Caught in a 'primordial' English trap

Caught in a 'primordial' English trap

Many signs in Thailand also feature English translations which are usually inaccurate and confusing, reflecting a dire need to improve the country’s
Many signs in Thailand also feature English translations which are usually inaccurate and confusing, reflecting a dire need to improve the country’s English teaching. BANGKOK POST GRAPHICS

I'm not really surprised that Thailand was recently ranked 74th among non-native English speaking countries by Education First (EF), a Switzerland-based language school with branches worldwide.

This is because our style of teaching the English language has remained the same, yet we have always expected better results. I'll tell you why.

It was a hot summer day in the early 90s at the Grand Palace. The three of us were in our university uniform, worn to develop a sense of belonging and credibility. We were out looking for Caucasian-looking tourists who would be willing to spend 10 minutes talking to us.

In July this year, at a supermarket near home, I witnessed a group of university students -- all of them wearing uniforms -- trying to start a conversation with a foreigner. Then it all came back to me. The legendary Interview-a-Foreigner Assignment!

Bear in mind. These incidents are almost 30 years apart, but the similarity in the awkwardness is almost uncanny.

The students were extremely polite when asking to interview the foreigner, and the man, in turn, was willing to help but refused to appear in the video. Things were not going as planned. Neither side knew what was expected of them in this exchange.

The students froze. The foreigner didn't know what to do next, while I continued choosing my avocados.

I understood the whole scenario, but did not want to ruin it for them. And to be quite honest, I was enjoying this entire event one step removed.

This assignment is supposed to help students practise English. But does it?

Here's what I recall from a set of data that Rachanee Dersingh, from King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, and I used in a study a while ago.

Student: Can I interview you for my English project? Do you have five minutes?

Man: Sure. But let me keep an eye on my daughter.

Student: Where are you come from? (Of course …)

Man: I am from London, but now I live in Koh Samui.

Student: Is this your first time in Thailand?

Man: Ummm... No. I live here. Down South. We have a restaurant there.

Student: Do you like Thai food?

Man: Yes. Very much. That's why I opened a restaurant.

Student: How long do you plan to stay in Thailand?

Man: …

Of course, I do not in any way want to ridicule the students. If anything, as a teacher, I feel sad and wretched.

Last year, EF ranked Thailand 64th out of 88 countries, and this year the ranking dropped to 74th.

This is a representation of long-term lacklustre instruction and use of a primordial curriculum in our teaching of the English language.

The key to business is to keep ahead of the competition. In any given industry, competitors are always developing, boosting their strengths and tackling their weaknesses. A successful businessman knows his strategies must change with the times.

So, why do we think we can teach English the way we used to 30 years ago?

The education minister has reportedly brought back the recitation of multiplication tables and civic education. An obvious endorsement of rote-learning. Not to mention the idea of elite schools revealed earlier this month.

Things are not moving heavenwards for us teachers either.

Without a script, our students are lost. Without creativity, teachers continue recycling their lesson plans that never promise any meaningful knowledge.

Our students are kept from free-form learning because our teachers are not capable of teaching free-form. Insecure and incompetent teachers hold on tight to predictability. Asking them to change is a knotty conundrum.

I don't know about other fields, but English lessons are planned based on the ease of teaching. We worry about how we can assess what needs to be taught in 15 weeks, not how active, constructive and long-lasting the knowledge we impart is.

Change requires us to give up teaching material that will put students to sleep, humiliate them in certain situations, and become obsolete in the next five years. True, grammar plays a big part in language, but it needs to be taught in a more communicative way. After all, languages serve as a channel for the communication of thoughts and ideas.

In fact, I feel that many English teachers are unfaithful to their profession. As teachers, we all know the language well enough to express our thoughts fluently, and this accuracy comes from plenty of exposure, extensive and meaningful use of it, and real-life experience of it. So, why do teachers rely on the teaching of grammar and opt for close-ended questions and closed tests to assess their students?

They stick with recitation and memorising. Nothing more.

The English language should be taught as a life skill -- not as a prerequisite for a profession or for a pass grade.

There's a continuum of authenticity -- authentic, semi-authentic and pseudo-authentic -- when it comes to how real and communicative learning can be.

A language school in Brazil, Sao Paolo, teamed up with a California-based pizzeria to create a win-win take on customer service and language learning experience. When a customer in Los Angeles calls to order a pizza, they are connected to a student sitting in a classroom in Brazil.

The customer will first be given the choice of ordering directly with the pizzeria or having a fun chat with a Brazilian student.

There is plenty of scaffolding in the learning environment, which allows the students to feel safe, relaxed and willing to take risks. The instructors are there and the vocabulary used is pretty much controlled.

I'm not adopting a rose-tinted view of a privilege that only some downtown language schools can afford. But the idea is there.

And here's another if you want to go full-throttle.

A school in Almada, Portugal, launched a project based on the idea that classes have no boundaries. The students work on projects in all subjects, including English, during the semester. They simply work with, within and for the city they live in, by identifying problems, working in the field, talking with people and hunting for solutions.

Now that's what I call an authentic lesson!

Pattamawan Jimarkon Zilli is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Linguistics, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University.

Pattamawan Jimarkon Zilli

Thammasat University Assistant Professor

Pattamawan Jimarkon Zilli is an assistant professor in the Department of English, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University.

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