Stickman Readers' Submissions May 4th, 2009

The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly on the Plain

My young students are hardly little Eliza Doolittles, and lord knows that I am no Professor Henry Higgins, and yet I find myself spending a good deal of time lately demystifying the pronunciation of the English language…and not only to my students, but to my Thai teaching partners as well.

This year I am teaching Anuban (kindergarten) full time. Last year I taught there one week per month. I must have made a good impression, since the teachers there insisted that I take up full time residence among them. That is fine with me, as I actually enjoy interacting with five years olds. Not only are they utterly guileless and completely honest in expressing an opinion, but their inquisitive minds have not been turned off to learning new things. In fact the opposite is true. They want to know everything about everything. Since they are so curious about the world around them, it takes little effort to excite them in the classroom. They also do not have to “unlearn” a whole lot. That certainly makes any teacher’s job easier.

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One of the cornerstones of my lessons is K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) not to mention short and of course fun. For 99% of these boys and girls, I am the first foreigner they have ever seen, let alone spoken with, so my first goal is simply to get them feeling comfortable with me. I do that by always keeping a big smile on my face and speaking with them in a kind and gentle manner. In a sense, these are the grandkids I don’t yet have, and hey everybody likes Grandpa, right? Kids have a highly sensitive bullshit detector. Believe me; they know who really likes them, and who is just shucking jive. They know that when I’m sitting with them on the floor and acting a little goofy, that I’m simply being myself. I suppose that’s why I’ve developed quite a “fan club”. Wherever I go around town, I’m constantly hearing my name called out….and with affection. This past week my family and I were shopping at Robinsons in Chiang Mai when I heard a sweet squeaky voice calling to me from halfway across the store. The next thing I knew one of my girls was running up to give me a big hug. Her mother, who was beaming, told me that her daughter enjoyed my classes. English is fun! Folks, is the big reward in teaching!

This year one of my goals has been to speak individually with each student as many times as possible. I want to make sure that they are hearing each word I say, slowly and clearly. I in turn want to hear them say every letter in every word clearly. While I don’t think high technology is necessary for learning in general, I often wish my school had a language lab. I think the students’ pronunciation would benefit from hearing each word through a pair of headphones. I would find it easier to make out what is often hidden in the softest of murmurs. In evaluating the ability of these children to pronounce English words, it has become apparent that I need to spend a lot of time using phonics drills. When I asked my kids how old they were, they say, “I am Fi year ol.” The “v” is not pronounced at all, the “s” is dropped from years and the “d” is dropped from old. Some English sounds rarely if at all are part of the Thai language. The “v” sound is one of them. “L” and “R” are often not easy to say. I can sympathize with their difficulty. I still cannot correctly make the Thai “ng” sound, which comes from somewhere halfway down the throat.

My solution is to make phonics an integral part of my teaching method. I have starting compiling charts of one, two, three and four letter syllables, using every combination I can think of. I plan to spend five minutes each class having my students repeat them. Hopefully these exercises will help them become more fluent.

Does anyone remember the scene in Singing in The Rain, where Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor go to see a speech therapist? If you do, then this little ditty should have you tapping your

"Moses supposes his toeses are roses,

But Moses supposes erroneously,

Moses he knowses his toeses aren't roses,

As Moses supposes his toeses to be!

Ah, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

So here is an example of one of my pronunciation drills.

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am an ap ar

bam ban bap bar

cam can cap car

dam dan dap dar

fam fan fap far

gam gan gap gar

ham han hap har

jam jan jap jar

lam lam lap lar

mam man map mar

nam nan nap nar

pam pan pap par

ram ran rap rar

sam san sap sar

tam tan tap tar

vam van vap var

wam wan wap war

yam yan yap yar

zam zan zap zar

Though not likely to be headed to the top of the pop charts, I think these kinds of exercises may help. I discussed my idea with the head of the English department. I was immediately flooded with requests from my Thai teaching partners to spend time each day with them to help improve their pronunciation. No problem! I’ll help you with your English. You help me with my Thai! There’s no doubt that I need all the help I can get!

What I propose doing is quite modest, and yet I am confident that regular practice will bear fruit. With a little luck I hope to send these children on to Pratom 1 (first grade) with the confidence and skills to succeed. I’ll keep all of you informed of my progress.

Stickman's thoughts:

You are a man of much patience to be able to teach those young ones!

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