A former backpacker is recruiting foreign volunteers
to teach English to rural Thai kids
Story by HEAMAKARN SRICHARATCHANYA
Pictures by YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
A team of local scholars from Pibulsongkram Rajabhat Institute's Office of Art and Culture play a crucial role in excavating and preserving the historical site. From left to right: Asst Prof Damrong Prasertkul, Prajerd Setthanyakarn and Krongsak Phummarin
How to help rural children learn English when some kids still think of foreigners as “red-haired ghosts” and run away when seeing one? Or when many students, despite several years of English classes, still avoid talking to foreigners?
SOME VOCABULARY HELP
to start something, such as an organization
a belief or an idea that is not based on correct information
closely connected; important for
willing to do something, especially something that involves hard work
more suitable than something else
the act of regularly changing one thing for another
to stop a possibly difficult situation from developing, especially by making people less angry or nervous
the rise and fall of the voice in speaking, especially as this affects the meaning of what is being said; siang wannayuk, in Thai
having little experience of the world
not wanting to do something
needing or wanting very much
Michael Anderson believes he has found the answer. In 2001, the American backpacker founded a small organisation to give rural students free English camps, so they could overcome their shyness and misconceptions.
“We cannot teach English in a few days,” said Anderson, 27. “But we can change the students’ attitude about the English language”
The camps, he said, enable rural children who otherwise have little chance to speak or interact with native speakers, to have that opportunity. “We want the students to feel that English is relevant to their life. That they can communicate in English so they will be motivated to speak and learn more English in the future.”
Based in Nakhon Ratchasima, Volunthai, short for Volunteers for Thailand, has brought over 100 foreign volunteers to Isaan schools, and taught over 30,000 students from Prathom 5 to Mathayom 6 in the northeast.
The camp runs about two to three days on the school’s premises. With help from six to eight volunteers, the camp can be held twice a week.
Once a tourist himself, Anderson said there are a lot of travellers who want to contribute to the country they are visiting. “I know there are a lot of young foreigners coming to Thailand who are willing to help, and there are a lot of Thai people who could use that help.
“I am just being a middle man bringing them together. The foreign visitors can help while seeing real Thai culture, while the country children can meet people and improve their English, which will help them have a better future,” he said.
To qualify as a volunteer, applicants must be able to join Volunthai for more than a month. They should also be curious about Thai culture and want to meet Thai people in a real situation, not as tourists, he said. College graduates aged between 20 to 30 are preferred, he added. However, they do not have to be English native speakers since the camp is not aimed at teaching English grammar.
Interestingly, the students tend to learn better from non-native speakers rather than a British or an American, he said. This is probably because native speakers, being able to speak naturally, do not know how to teach. But non-native speakers, having had the experience of learning English as a second language, know how to teach better, he said.
Heather Bateman, 22, from Britain who is backpacking around the world alone, said that she learned about the organisation from the Internet. She decided to do the volunteer work because she was not yet keen on going home to find a job in London. She has been with Volunthai for a month and has organised six camps already.
“The work is so rewarding,” she said. “We just play, dance and sing all day at the camps, yet the kids love what we are doing and they treat us like the stars. We get treated so well for doing so little — for speaking and spending time with them,” she said.
“Actually, we learn as much from them as they learn from us.”
The first thing each camp must do is an ice-breaking session, to melt the students’ shyness and fear of foreigners, she said. To do this, she tries to smile a lot and to speak slowly so they understand what she says and make the effort to talk to her.
“I have no doubt that what we are doing is really helping increase the children’s confidence in speaking with foreigners,” she said. “These children don’t get much of a chance to have a native speaker talk to them, and many of them have only met one or two foreigners in their life.”
She is right. Sarawut Roysunteer, a Mathayom 3 student at Ratchasima Witthayalai 2 School, Nakhon Ratchasima, said he used to be nervous when meeting foreigners and did not dare speak to them. “But I’ve gained more self-confidence from the camp,” he said.
After the ice-breaking, the children are divided into teams for a rotation of activities, which include English cheer songs, pronunciation, reading and writing activities and picture interpretation. These are the activities Anderson believes are most effective in teaching English to a big group of about 50 to 120 kids.
In pronunciation, American volunteer Charles Richter, 21, said many children find it hard to differentiate such sounds as “rice” and “lice” or to pronounce “the”. Many children, he said, are embarrassed when they are told to stick the tongue between the teeth to pronounce “th”. To defuse the embarrassment, he shows them how he has to struggle with Thai intonations — much to the students’ amusement.
“I want to show that it is not a bad thing to make a mistake, so they should not be shy to speak English,” he said.
Renata Osterwalder, 42, from Switzerland, said she was the only foreigner in the area when she was sent [by the programme] to a homestay and to teach class in Soeng Sang district, about 100 kilometres east of Nakhon Ratchasima.
There, she did four classes a day for three weeks, teaching English for students in Mathayom 1-3, whose parents are rice farmers. Her emphasis was on conversation, games and role playing, all of which help the students to comprehend the language, rather than focusing on grammar.
Teaching English to students in remote areas is quite different from teaching city kids, said Anderson, who began his voluntary career four years ago as an English teacher teaching students from Mathayom 1-6 at Phibun Mangsahan School in Ubon Ratchathani for one semester.
“It is harder to teach rural kids since they know so little about English and the volunteers know so little Thai,” said the founder, who is a graduate of the University of Texas, Austin, where he majored in Asian History.
“However, they are more pure and innocent because they are not raised on television or the Internet. The kids from the rice fields are very active, while most of the city students are quite reluctant since they think they are too cool for English camps or games.”
“I travelled here four years ago because I did not have a plan for my life after graduation, and I was almost desperate to make my family proud. But now, I have found what makes my life meaningful, so I will not stop doing it.”