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How Not to Get Yourself in Trouble When Teaching English in Thailand

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When you teach English as a Foreign Language in Thailand, you have to be careful how you pronounce things. Students who are not well-versed in English will misunderstand you very quickly, and it would be appalling to be responsible for someone learning such bad English that they sounded stupid.

In the past couple of months, I’ve had misunderstandings with several students who have been confused by what I’ve said.

Last week, one of my adult students had the funniest look on her face when I was talking about ‘Thai girls’ after I mentioned I had seen “many Western men in Thailand out walking with Thai girls”, a common sight here in Thailand. The look on this girl’s face told me she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

This surprised me as you’d have to be blind not to see these guys with their young Thai girlfriends.

So I asked her “Have you not seen them?” and she said, “No, I never see”. I then proceeded to describe what they looked like, using basic English vocabulary I hoped she would understand. As I described what I often saw, she suddenly got a look of absolute amazement on her face and started to giggle.

I asked, “Now do you understand?” and in fits of giggles she replied “Yes, now I know. Before I thought you said ‘Tigers’.”

Because I had run the words together, ‘Thai girls’ had become ‘Tigers’. No wonder the poor girl was bemused. She couldn’t for the life of her figure out where all these Western guys walking around with tigers were!

I’ve also had problems with students confusing the common used phrase ‘bear with me’. One student even frantically looking around the classroom for the bear that was with me.

And don’t even get me started on English phrases and idioms.

Last month, I spent at least ten minutes trying to get one of my students to understand the phrase “the apple of my eye”. No matter how much I explained and drew pictures, and gave examples of stories, he insisted again and again that no way did my eye have an apple.

Eventually another exasperated student shouted, “You’ll not ever be the apple of the teacher’s eye, you’re too stupid!”. Very surprising coming from a Thai, as they’re normally so very polite to each other.

Then of course there are the messes I get myself into by using a tone for an English word that makes that word sound like a Thai word. As Thai is a tonal language, that means the same word said with one of five different tones has five different meanings. So if you add a Thai tone to an English sounding word, boy, can you get yourself in trouble.

When I was a new teacher teaching 12 year olds, I made the mistake of asking the question “Ham is meat from which animal?” The class dissolved into snickerings and guffaws then two students said “Say again please!”, so I repeated the question. “Ham is meat from which animal?”

By this point, half the class was almost on the floor they were laughing so much, while I was left standing at the front of the class saying “What? What? What?”

One of them finally told me, because I had used the low tone for ‘Ham’ and pronounced it the British way, the word I had actually said was Thai slang for ‘penis’. Yes, 12 year olds do find that incredibly funny.

So the moral of the story is this. When you teach English as a Foreign Language in Thailand, speak slowly and clearly and try not to use tones that will get you in trouble.

Now when I say ‘Ham’ in Thailand, I always put on a fake American accent and make my tone higher. Because when you order a ‘ham sandwich’ you really don’t want that kind of surprise!