Why study English?

Or for that matter, why teach English as well?


The start of a new semester is a good time to ask ourselves, and more importantly our students, why study English? 

For most Thai students the answer is obvious: it's a requirement. They have no choice. They mechanically go to class everyday under the threat of discipline if they don't. English is not easy so this isn't exactly something they would do voluntarily. For many English teachers, especially foreign teachers, it's a job: a way to make money and keep their work visa current.

Word on the street (Khao San Road in this case) is that teaching English is relatively easy and it lets you continue living in Thailand. It's also one of the few jobs farrang can get here, so it's a no-brainer.  But seriously, why should Thai kids learn English and why should we teach them English? Unless we have cogent answers to these questions we risk letting ourselves and our students sink into 5 months of boredom and we'll start counting the weeks until the April break.

Last semester I came up with a list of ten reasons why Thai students should study English.  The top three reasons are worth mentioning now. The full list is on my website. I think this is something useful to tell your students in the first week of class, and maybe even something to tell yourself on a weekly basis. The dialog goes something like the following. You can add some theatrical emphasis where appropriate.

"Students, let me ask you:  why do we study English? English is not easy. So why do we do it?" (Expect blank stares at this point. They will sense something is out of the ordinary.)

"I will tell you three reasons why you should study English."

Pride

"Reason number three: You should study English to make your family proud.  Your parents and grandparents will be proud of you if you can speak English. Your younger brothers and sisters will look up to you. Everyone you meet for the rest of your life will have more respect for you if you can speak English. Your teachers, your friends, the monks, people at the market, people at the bank, taxi drivers, farmers, everyone in your village will respect you. And you will be proud of yourself for learning a difficult language. If you can speak English everyone will think you are an educated person.

Profit

"Reason number two: You should study English so you can make more money. For any job you have, for the rest of your life, you can make more money if you can speak English.  If you're a taxi driver you will be able to talk to farrang. If you're a farmer you can read the label on a bag of fertilizer. English can help you get a job at a bank or a hotel or a hospital. English can help you become a manager at a factory. You can make more money if you can speak English." (Pause for dramatic effect.)

Patriotism

"But now I will tell you the number one reason to study English: to make Thailand strong. If you love Thailand, you should learn how to speak English. We live in the 21st century. Thailand needs high technology to compete with other countries. There are strong countries all around us: South Korea is modern country. Samsung is in South Korea. Japan is a world leader in high technology. Toyota, Honda, Kawazaki, Yamaha, are all Japanese companies.

Singapore is number one in the whole world for education. China is a super-power with nuclear weapons and an active space program. Even Viet Nam and Laos are getting stronger every year. Where is Thailand? Where is the Thai space program?  Where is Thai education? Thailand 4.0 needs smart students. Thailand needs more people who can speak English."

By now your students will be giving you their full attention. Raise your voice and glare menacingly while you repeat the punch line.

"This is why we study English. We study English to make Thailand strong."

Proud to teach

There are similar reasons why anyone who teaches English in Thailand should be proud of what they're doing. Many of us had high-paying jobs back home, often in IT where we were paid $50 - $100 per hour. Many of us are world travelers with a sense of adventure. Our perspectives are global. By comparison, teaching basic English to a bunch of unruly Thai students can seem disappointing, not worthy of our skills or our intelligence.

By teaching English we're paying off our debt to the strange and magical country that's allowed us to stay here. We're helping the people who've welcomed us into their homes and in some cases their bedrooms. By teaching English we're no longer tourists. By teaching English we're doing something noble, something that our family and friends back home will respect.

Back home you were just a number

For some of us, myself included, every hour spent teaching English in a stuffy classroom is one of the few hours in our lives where we're building something with enduring value. If you've ever worked for a computer company you know that you can work your butt off, write the best code, design the best component, lead the most productive team, and in two years no one will remember your name. Your accomplishments will be obsolete in the next version.

You could be laid off simply because your stock underperformed and missed shareholders' expectations. Working for the computer industry is like building castles in the sand. When you teach English you are building something with enduring value. Even if it's only 10% of your students, you are making someone smarter. You are improving their lives and their country.

This is why we teach English. We teach English to make Thailand strong.


California Accent offers free training materials (courseware) which can be used to teach English to Thai students. These training materials are free for parents and teachers to use as long as they are not resold or used for commerical purposes. New materials are being added to this site every week as they are developed and tested by the author.


Comments

In my view the author touches on an important issue, which Steve's comment highlights. What goals and aspirations can students find in themselves, preferably with the support and encouragement of their teachers, for learning english? Or, if our own standards & values are going to be imposed on the students without consent, on what basis can we, realistically, expect to get 'buy-in' from them & support from our colleagues and bosses? I attended one of the most reputed TEFL training organisations & I suspect that its training & job materials are standard in the industry- even, perhaps, more professional than the 'standard' offerings. Yet, in its 17-page document specifying policies & procedures for foreign teachers, under the overarching purpose of 'achieving competent and sustainable English language skills for every student', there is no allusion to how learning goals might be formulated, worked towards and reviewed. 'Let them eat cake'?

By David Burrows, Chiang Mai (3 weeks, 6 days ago)

If Jack actually read my post, it was in no way "Thai bashing", it was in fact criticising the author of the article.

By Steve C, Bangkok (3 weeks, 6 days ago)

It didn't take long for Steve to make his typical Thai bashing response which had nothing to do with the article.

By Jack, close to home (4 weeks ago)

""Students, let me ask you: why do we study English? English is not easy. So why do we do it?" (Expect blank stares at this point. They will sense something is out of the ordinary.)

"I will tell you three reasons why you should study English.""

Make your mind up, you ask why they DO learn English and then answer with why they SHOULD. Do and should are not synonymous.

By Steve C, bangkok (4 weeks ago)

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