Not Exactly the Spanish Inquisition
Folks, I am completely and utter harmless. Believe me, I am a pussy cat at heart; a real pushover. I am the easiest guy in the world to get along with, although my ex-wife might take issue with that! So, why do my Thai students quake with fear when I announce that today they will be taking their mid-term exam? This is a short oral examination kids, not the Spanish Inquisition! Our class is called English Conversation. It’s no surprise then than to pass this exam, my young “scholars” will actually have to open their little mouths and speak some English…not much, just a few complete sentences. Specifically they need to give me answers to some ridiculously easy questions. These answers must be in standard English…NOT “Tinglish”. That’s not too much to ask is it? By the look of horror on their faces, you would think that I had just asked them to recite one of Hamlet’s soliloquies, or attempt to prove one of Euclid’s theorems. But no, the questions I’m about to pose to them did not suddenly appear from a misty oracle, but have a much more mundane origin…that is to say their very own English notebooks! These are the very same notebooks that have been moldering in darkness since the beginning of the term.
I do actually check the notebooks of each student after every class, to see if they’ve copied down what I’ve written on the board. Woe be to any lazy students, because while I might simply tell them to stop day dreaming, copy the material from a friend and bring their notebook to my office, my Thai partner will simply whack whatever part of their anatomy is handy with a rather wicked looking stick! It really is a shame that this Thai application of “spare the rod and spoil the child” doesn’t have the least effect in motivating anyone to actually open the damned notebook and study what they have scribbled inside…and presumably learned. Actually most of my students do dutifully copy everything, and in much better handwriting than my own. The problem is that once inscribed into their notebooks , this “priceless knowledge”, is consigned to a kind of time capsule which is engraved with a stern admonition, Do Not Open Until the 22’nd Century! This, unlike other admonitions that these teenagers routinely receive during their adolescence (like don’t fool around with members of the opposite sex) is one that will be scrupulously obeyed. In a cartoon universe, opening a student’s notebook would be accompanied by creaks and moans, followed by moths fluttering from the ancient pages.
Needless to say, without having even glanced in their notebooks for the past few months, they indeed have good reason to be sweating bullets! They know that they are well and truly doomed. There will be no more fun and games, just the long slow walk to where their executioner awaits them. That is to say me, their smiling Ajarn, who amazingly is NOT wearing a black hood, but a colorful polo shirt and a smile. In mere moments they will have to put up or shut up. The later is more likely. These kids who among themselves simply cannot stop talking will be suddenly struck dumb. That is what many of my students do when “PUT TO THE QUESTION”. They just freeze up like a deer caught in the headlights of an 18-wheeler barreling down on them, ala Steven King. They haven’t the slightest recollection of having heard any of the things I’m now asking in a silky voice. I am talking about complete short and long term memory loss!
Lord give me strength! Inwardly I roll my eyes and strike a pose of patient supplication. How many times have we been over this material? I’ve lost count. Each week I attempt to spoon-feed these kids extremely small doses of English. Much of this is what they should have mastered back in Pratom 2-3. Each week we practice, again and again and again. For all the good it’s done, I might as well have been speaking to a lamppost. Hell, at least if the lamppost was a magical Narnian one I might actually get an answer from it!
Nice guy that I am, I do my best to smile and put the students at ease. “Relax” I murmur softly. “This exam is soooooo easy! You will have no problems with this.” And they of give me one of those looks that say. “Yeah right, that’s easy for you to say!” Yes, I can actually sympathize with the fact that learning a foreign language is not easy. Every word of Thai that I have mastered has been hard won indeed…but I have persevered. If I can learn their language, I fully expect them to learn mine! Hey, they’ve supposedly been studying English since Kindergarten! So quit your complaining and at least attempt to pay attention!
This term we’ve been learning simple dialogs for introductions and expressing thanks. Yes I know that they are corny, but sometimes I am corny. I’ve gone back to basics this term in hopes that someday my students will be able to pass their Mathiyom 3 National Test. Fail this puppy and its goodbye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out! Specifically the introductions are as follows:
1. Two people introduce themselves to each other.
Tom: “Hello, my name is Tom. What’s your name?”
Jack: “Hello Tom. My name is Jack. It’s nice to meet you.”
2. Two friends meet. One of them introduces a third friend.
Polly: “Hello Susie, I’d like you to meet my friend Tom.”
Susie: “Hi Tom. It’s nice to meet you.”
Tom: “Hi Susie. It’s nice to meet you too.”
3. A young person introduces a friend to an adult.
Tom: “Mom and Dad, I’d like you to meet my friend Polly.”
Dad/Mom: “We’re happy to meet you Polly”.
Polly: “I’m pleased to meet you Mr. and Mrs. Smith”.
4. An adult introduces one adult to another adult.
Mr. Smith: “Mr. Jones, I’d like to introduce you to Miss Johnson”.
Mr. Jones: “How do you do Miss Jones? It’s nice to meet you.”
Miss Johnson: “How do you do Mr. Jones? I’m please to meet you also.”
This is not rocket science. It’s pretty basic, straight forward English. By the way, once I taught the structure of these dialogs, I had the students use their own names. It was sooooo funny to watch boys and girls attempt to shake hands, or to interact in any way. The entire class would erupt with howls and cat-calls. I had to carefully explain that a hand extended in greeting should I be treated like a disease fish!
The thank you dialogs were:
1. You are sitting on a bus or train. You see that an old person is standing because there are no more seats. You offer your seat to this person.
Young person: “Excuse me, please sit here.”
Old person: “Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you”.
Young person: You’re welcome.
2. A friend brings you a gift.
Khun A : “Hello B , this is for you. I hope you like it”!
Khun B : Thank you very much A . This is wonderful”!
Khun B: “You’re welcome. It was my pleasure”!
3. Someone brings you something to eat.
Khun A: Here B, I’ve made you some Som Tam.
Khun B: Thanks A. It looks delicious!
Khun A: You’re welcome B. I hope you enjoy it!
4. Someone helps you with your homework.
Khun A: Thanks for helping me with my homework B. It was very nice of you.
Khun B: Think nothing of it! I was happy help you.
I believe in using any technique that works, so I brought in a large tin of cookies to use as a prop for # 3. Needless to say, I had no shortage of volunteers! Actually I distributed cookies to anyone who could successfully make it through any of the dialogs.
In addition to teaching these dialogs, I also taught the names of various articles of clothing, how to give directions using a map and the use of prepositions of place. (on, under, between,
next to etc.). On the very first day of class I had them practice the question words (what, which, when, how etc.) to answer that old favorite assignment, “What I Did on My Vacation.”
I had everyone work in groups practicing all of this, again and again and again. I also made myself available before school, during lunch break and after school for anyone who was either too shy to speak in public, or simply wanted my help.
Fast forward to a sunny December morning. I was in a jovial mood as I brought my first group of students into my office for their exam. My students were looking decidedly glum. Deer in the headlights. I struggled to extract a peep out of the lot. This was not an auspicious start. Many of them had no idea what I was talking about when I asked them to act out the scenario in which a friend brings them something to eat. For those who were incapable of uttering a sound I offered a life line. Just recite the lines from your notebook for half credit. Let me at least check your pronunciation. Many could not even locate the dialogs in their notebooks.
Okayyyyyyyy. Let’s move on to something visual. I brought out my trusty paper doll and asked them to tell me what she is wearing.
Yes I know that I’m obviously no Michelangelo, but little Dolly here does the trick.
Now for the prepositions of place I had this set-up: a box, a pig and a toy car.
Where is the pig? The pig is next to the car. Where is the car? The car is on the box. With these three props I could ask a variety of questions.
And for giving directions I hap a very simple map.
Tell me please, how do I go from the purple spot to the blue one? “Go straight ahead on Reading Road. Turn right on Lincoln Avenue. The blue spot is on the right.”
Now totally bewildered I asked them a few clinchers. What did you do on your vacation? My example to them was: “I went on a trip”. Where did you go? “I went to Pattaya.” How did you go? When did you go? Who did you go with? What did you do there?
That was it. Finis. Let me just record your pathetic grade in my notebook, then you can go back to sleep for the rest of the term. Actually although there were a fair number were in that failing category, an equally fair number breezed through without a hitch. It does help that I am an unbelievably generous grader. Small errors in grammar don’t bother me. I am more interested in my students understanding the general idea. Everything else can be smoothed out later. Attitude and effort means a lot to me. If you are trying, then you will do well in my class…or at least pass! It’s not fair to the talented students to award high grades to those who haven’t achieved as much as they did.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Some of my students will find the equivalent of candy canes in their stockings. Others will most definitely be receiving a lump of coal. In the meantime I am dreaming up new and more devious instruments of torture for January. Maybe I really do need that Acme Deluxe Rack or Iron Maiden. In the end, I’ll probably just settle with more Standard English. That’s probably enough torture for these teens. The Spanish Inquisition will have to wait for another day.
I really can relate to this…