This seems to be the initial concern for anyone curious about teaching English in Thailand, or teaching any foreign language anywhere for that matter. I get this question a lot from people back home that ask me about my job. For most people, it seems obvious that if you are teaching a second language to people, you need to be able to speak their language so you can translate your own. Makes sense right? Not entirely. There is a lot to be answered about this. The short answer to this question is NO, but it’s not really that simple. I will cover this in detail in this article.
Why You SHOULD NOT Speak Thai in the Classroom…
There are some people who claim that it is 100% unnecessary to speak both languages because it hinders your teaching ability and the students’ understanding. Why? Because the students are supposed to be learning English so they should be immersed in an English-speaking environment. Some teachers enforce a rule that students can only speak English in the classroom (I don’t do this because my students’ levels are just too low so I do allow them to chat in Thai amongst each other.).
But as a teacher, what message are you sending by speaking Thai? You are telling the students that it’s ok to converse with you in Thai, to ask instructions in Thai, and worst of all, the mix English and Thai to a point where they won’t be speaking properly, a language some refer to as “Thaiglish”. Thaiglish is understandable, but it lacks English fundamentals. An example of spoken Thaiglish would be something like “I go to mall shopping to get shoe”. There is no verb tense, no articles, and no use of the plural form of the noun. These three errors are extremely common for Thai learners because their language lack these characteristics so they try to translate it directly. You will probably develop a keen ear for Thaiglish and perhaps use it yourself on occasions. Try to avoid it. It only reinforces incorrect English usage.
Sometimes, there aren’t direct translations and if you try to translate every word you misconstrue the language. For example, when you learn the word “moo” for “pig”, you are learning that “moo” means “pig” which means the “chubby pink animal”. That’s a three-step process. It’s better if you just know the words inherently and immediately without taking the extra step. When you see a “moo” or hear the word “moo”, you should immediately think of the “chubby pink animal”, not the actual words, but the image of the animal. Sometimes translations are just totally wrong. Sometimes I ask what they think a word means when they translate it and they say something different from what it actually means. Some words have multiple contexts that can be left out when trying to translate them directly.
Why you SHOULD speak Thai in the Classroom…
My personal opinion is that you should speak English 90% of the time for the above reasons. When and why should you speak Thai? For classroom management and instructions. This isn’t something that should become a habit, but it can be extremely helpful with students who are low-level or when some students just aren’t paying attention.
For instance, whenever I walk past a Thai classroom and I hear the Thai teacher say “ngiap!” the entire class shuts up. Why? Because they know 100% that it means quiet and it registers quickly in their brain. They hear it and they know what it means right away. They don’t have to think about it. On the contrary, when I say “quiet!” in English, maybe 40% of the class registers the command, but if I say “ngiap!” I usually get 90% of the class to be quiet. It’s not that they don’t understand some English commands, but it just registers better when you say some things in Thai and makes things go more smoothly. Another time when it’s useful is for telling them to listen. You can say “fang!” in Thai and get their attention much faster than saying “listen!”. I think it’s best to say it in English first, and depending on the English-level or how well they are paying attention, say it again in Thai to register the command with the stragglers.
Last but not least, it can be helpful to know what THEY are saying. Maybe they don’t feel well and they need to go to the nurse (pom/chan mai sabaaii kap/ka). For this scenario, you will usually have a Thai teacher in the classroom who they can go to when they have a problem like this, but they aren’t always in the classroom so it could come in handy. Maybe they think the lesson is boring (bua) or hopefully fun (sanuuk). It can also be a sly way of eavesdropping on them when and if they are talking smack about you or bullying other students. For this to work, you mustn’t reveal how much Thai you actually know. Keep it on the low.
So, the answer to the question “Do I need to speak Thai to be an English teacher in Thailand?” is NO and YES, MAYBE A LITTLE depending on the level of your students or the current situation. If you cannot speak any Thai and have no interest in learning it, you won’t have a problem teaching English. It is not important and like I said earlier it can be a hindrance if it’s overused. All of this is going to depend on your personal teaching style obviously. Maybe you want the entire lesson to be structured as a game (something I do sometimes as it helps with attention and participation) or maybe you want to make some of the stages longer or shorter. It’s up to you to figure out what works best for you and your class. But remember you are NOT a translator, you are a modeler of the English language; so do not worry about speaking Thai. Even with the low level classes, you should wean yourself off of using classroom commands in Thai and eventually try to get your class used to a 100% English speaking environment. If they want translations, they should have a dictionary. It’s way better than you explaining the word for 10 minutes in Thaiglish while miming and dancing around. Good luck and remember to have fun because you are a guest in this country and aren’t expected to change the face of Thai education or be some superman teacher.