Professor Henry Higgins Ain’t Got Nothing On Me!
Every once in a while we may be lucky enough to have an epiphany, a sudden realization, when everything becomes crystal clear. After having such an earth shaking experience, it’s hard to see things in their former light. That’s not to say that all such experiences have to do with Life, The Universe, and Everything. Nope, not by a long shot. There are plenty of utterly mundane illuminations to be had, such as: “Why should I drink Grey Goose vodka, when I can’t tell the difference between the most expensive liquor on the planet and the cheapest rot-gut?” You may be able to tell the difference. I sure can’t!
Coming of age in the 1960’s, I had more than a few eye openers. “Free Love” is a good thing…a VERY good thing. War is not so good. And of course… psychedelic drugs will change your world in ways you can’t imagine. Oh yes indeed! All hail Timothy Leary! Wow, talk about opening the Doors of Perception! Alternate Realities? Cosmic Revelations? Mere hallucinations? Does it matter? All I knew was that I wasn’t in Kansas any more Toto, and that life would never be quite the same again. I was definitely on The Yellow Brick Road to parts unknown.
I won’t bore you with the details of the next 30 years. Suffice it to say that it all wound up bringing me here to these jasmine-scented shores. It’s impossible to live in Thailand without having a revelation or two. I had a new one just this week, which while not life altering, sure did manage to shake up an assumption I had been harboring.
Here’s what happened. I was (once again) attempting to guide a class of Pratom 1 students through some phonics drills…very simple ones. Hell, you can’t get much simpler than a stinking two or three letter syllable! Looking out at a sea of uncomprehending faces, I saw that it was as if I were asking them to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. I mean they just did not even begin to understand what I was asking them to do.
Think it’s easy? Hey, you try to explain anything to 50 plus noisy children, who seem to either be suffering from Attention Deficit Syndrome…or alternately be on the mother of all sugar rushes! Do you know that young kids can actually bounce off walls? Most of them are actually good kids, but have never been taught how to behave in a classroom.
It certainly would have been easier if I had had a genuine Thai teaching assistant. Instead, my school figured that it was good enough to send over an occasional office worker to “help out”. Does the phrase “as useful as tits on a bull” ring a familiar note? It’s a damned good thing I have the patience of Job.
So, here I am once again writing a three letter word on the board. JAM, “Jam” I say crisply and clearly above the din of the menagerie. I may not have too many talents, but I can enunciate up a storm. Professor Henry Higgins has nothing on me! “Jam!” my young scholars shout back. Not exactly in unison, but what the hell, I’ll take whatever response I can get. Okay, that was the easy part. They can reproduce the sound of jam. The problem is that they are incapable of reading the word. They simply didn’t know how to decode it.
That’s no big surprise since these kids only recently learned the Thai alphabet. By alphabet, I’m referring to the 44 Thai consonants. There are so many vowels that just looking at a list of them would make your head spin. It makes my head spin! It is amazing that they have managed to learn the comparatively small (but nonetheless still daunting) English alphabet. By the end of kindergarten these guys can repeat the letters and to write them. That is quite a feat. How many of you can write a single Thai letter. Okay, you might recognize บาท (baht), since you see that word everywhere you turn your head.
Returning to the blackboard I point once more to JAM. Let’s break it down to three individual letters, and then reconstruct the word. “What is the sound of the letter J” I ask. Silence. Well not actually silence. The kids are still jabbering up a storm with their neighbors. But no one seemed to know the answer. “How about the letter A?” “What about M?” Nada, zip, zero.
Cue the 100 watt light bulb in S2000’s pea sized brain. Are we ready for a revelation? These kids can recite the alphabet. They can sing a rousing rendition of the ABC song. Most of them can write the letters, if only in a six year old’s shaky handwriting. Somehow though their teachers never taught them the sound that each letter makes! Once again, I had made what I refer to as The Presumptuous Assumption. You would think that at this point in my life that I wouldn’t assume anything, but alas, I continue to fall into this pit more times than I can count.
Obviously it was time to throw out my ambitious lesson plan and humbly return to “square one”. That meant going through the alphabet letter by letter. Okay, let’s begin with the letter ‘A’.
In Anuban (Kindergarten) children learn the English alphabet by associating each letter with a word. A-ant, B-bear, C-cat… Teachers drill children, by pointing to pictures and having them recite in unison, “This is an ant. This is a bear.” … What I needed to do was to introduce a different sequence, with the sound of the letter between its name and the alphabet word. “A…aeh…ant”. I also needed the kids (and their teachers) to realize that they were already making these exact sounds in Thai. The only difference was the “shape” of the letter. The sound of the short ‘A’ in ant is in Thai แ. The sound of ‘B’ is บ. The sound of ‘C’ is ค.
I also needed to come up with a catchy way for kids to remember everything. All children, whether in Thailand or in Farangland have short attention spans. So I’d better “Keep It Simple Stupid! What I wound up doing is tapping on a tambourine with a ruler and chanting in a jolly sing-song. “What is the sound of ‘A’? The sound of ‘A” is แ. ‘A’ แ ant.” I must say that it does helps when teaching small children to never be embarrassed to sing, dance, and generally act like a clown when needed. I have no hesitation to be silly as a loon when needed. I think that’s one reason why I have an enormous fan club here. It also doesn’t hurt to have a “free hand” with stickers. You wouldn’t believe the hoops even High School students will jump through for a sticker! There is a catch though. Students have to come up with a correct answer before collecting a goofy cartoon pig or a winking dolphin.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I don’t expect any miracles to happen in the classroom, but eventually… after hearing my phonics jingles a thousand times or so (I shudder and my throat gets dry at the thought of it), I do think that these kids will eventually remember the sound of the English alphabet. Meanwhile, last week I gave a short presentation to the Anuban teachers on my idea. It got an enthusiastic reception. Folks over in this separate part of the school are actually receptive to new ideas. That is why I am happy to spend most of my time there. Oh, just in case you are curious, here is a chart I made up showing the Thai letters which correspond to the English alphabet. Note: Not all the vowel sounds are represented; only those in the “alphabet words”.
Sounds of the English alphabet A – Z
A แ- ant
B บ bear
C ค cat
D ด dog
E เ egg
F ฟ fish
G ก goat
H ฮ horse
I ไ ice cream
J จ jam
K ค king
L ล lion
M ม mouse
N น nest
O ออ ox
P พ pig
Q ค queen
R ร rabbit
S ส snake
T ท,ธ tiger
U อะ umbrella
V ฟว van
W ว whale
X ถซ xylophone
Y ย yo yo
Z ซ zebra
I sure am glad I ever taught kids that young.