Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lost in Translation

This blog began with my being laid off last June and, not finding work at home, I decided I would move to Thailand, my wife's country.  Thailand has strict rules as to how I can earn a living here, one of which is to teach English.  I have a degree in environmental planning, basically a biology degree, however I spent most of my working life as an auditor.  It was good work as it let me use my curiousity in a productive manner as I investigated how various business functions worked.  In a way, I used my scientific training to perform my job methodically, always asking questions.  Another benefit of the job is that it taught me to write.

All those skills may or may not come into play as a teacher.  At this point, I could get a job without any sort of credential but all I have read has said that I would be ahead of many by getting something called a TEFL, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, or TESL, Teaching English as a Second Language.  Both are internationally recognized and I have yet to find any difference between the two.  The credential can be obtained on line or any TEFL/TESL school around the world, including the US.  In fact, I could have gotten the credential in Seattle over a period of three weekends.  If I had been a teacher in my career already, I would have done just that.  However taking it in a foreign country often includes actual classroom experience.  My program will have me teaching a class of English learners.

This week brought a few challenges that opened my eyes as to what I am up against.  The first was that of applying to a school.  A good friend here is well-connected in town and happened to know an administrator at one of the local private schools in the middle of town.  They were looking for both an English language teacher and a biology teacher.  My friend was excited that I had a biology degree but I wasn't.  I have never used it and haven't kept up with it so teaching a class would be a big uphill battle.  I could just jump into it however I felt I would be doing a diservice to the children, if I did.  Still, I want a job so I wandered over to the school. 

I got off the songtauw and found myself amidst a beautiful school filled with children of all ages from early to high school, dressed smartly in their uniforms, boys in dark pants and white shirts and girls in skirts and blouses.  If I was in the US, I would have thought I was at a Catholic school.  The kids were all very well behaved, no fighting or yelling, all chatting among themselves and completely ignoring me.  All the signs were in Thai and, from the looks of the kids, I had the feeling few were going to admit they spoke English.  I was told to come to the office in front of the blue dome so I wandered around the school, no eyes looking my way for this poor lost soul.  I saw a blue canopy but no dome.  I was beginning to wonder if maybe I was taking "dome" too literally.  Apparently I was as I finally saw the one and only English sign on one of the doors, "Personnel" directly across from the canopy.

I entered and told them I who I was looking for.  I was asked to sit at a desk and there I sat for some time without anyone speaking to me until she arrived.  She gave me a paper application and asked me to complete it.  I noticed a few words were misspelled, such as "application" but completed it anyway.  She knew very little English and my Thai is even worse.  She pointed to the application saying she needed my business card.  I didn't have one so I left to return another day.  She asked if I could teach biology and I asked the age.  She had to confer with a few of the ladies in the office until she came back with 16.  That would be high school level and I would prefer to not offer myself for that.  From my understanding, the teacher would also have to be bilingual.  The English job was also open but I got the feeling she was really looking for biology.  We thanked each other and I was back into the heat of the day.

The next day in my TEFL class I discovered how little I know of my own language.  Pop quiz.  Name the twelve perfect tenses for a sentence.  The only person who knew was our one student from Russia.  We were reminded about past, present and future tense and then simple, progressive or continuous, and so on.  A few of the students argued that knowing such things was of little value.  Then I thought back of my directions to the market.  Bpai or go and talart or market.  Thais just have to say go market and it can mean anything from you are going to I am going to we are going.  It is a contextual language whereas English is far more specific.  Both say the same thing, but teaching someone about past and present tense who has no point of reference toward such will be difficult.  I sense tougher days ahead.

Nee and I had business cards made the next day and we both went to the school.  She would have gone with me the first time but she was ill.  I was glad she was feeling better today as when we arrived, the lady met us and immediately informed Nee that what she really wanted was my photo.  When I spoke with her the day before, I somehow missed that request.  Nee also told me that there is a separate department that speaks only English and the biology teacher would be in that program.  I found out that class size is 60, the English-only department is very small, and other details I would never have gotten on my own.  I imagined just how difficult this would have been had I not had Nee as my translator the second time around. 

My TEFL teacher told me earlier that day that few payroll departments in Thailand speak English and if I want to get paid, I better learn a few sentences.  This weekend, I broke out my Thai book and am adding to my vocabulary.  A photo is paap taai or taai roop.  I won't forget that.  Next I will work on my English grammar.

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