Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog September 24th, 2011

The Second Language I Teach, Or “The Ugly Farang”

Long before I came to Thailand to teach English, I spent two years in this lovely country knocking on doors as a white-shirted proselyter.

In preparation for that I was holed up in Hawaii for two months, taking the AUA Thai language classes from a host of earnest young Thais at the BYU campus.

Eight hours a day, including weekends, reviewing tones and long vowels and short vowels and how to sit on the floor while conversing in Thai.

My knees gave out before my tongue did.

When I finally got to Thailand I thought I had the language down pretty good.

I didn’t. Nobody could understand a word of Thai I was saying.

So I had to start all over again, and eventually managed to speak it passably for a farang before I was shipped home again to deal with getting an education, starting a family, finding a career, and all the other accoutrements of the American bourgeoisie Dream.

That means when I returned to Thailand to teach English I had at least a shred of empathy for my students, who were struggling to unlearn a lifetime of Thai grammar and meanings so they could hobnob with the King’s English.

But I’ve never had a pinch of empathy for the expats in Thailand who either don’t bother to learn Thai or learn to speak it like cretins, messing up the tones and grammar and vowels in ways horrible to contemplate.

Despite my own not-so-creditable beginnings as a student of the Thai language, I still feel it is NOT a difficult language to speak – not the basics, anyways.

Besides, the Thais are about the most patient, easy-going, people in the world when it comes to their own language. You will always make a friend for life if you can speak a few sentences of it to any Thai. They are extremely forgiving of mistakes, as far as their own language goes.

I’m not criticizing any of the Thai language courses in Thailand that farangs pay good money for in order to learn the language (well, maybe a little – but ‘live and let live’ is the best way to get along in Thailand) but I would like to state that sometimes it’s better to learn Thai from a knowledgeable farang than from a Thai. That’s usually how the trouble begins. Thais are notorious for not wanting to lose face or make others lose face, so when a farang starts to mangle the Thai language the Thai teacher is apt to let it pass, not correcting anything and laying on the compliments with a trowel.

Good manners, bad teaching.

I, on the other hand, who have been teaching Thai to a number of paying farang students on the side for quite some time, am nothing loath to bung them for every single mistake they make.

I teach the men to end all their requests with “khrab”, and all the women to end their requests with “kha”. My Thai friends tell me this is a little old-fashioned nowadays, but I don’t care. Farangs will pick up the rude and dirty phrases without any help. I want my farang pupils to also know how to speak like ladies and gentlemen.

As Winston Churchill put it: “It costs nothing to be polite.”

I don’t hassle my farang pupils about the tones; they seem to think this is an insurmountable obstacle – which it isn’t. If you’ve ever listened to a Thai from Isaan talking to a Thai from Bangkok, you’ll realize the tones have gone out the window, yet they understand each other perfectly. I tell my farang students that the tones will come with time and practice, and until then they should concentrate on the context of the conversation, which will help them understand what’s being said, and what they should say in return.

Another one of my bugaboos is long vowels. I drill my students mercilessly to draw out the long Thai vowels to ridiculous lengths. The word for ‘good’ in Thai is ‘dii’, and it should be pronounced ‘diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii . . . . .’

Farangs always have a tendency to chop their long vowels into snippets; it’s actually painful for me to listen to them when they do it.

And finally, I will not tolerate a ‘baag maa’ in my lessons. That means, literally, a dog’s mouth. Many farangs are under the mistaken impression that talking trash impresses the Thais and get things done.

Baloney.

It’s a universal axiom that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I teach my students to have a ‘baag waan’, literally a sweet mouth. The Thai language is full of beautiful, flowery compliments. My farang pupils get a generous dose of them.

Lately I’ve been putting some Thai lessons on YouTube, so there’s no need to beat my door down thrusting thousand-baht notes at me and begging to be enlightened. You can catch my latest video.

Just call me Professor Henry Higgins, the Second . . .