Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog December 18th, 2010

The Immersion Version

I don’t often look at education magazines, not the professional ones (although MAD Magazine has some interesting teaching techniques from time to time) – but I recently threw caution to the winds and began perusing an article about immersion teaching. As I feared, the article proved to be warm milk and sent me drifting off after a few moments.

I don’t mean to criticize the scholarly writers of these articles; I know they are simply trying to jam as many big words into small ideas as possible, using a scaffolding of impenetrable jargon that would baffle an Oxford don. You can’t make things simple and short in the academic world – no professor ever got tenure by publishing brief declarative sentences.

Still, it’d be nice to discover something that matches my dismal IQ when it comes to the question of immersion learning of the English language. That’s pretty much all you’re allowed to do here in Thailand – and has been that way since giant sloths roamed the Bangkok tundra.

I’m still not convinced that immersion learning is the best way to introduce English to the Thais . . .

Back in the day, when I was getting my BA in English at the University of Minnesota, I took a year of Norwegian. I already knew some lusty swearwords in that language from my father, but figured I’d try to lift my Norwegian out of the gutter. From day one our teacher insisted on speaking to us only in Norwegian, and insisted we speak only Norwegian to him in the classroom. He was able to keep this up for six weeks into the semester and then, in desperation, began interjecting some English explanations so we students wouldn’t scratch troughs in our heads trying to puzzle things out so much.

We did much better after that. But alas, the poor teacher (who was only a lowly assistant working on his MA in foreign language teaching) was keelhauled by his professor/advisor for breaking the sacred oath or whatever it is that drives the Immersion cult. So we started with another teacher the next semester, who insisted we speak only Norwegian and she would speak only Norwegian to us, and . . . well, it only took her 3 weeks to break down and start using English to guide our clumsy tongues. She, however, never caught any flak from her professor/advisor (perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was a man and she looked pretty darn good in a tight cashmere sweater.)

That was my first exposure to the theory and practice of immersion teaching. It was rather inconclusive (except for that tight cashmere sweater – lykke til!)

Now we fast forward a number of years and I am doing my student teaching at TEFL International in Ban Phe, Thailand. Our noble lead trainer, Dave Hopkins, has drummed into our heads and our hearts that on no account must we descend into using any Thai in our lesson plans for teaching English. To do so would be to betray all that is good and pure in current pedagogical circles. He didn’t know, however, that I had spent a goodly number of years in Thailand already, as a missionary, and that my Thai, while not fluent, was certainly serviceable. How was I going to prevent myself from saying a few timely words in Thai, as a reflex, during my lesson? It was a moot point (which is going to be the name of my autobiography) since I came down with a terrible sore throat the night before and could barely croak out a dozen words, all in English, and did most of my lesson plan in pantomime. Dave was rather pleased with my fortitude – although he did not care for the paper airplanes I had the students make at one point.

“What if one of ‘em poked a kid in the eye?” he pointed out pragmatically.

When I took my first teaching assignment up in Bangkok I vowed I would stow the Thai and jabber nothing but English to my pupils, come hell or high water.

I lasted 20 minutes.

For some odd reason The Bangkok Post had run an old photo of Laurel & Hardy that day and one of my students innocently showed it to me in the middle of class, asking for an explanation about these two quizzical gentlemen.

Well, I ask you – as an old circus clown, what could I do? I immediately launched into a panegyric about Stan and Ollie that took up the rest of the class period, and I did it in halting Thai. The students sat enthralled while I mimicked some of the trademarks of those two lovable comedians.

I never did hear back from the school administration about that, or any other time I broke into passionate Thai to put something in context or give it a clear explanation. And so gradually my teaching style developed into a hybrid of English and Thai – which worked well at the first two schools I taught at and then led to a simmering contretemps at the third institution I taught at. They wanted 100%, undiluted English in the classroom. I gave it the old college try, and succeeded in reducing my Thai substantially – but not all of it.

I think the only thing that saved me was the tight cashmere sweater I wore whenever I saw the school administrator ~