 9th graders learning Zoo phonics (letter name, letter sound and animal movement for each letter) and playing games creating CVC words (C=consonant and V=vowel). I am using a lot skills from the LIPS program I used at my former Educational Coaching position that are multi-sensory and used in speech therapy.
Consider for a moment, what these kids are expected to learn:
- In first grade, these students start to learn Thai
- 44 consonant symbols
- 13 vowels (which make about 26 vowel combinations)
- each letter has a name, sound and a special position (vowels may go over, under, to the left or to the right of a consonant)
- THEN these students are learning English
- 52 new symbols (capitals plus lowercase letters, the former of which they don’t understand the concept since there are no capitals in Thai)
- although we have 5 vowels letters, there are over 30 vowels combinations
- learn which letters match (“A” and “a” do not exactly look alike)
- each letter has a name, sound and with many “rule exceptions” to the latter
Needless to say, this is quite a challenging task compounded by the fact that the Thai teachers do not feel comfortable teaching the fundamentals of English, yet are given a curriculum that does a poor job of setting a foundation paired with standards that are morbidly unrealistic. Yes, children do have minds like sponges, but it’s difficult to soak up a foreign language when the content skips the basics and when your teachers are speaking in your native tongue.
I am lucky that even my counterpart in charge of teaching English from grades 4-9, is on board with starting from the basics. Below are my goals stated in a 2 year plan I must submit to the Peace Corps staff and the Thai government by the end of the month:
- Year 1, Term 1
- Phonics across all grade levels
- Teacher trainings
- Year 1, Term 2
- Conversational English at morning assemblies and school-wide participation
- Year 2, Term 1
- English leadership roles: Morning English News, English Theater Project
- Year 2, Term 2
- Reading program
- Thai Teachers training other Thai teachers