English Lessons


Me in a traditional Korean classroom in Seoul, South Korea, 2009. Don’t worry — my real classroom was bit more modern. This one was located in a museum. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

You would have thought that I would have learned from my previous attempts. You might think that by now, I would know better. But I, ever the eternal optimist, walked into another service project, expecting nothing but fun and games.  Again.

A friend had told me she used to give English lessons to our apartment manager’s daughter and another tenant, a new young mother,  but was unable to do so anymore because of time constraints. I volunteered to do it.  Why not? I am a native English speaker, I actually taught English for 6 months in South Korea and I have the time.

However, this lesson was unlike any I had ever experienced. At one point, the young mother breastfed her infant in front of me. But even more unexpected was how large the language barrier was. Either I had overestimated my ability to engage people in conversation or I had underestimated how shy my students were going to be. They smiled, giggled and talked to each other in Thai, but getting an answer to “How are you?” (even with provided answers: fine, sleepy, tired, OK, etc.) was like pulling teeth.

Part of the problem was that I walked into it blind. I didn’t have any teaching materials on hand. Armed with just a notebook and pen, I thought all I would have to do is ask them what they wanted to work on and learn, but to those questions I just got more smiles and shrugs.  I also didn’t know what their language proficiency was. No matter, I had thought. They must know some English. The first lesson will just be casual conversation. I’ll assess their language level through that and we can go from there. I hadn’t expected them to not talk. I was unused to this behavior. My previous students had invested time and money into learning English and were eager to speak it, nay, relished any opportunity to use it.

To be fair, the young mother did try. She was more game than the girl. But I can’t blame the girl. She is around 11- or 12-years-old, and what adolescent in their right mind wants more tutoring after school? Her mother had probably forced her to come . However, this magnanimity and insight comes only with hindsight. At the time, I felt exasperated that they kept speaking in Thai and mounting irritation at the girl who sat there like a lump and gave only one-word answers with extreme prodding.

Cheez mahoney! I don’t have to do this,  my mind grumbled.  I’m not getting paid. I thought this was what they wanted. Why should I be the one who has to try so hard to get them to speak in English? I’m doing this out of the goodness of my heart! Frustration and annoyance threatened to spill out of me.

Jammie, I thought, you are the worst teacher in the world.

So I turned the tables around. I had them teach me Thai. When they became the teachers, they loosened up and were very helpful. I asked them how to say English phrases in Thai (and thus learned that their English comprehension is fairly high), plus I learned the numbers in Thai.

Now that I know they understand what I’m saying, I think they just need more confidence in pronouncing English words. My strategy will be to teach them through games. I  plan on getting a deck of picture cards and using them to play  “Go Fish”  and doing rounds of “I Spy with My Little Eye.” If you have any more suggestions or tips, I gladly welcome them.

Let the fun and games begin!


2 thoughts on “English Lessons

  1. Keep it up Jammie, I think the game approach and they teaching you Thai will work when they have got over their initial embarassment of facing a foreigner trying to teach them English.

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