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Chiang Mai Citylife > Articles > 2014 > 2014 Issue 04 > The Adventures of Tom

The Adventures of Tom


I’ve just returned from teaching a swarm of young Thai people how to say, “She sells seashells on the seashore.” I am not a teacher, but have been lucky enough to be invited to do a few English Day Camps where I make an attempt at helping young teenagers to pronounce the seemingly simple words we English speakers take for granted.

Now, it is important to understand that it has been scientifically proven by scientists that Thai people are born with their tongues the other way round to most Westerners and this is why it is so difficult for many students to pronounce the dentally fricative “th” sound and why we find it odd that any sensible word should start with “ng.”

So my job on a couple of occasions recently has been to have a go at something that I’m well aware many of you reading this have to do every day. It was my task to make sure “faith” isn’t “face” and that “crisps” has two “s” sounds in it (“Nostradamus” isn’t on a twelve-year-old’s English syllabus and was simply for my own entertainment).

And what a pleasure it has been. I have no teaching qualifications, but the ability to shout onomatopoeias as loudly as possible doesn’t seem to require too much training and dancing badly is something that comes incredibly easy to me. I wasn’t even required to prove I never murdered somebody or am not on the run from Interpol when I turned up for class.

In Britain, I suspect turning up for a day of teaching without certificates, checks and proof you never got a Jim’ll Fix It badge is probably frowned upon due to the fact that every adult taking an interest in children not directly related to them is assumed to be some sort of pervert. Does a speeding fine from 1991 make you a pervert these days? Perhaps. This is not to say that everything possible should not be done to ensure a child’s safety, but a teacher, or in fact any adult, not being able to give a child a reassuring hug if he or she falls over in the playground is just absurd.

Without healthy physical interaction between children and adults, what hope is there for a generation of un-cuddled kids growing up believing that physical contact is best avoided just to be on the safe side of the law and the almost inevitable misunderstanding of others.

Anyway, thankfully watching all those British telly programmes in the 1970s didn’t infect me with the paedophilia that apparently contaminated BBC Television Centre at the time, and I was able to get on with something beneficial to both me and the children without an ensuing Daily Mail investigation.

One of the great things about these English Camps is that there is very little sitting around teaching in a dry, formal way. Almost immediately the emphasis was on jumping, running, dancing and shouting. In fact, the more of an idiot one tends to make of oneself at these things the better. It’s a brilliant cardiovascular workout.

And that other Daily Mail obsession – Health and Safety Gone Mad – is thankfully largely ignored. After all, children tend to bounce quite well when they fall over and are generally rather good at not cutting their own heads off with a colouring pencil. I read recently that a UK school has forbidden running on tarmac surfaces in case a child’s legs fall off, or something.

One of the lessons/games I got to play was a treasure hunt. The teams were expected to scrabble about looking for hidden letters and then make those letters into words. The best bit was that they were all tied together with a rope. This would have been seriously frowned upon in Britain according to the English girl I was teamed up with to organise the game who was a proper, qualified, experienced teacher. The rope was there to encourage cooperation and teamwork as everyone had to move together, except for those who didn’t, some of whom ended up being dragged around by their feet or garrotted. This produced a great deal of giggling – especially from the dragees and garottees.

I don’t pretend to understand how different it must be to have a full-time teaching job in Chiang Mai because I got to give my groups of students back at the end of the day. I’ll bet it has its ups and downs, like teaching inevitably has anywhere in the world. It’s just that the few times I’ve been privileged enough to participate in these camps the youngsters have been enthusiastic, eager to learn and an absolute pleasure to be around.

Now I, on the other hand, am a crap student. I’m also going to school to learn a new language. Twice a week I sit in a classroom and soak up the withering disappointment of a proper Thai language teacher who can’t quite believe how stupid I really am. Now I have a good degree from a good university, so at some point I must have been alright at this learning lark. However, at 41, I am ashamed to say that at times I revert to that petulant teenager that was me sitting in French class. I didn’t like French lessons and can remember the obnoxiousness in which my frustration at not picking up a second language immediately with minimal effort could manifest itself. My Thai class was given a test to do recently. It is shameful what went through my head as ways to get out of answering a few relatively simple questions: A violent bout of diarrhoea? An epileptic fit?

I even considered proving that I know a little bit about Thai teaching culture by asking my teacher to do my test for me. That’s how education works here in Thailand after all, is it not? I would get a perfect score, the school would get a reputation for being brilliant at teaching idiots, and my parole officer down at immigration who requires me to hand in my passport, education visa, and proof that I do actually turn up to some classes every 90 days would be duly placated. Instead, I simply sat at my desk for two hours and sulked. It was horrible, and I don’t know why I did it. Instead of buckling down and getting on with the bloody thing I worked myself up into a frustrated ball of anger. I should probably discuss this with a psychotherapist.

That’s not to say that I do not generally enjoy my Thai lessons. I enjoy sitting at the back of the class and giggling when asked to use chit in a sentence or whether I understand the difference between fak and fak (it’s all in the tones, apparently). There is also something ever so glorious about being able to read a paragraph of Thai – however grating it must be for a native speaker to hear – and being able to make up phrases I never thought I would ever be capable of making up a couple of years ago. And it’s far more tiring trying to come up with an excuse not to go to Thai class than to actually get my silly self down there for a couple of hours of something that is genuinely very rewarding.

I must work on my handwriting though. Both in English and Thai it’s a disgrace. At school it was quite neat. What happened to make what comes from the end of my pen such a bewildering, unintelligible scribble, even to me? Perhaps I shall never know.