Data Survey Part Two: Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell

Say it Like a Thai Would

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell…

This is part two discussing the survey data I compiled about Thai Studentz-From-Hell. If you haven’t read the first post, go to Data Survey Part One: Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell.

Below, where I talk about the data I’ve mined, I’m going to use some specific terms. I’ll use Westerners for people from the west and Asians for people from the east, okay? If I use the word students or foreigners, I’m talking about everyone learning Thai. Also, in an effort to be a kinder-gentler (not so blatantly racist) Tod Daniels, I’m not gonna use the term white people like I usually do. Honestly, I don’t like the hate mail it garners!

Btw: I’ve included a What can you do? section at the end of each category. That’s where I offer wisdom and information to hopefully help you overcome possible limitations in your learning Thai experience.

But before I get to the survey compilation, I just want to say this one thing.

The teaching Thai language to Westerners system is broken…

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers, but the system (method, text books, etc.) used in the teach Thai to non-native speakers (and Westerners especially) is badly broken. It has stagnated for years with schools popping up all over the city using nothing more than copied textbooks from the original Union Thai Language School. Sometimes the only difference is the cover of the book!

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I’m not saying the Union Method doesn’t work. Time and time again I’ve pointed out that their methodology turns out more proficient foreign speakers of Thai than any other method out there, period, end of story. Even the illustrious uni known as Chula teaches Thai that way. Sadly (for us learners of Thai) there’s been no total overhaul of the materials for years. The vocabulary is antiquated, the lessons don’t build on each other, and the advanced materials come from the Stone Age.

In saying that … I will speak up in the defence of several schools: Rak Thai Language and Duke Language especially. They took the tired material and re-worked it, putting it head and shoulders above the old stuff. But, it’s only a matter of time before contemporary Thai study material appears on the market. The new method will use the technology of today, in a way that revolutionises how Thai is taught. It’s coming soon. I know that for a fact. I’ve personally seen some of the material in the development stage.

What can you do? Unfortunately what’s out there is what’s out there and that’s that. So you’re either gonna use what’s available or you’re gonna come up with your own way to learn Thai. And that’s what some of the advice in this post is all about: Using what’s available in this day and time.

Finally, here we go!

Age and sex of students…

One of the most interesting things found in the data was that neither age nor sex seemed to play any role in a student’s ability to learn Thai. There was a good make-up of males and females and a broad age range of people from their early 20’s to their late 60’s (even older) of both Westerners and Asians. From what the teachers told me, age doesn’t affect anyone’s ability to learn the language at all. That at every school included in this data review, old people seemed to learn as easily as the younger students.

My personal experience: The b/s excuses you read on every forum concerning learning Thai where Westerners parrot out “I’m too old”, “I’m not good at languages”, “I can’t hear the tones”, blah-blah-blah were just plain and simple not represented in the feedback from teachers at ANY school.

What can you do? Stop using your advanced age and (supposed) inability to learn languages as excuses and start learning Thai already! And of course, if you are deaf, there’s obviously going to be a problem. But for the rest of you, get off your butts and ramp up your listening time!

Hemispherical origin (a polite way of saying ethnicity!)…

What started to come to light was, hands down, Asians (Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc) learned the Thai language far better than Westerners. ANY Westerners!

On further reflection of this conundrum, in the data I did come to a conclusion of sorts. Asians as a rule are less question driven in their education systems and lean more towards rote learning. Also, Asians accept any teaching methodology without question. But, due to our question driven education system, Westerners sometimes try to buck the methods (especially rote) that are often used here to teach Thai.

What can you do? Face it. If you aren’t Asian, you’re unlikely to be able to change your learning mindset overnight. So when you do go to take in the material presented, be as open-minded as you can. Try and adopt a less question driven strategy and go for rote. Go with the flow. If just for now.

Speaking multiple languages…

Another interesting point made was that the more languages a Westerner knows that use a Latin based alphabet, the harder it is for them to get Thai to click. Now, I know some of you will come out in force against this, but again, that’s what I got from talking to the teachers. I don’t know why the data shows this but it clearly did.

I do think it’s possible that studying a multitude of Latin languages gets in the way with learning Thai somehow. It’s not so bad in the early speak via karaoke part of learning Thai (like is taught in 99.99% of the schools) because they use transliteration (karaoke), which is mostly legible to English speakers. It only becomes an impediment when a Westerner makes the leap from learning to speak Thai via karaoke, to actually reading the Thai script. The teachers mentioned that at this point Westerners come off the rails, learning far slower than their Asian counterparts.

From my study, the best Western learners are those who only speak their mother tongue, or at most another language closely related to English. The best Asian learners mostly know their mother tongue, although they oftentimes possess fairly proficient English language skills too. Compared to Westerners knowing more than one Western language, Asians who knew other Asian languages didn’t have a problem.

What can you do? Perhaps you speak more than one language that uses the Latin alphabet, and good on you if you do. BUT, do note that learning the Thai script will take a slightly different mindset than what is needed for French, Spanish, Polish, etc. So when you do enter a classroom to learn Thai, be prepared ahead of time for differences. Don’t fight it.

Impediments to learning…

The anecdotal data I gleaned in the meetings with teachers hands down showed that there were two big impediments to Westerners learning Thai. One is that Westerners often over-sold or completely overestimated their ability in Thai. Meaning, they went into the school saying, “I’m not a beginner!” “I can read Thai already!” “I want Thai script only textbooks!” Yet when the teachers tested these students, turns out the students couldn’t speak or read Thai to the level needed to keep up in their chosen class. Asians, on the other hand, had no trouble admitting they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

Also, some Westerners were adamant that they weren’t beginner level students, to the point they became confrontational, even when they could see from the informal interview they were basic Thai speakers (and that, only when under spoon-fed conditions).

The Thai teachers said that even when they tried to sell beginner courses as a refresher/review, few Westerners would go for it. Conversely, Asian beginners of Thai bought right into the premise that you start learning things at the beginning, not partway thru. When Westerners forced schools to let them into the intermediate classes, they were left in the dust because they just didn’t have the foundation they should have. Rather than suck it up and admit the truth, more than a few Western students turned the blame away from themselves by putting down the methodology, the school, the teacher, and even other students.

What can you do? Obviously, don’t overestimate your ability in Thai, period. If you can’t keep up, face the truth. Instead of pretending, start on book one page one and don’t progress into the next level until you really get it. Because believe you me, you ain’t fooling anyone!

The second really big impediment was that Westerners, to a person, thought they knew how Thai should be taught to Westerners. It is true that as adults we are fairly locked into the way we acquire new information. Some people are visual learners, some are tactile learners, some are aural learners, and some use all those avenues to learn new stuff. And equally important, rote learning goes against the Western grain.

What can you do? Sometimes the rules just plain don’t apply and this is one of those times. Attempt to be open to how the information is being presented, even if you think it’s not the right way. Give it a chance, a real chance.

I’m NOT saying to sign up at the first Thai language school you wander into. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the teaching Thai as a second language system is broken, or at least in a terrible state of disrepair and neglect. What I am saying is be open to the methodology used at a particular school and see if it jibes enough with the way you learn things. Do your due diligence, but don’t discount a school’s methodology right outta the gate. Well, you can discount one school’s methodology as total b/s, but at least give the rest of the schools out there a decent chance. Because seriously, until the changes come, that’s all there is.

Education level…

In regards to Westerners and their ability to get Thai to click, education levels seem to play a VERY important role. The reverse doesn’t appear to be true for Asians because no matter what education Asians have acquired, they learn Thai just fine. The data shows that where Westerners are concerned it’s almost an inverse proportion. The more education a person from the West has had, the less they take to Thai as it’s taught in schools. Westerners with a high school education or a bachelor’s degree learn Thai far easier than those with a Master’s or PhD. It also appears that foreigners with a ‘teaching anything’ background have more difficulties with learning Thai via the methodology available in today’s marketplace, than Westerners with degrees in non-teaching fields.

My personal experience: On the topic of education and Westerners learning Thai I have to agree with the teacher’s perceptions. I’ve ran into more than my fair share of Westerners with a high level of edu-ma-cation. In talking to some (not all of course) it’s clear they think they know best on how Thai should be taught to Westerners. And rather than taking personal responsibility for their failures, that it’s possible to be their own worst enemy, they instead blame the school, the teacher, the methodology, other students, or any distraction they can think up on why they can’t learn Thai. They even meet with the teacher or manager of the school between classes to offer suggestions on how teachers can improve how they teach. They also whine and cry about this or that on breaks with other students. Now, it’s fine for students to commiserate with one another on the difficulty of learning Thai, because for one, it can build classroom cohesiveness. It’s just that this particular demographic of student has often tried many schools, all the while not learning Thai. These kinda people are the bouncers I mentioned in Part One of Studentz-From-Hell.

What can you do? As with the discussion about Impediments to Learning listed above, even if you think it’s not the right way to learn, be open to how the information is being presented. Give it a chance. Remember, if you aim to learn Thai in a classroom setting, what other choice do you have?

Group versus private…

I looked at the subject of private versus group lessons using the same methodology, but there just wasn’t a big enough sampling of annoying students in the private section. This is because at most schools, in private classes students can tailor the lessons to the way they learn. While in groups, students are dragged along with the rest of the class and are more likely to kick up a fuss.

What can you do? If you do find yourself failing in a classroom setting, then do give everyone a rest (yourself included) by signing up for one-on-one lessons. The solution can’t get simpler than that.

Thai teachers…

Another complaint from the Thai teachers (ALL of them) was that some foreigners think that the reason they weren’t learning Thai is the teacher’s fault. There certainly are marginal and even extremely poor Thai teachers out there. But clearly, not every single foreigner who fails to learn Thai can point their finger at their teacher’s lack of skills.

What can you do? If you gave it the old college try with a teacher and it just plain ain’t working, switch teachers or schools even! You’ll certainly find out right away if your problem was the teacher, or you. Either way, a change of scenery is better than sitting thru an entire module seething.

Class size…

One thing I tried to pin the teachers down on was class size versus efficacy in their methodology. This was a touchy subject, especially when talking to the owners of the schools. Most schools employ teachers on a fixed monthly salary so whether they’re teaching a handful of foreigners or a group of 15, the hard cost to the school is the same. It was no surprise to me that the owners thought there was nothing wrong with cramming in as many students as there were chairs in every classroom. Because face it, the more students per class, the more their profit margin.

The teachers, on the other hand, totally disagreed with this premise. It had nothing to do with what the teachers are being paid and everything to do with the pride they take having students become proficient in the language. They all said that the best size for a group of students (Westerners and Asians) was between six to eight people at most. Group lessons are conversation or dialog based and they incorporate practice with other students or with teachers, and large classes fall way short of the mark as far as having enough useful practice time for each student.

My personal experience: I have witnessed the detriment a large class size (more than 10 people) can be to students. There’s just not enough of the teacher to go around and they’re pulled six ways from Sunday. In those early levels of learning it is crucial that the teacher has adequate coverage to correct pronunciation and structural errors EVERY time! With too many students in a class they just can’t do it. The teachers also can’t effectively keep that many students on topic either, so it becomes more like herding cats than teaching Thai.

What can you do? If you enrol in a group class (especially an intensive one) and there’s more than seven or eight people in the class, bail out! DON’T waste your money and your time! March right up to the front desk and inform them you’ll wait until either a new class starts or the next term rolls around. Again, stand up for yourself in this regard because it’s way important early on.

In summary…

I’ve tried to present the information from the data and the feedback I got from the teachers as accurately as I could. However, as is my penchant to do, I did ride some of my hobby horses as far as what I think works acquiring the Thai language. I am nothing if not opinionated, and that my opinion differs from yours is fine by me. I had more fun going to the schools, interacting with the staff, getting this information than I’ve had here in Thailand in ages!

Remember, Tod Daniels is NOT affiliated with ANY Thai language school. I’m about learning Thai by whatever means works for you.

Good Luck,
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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