Present Tense, Future Perfect
Staying married is never easy at the best of times as everyone knows. Major cultural differences are an added problem but language can sometimes be the biggest one. How can you understand each other unless you share a near perfect knowledge of a common language.
My skill in Thai is limited so my wife, Cat has to do the hard work of bridging the linguistic gulf between us and she does it pretty well. As I describe in my book, “My Thai Girl and I”, she has far outstripped her English teachers at the village school and they are hugely impressed by her fluency.
Misunderstandings between us because of language happen rarely but when they do it’s usually because verb tenses in English are so horribly complex. We have twelve tenses with labyrinthine rules which overwhelms most Thais as the Thai language has no tenses at all.
‘He has a nice car.’ Present tense. ‘He has bought a new car.’ Perfect tense.
‘Will he have bought a new car?’ That’s ‘future perfect’… if I remember correctly!
‘Mama go market,’ says Cat to me as she shoots out of the door.
‘You mean she’s going to go or she’s gone?’ I ask insistently as I run after her.
‘I tell you already!’ says Cat. ‘You farang talk too mutt!’
We farang always talk too much but while the present’s tense, if I improved my Thai or Cat her English, the future could be perfect.
With Cat transcending her teachers despite their Masters degrees in English, why is English proficiency so poor in Thailand?
I once met a senior teacher and the only thing he managed to say when proffering a chair was, ‘Siddow pree’. From then on he said nothing and Cat had to act as our interpreter.
Peter tells me of a local head teacher who got funds to build a library and so built himself a private office. On the outside of the door is a sliding notice which he changes as he goes in and out. Despite protests from his colleagues, it says, ‘Is’ and ‘No Is’!
At another school we visited, nicely painted as an English language display hanging along the passage way are the words ‘postman’, ‘foot’, ‘brather’ and ‘annona’.
I’ve done a fair bit of voluntary teaching and helped many a child with their homework round here in our village in Surin and they do seem to find English terribly difficult. I accept that they just wanted me to do their homework for them and weren’t interested in learning anything… that’s normal. But what’s less explicable is that the exercises set for the homework were always several years ahead of the actual achievement level of the children.
I’m sure I wasn’t coaching dummies… they were simply floundering in water that had been made much too deep for them. No doubt the teacher was storming ahead through the book at a set pace and couldn’t slow down as this would be an admission of failure to achieve. As a result the kids were totally dispirited.
Yes, English with its many linguistic derivations, Greek, Latin, Germanic and so on is immensely rich and complex and it’s also liberally garnished with modern idioms which makes it even more difficult.
Thus a ‘makeover’ is a made up word about makeup. We chop down a tree before we chop it up. When the fire alarm comes on we say it goes off. Then we wind up a clock to get it started but wind up a company to close it down. Quite a few means many.
‘You didn’t like it?’ The answer, ‘no’ (unlike in Thai) means ‘yes’. The confusions thus are never ending.
Even worse, the Thais have insuperable problems with pronunciation. ‘Rice’, ‘house’, ‘horse’, ‘fish’ and ‘snake’ are impossible for many of them. ‘The sa-nake wen-t into the how to ea-t rai.’
Chinese speakers too have similar problems with sound clusters and word endings but when I went there as one of the first foreign visitors in 1987 shortly after the Cultural Revolution our guides spoke ponderous but fluent English. They had never met a foreigner of any sort before and had learned solely from books and listening to radio broadcasts.
I’m also intrigued that in Cambodia the level of English encountered in the street is far better than in Thailand. The little girls selling postcards at Angkor Wat chat happily and are totally at ease in the English language. No, they didn’t learn it at school… they’re too poor to go to school, they told me. Talking about this to a Japanese man I met, he then spoke to one of them in Japanese and she responded fluently.
The more needy you are, the cleverer you have to be? No I don’t think that explains it. Plenty of Thais desperately need a leg-up into a better job through competence in English.
Another example… in Phnom Penh the motorbike taxi driver who picked me up at the frenetic central market when I got back from Kampot elicited my whole life history from me as we rushed through the traffic jams back to Maria’s place. It was as smooth a PR job to get himself some more work as you could imagine.
In Malaysia or Singapore, even up country in Nigeria, people speak good English. Thailand did well to avoid being colonized but now has much ground to make up in the language stakes. It’s a weak excuse though because Cambodia was colonized by the French and Indonesia by the Dutch, yet the standard of English there seems higher despite their economies being less developed.
So what’s the big problem in Thailand?
Even though good English opens the door to many a job, is there a cultural resistance to absorbing something so foreign? Could it be that English is an Everest too high? It’s easy enough to learn a few words but is functional English just too difficult?
Thai kids often have an unspoken portfolio of words but it seems to be limited to ‘door’, ‘table’, ‘book’, ‘aeroplane’, and so on. It’s never ‘a book’, ‘an aeroplane’ or ‘the cars’. Thai has no articles or plurals and they just don’t seem to get the idea.
In my amateur teaching I’ve often tried drilling standard questions.
‘What’s this?’ Answer… ‘It’s a car.’ Over weeks of repetition, this simple response still seemed so desperately difficult. ‘What colour is it?’ ‘It’s a red,’ they’d reply.
And speaking is just so embarrassing! Many Thais even in upmarket shops seem paralysed by shyness at the prospect of actually uttering something in English to a foreigner.
Until I hit sixty and had free eye tests in England, I used to go into ‘Beautiful Optical’, a big opticians in Sukhumvit, the tourist epicenter of Bangkok. It looked as if they hadn’t had a customer since I was there last year and they rush to throw open the door as I approach. Milky white beauty queens all of them, they surround me as they edge me towards the desk, wai-ing humbly and smiling anxiously.
I produce my broken glasses.
‘I’m from Surin and an elephant trod on my specs,’ I say jovially. They nod in solemn incomprehension.
One of them tests my eyes which takes about a minute. Another helps me choose a frame. Yet another sits me down and measures my nose. Then they sit me on a couch and, plying me with salty orange juice, haggle hard, knocking off percentages and decimating the price with a small calculator until at last I smile. I wasn’t haggling anyway but the price has been brutally cut without a word being spoken.
They’re sweet and embarrassed as if I’m the only farang who’s ever come their way. The deal done, they all try to open the door for me and wai at the same time. It’s raining as I plunge outside into the heat and I nearly slip and break my new glasses on the slippery tiles of the sidewalk.
In many places where you might expect a reasonable level of English, you’ll often be disappointed. I use a branch of a major bank in Sukhumvit nearby and nobody seems to speak a word of English. Instead they huddle in a corner and look down uncomfortably whenever a farang walks in. The other day the ATM outside wouldn’t do a money transfer for me and I had to go in to ask for their help. The girl was all smiles and came to the ATM and wordlessly explained what I didn’t understand. The ATM screen said, ‘Insert number of bill’ which was supposed to mean, ‘Enter the amount to be transferred’. Couldn’t a major bank do better than that?
In the sixties, Japanese English was a joke but then they got their act together so as to sell more of their stuff. Thailand’s commercial world hasn’t got there yet though.
Governments have been well aware of the extent of the problem and that the obvious answer is better English teaching in schools. There’s often talk of recruiting more native speaking teachers with better qualifications, but then they’re reluctant to pay them properly. Salaries are extremely low and the visa hassles that applicants are put through are calculated to deter the most determined applicant. Why would any decent foreign teacher bother with all that?
In reality there can be no quick fix and any real improvement in overall standards will take a generation at least. First you need an army of teachers who can actually speak English and until these have been trained and put in post, there’ll be little if any improvement. That’s probably where resources should be focused… in the teacher training colleges.
Meanwhile Cat and I are absorbing each other’s languages slowly but surely. As we get to understand each other better, most of the tensions are way back in the past.
Past tense yes, but have we made the present perfect?
Maybe not yet awhile, though is there ever such a thing in life anyway?
I’ll have to check my English grammar book.
So now you know how English teachers feel. I would suggest that the reason that Thais generally don't speak English that well has nothing to do with the complexities of the language but rather to do with their attitudes towards learning and taking responsibility for their own learning.