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Word scraps

Building a working vocabulary

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As teachers, I believe it is important that we also experience the joys and frustrations that come with learning a new language. With this in mind, I usually share some of my experiences with students when they seem to be frustrated or unhappy with their lack of progress or motivation to continue.

Personal experiences

When I first arrived in Tokyo, I wanted to learn Japanese. I remember the first night that I went out with some colleagues. I had a small phrase book with me, but I found that I could not find the right section quickly enough to do anything.

All through the evening, every time someone called out, "Sumimasen", a waiter would come over. So, I carefully wrote down: sumimasen = waiter. It worked fine that night and even the next morning. However, as I was standing in a crowded train, someone said, "Sumimasen" as he tried to pass through. No waiters around, so I immediately knew I had made a mistake. Sumimasen = excuse me.

Students enjoy their class at Lertlah School Kanchanapisek Road. In a second-language class, teachers might share their own experiences in learning a second language to motivate students and to reduce the tension in the classroom. PURICH TRIVITAYAKHUN

I remember one word, "nami", which I learned the second week I was in Tokyo. I would walk into a certain type of restaurant, sit down and say "nami", and a bowl of rice, covered with a beef and onion stew, would be delivered to me. Great stuff! It wasn't until almost two years later that I learned "nami" meant "medium" and not "beef bowl". Fortunately, it didn't matter.

Learning German was different. In Austria, it is quite normal at the end of an evening of drinking and eating to explain to the server what you had had. "Ich habe ...", and so forth. However, the challenge was listening to the price.

Tips are usually given at the time that you pay, usually by taking the price given and rounding it up to the nearest large round figure. I learned very quickly to count in German, listen for the numbers and then add a tip on top, and then let the server know the new total. All in about five seconds!

Here in Bangkok, I speak "taxi Thai", which uses phrases like "turn left", "turn right", "veer right', "stop here", "go to ...", and so forth. This is really survival Thai, as I use taxis all the time. One word I have great fun with in Bangkok is "salueng", as in "nueng salueng" (25 satang, or a quarter of a baht). I try to use it all the time, and I find that the smiles and laughs I get are well worth the effort to have learned it and to use it.

Individual needs

Each person will have his or her own list of important phrases or sentences based on personal needs. Someone allergic to shrimp will probably know how to say "no shrimp" in every language of a country he or she has visited. I know how to ask for coffee and/or a beer in about 10 languages, such are my priorities.

One idea I have seen many friends use is having a small book with you to write down anything useful you hear. Going back to the book and trying to use these words or phrases can be a lot of fun, or it can save you from problems.

I have a friend in town, for example, who cannot eat wheat flour. I can imagine she knows how to say wheat flour in the language of every country she has visited. It may not be as useful as knowing how to say beer, but it is certainly more important (to her).

In sharing stories like these from your own personal experiences, students get to know more about you as a person, which I consider very important, and they also come to understand that you have undergone many of the same experiences, both pleasant and not so pleasant, that they might be encountering right now.

Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through thaiednet.org , through his website speechwork.co.th , at

tim@speechwork.co.th or on 081-834-8982.


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