Teaching and Learning English As A Second Language

When we were kids we all learned to speak a language in a very natural way. We listened to our parents who spoke to us with very high voices, saying “oetsiekoetsie” and things like that. After a while we began to use our own voice, making different kind of sounds, and at the age of 1 most of us said their first real word. And then it goes fast! We learned one word after another and at the age of 5 we knew thousands of words and we were able to make sentences, using the right grammar (most of the time…). That all without following classes at such a young age! Isn’t that amazing?

I think most of us have encountered that learning a second language is a different and way more difficult process. Remember the vocabulary lists in high school you had to repeat time after time? And when you didn’t repeat them for a week you forgot most of the words… The innate ability to learn how to speak a language seems to disappear after the age of 7 years old. The older you are, the harder it gets.

Here at Thai Freedom House the students are learning English and Thai. “Shan” is their native language. You see it’s hard for them and I really can imagine that. It took me more than a week just to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Thai. Every new word I hear in Thai, I have to repeat more than a thousand times, and maybe if I continue to repeat the word again and again, I will remember the word (and the meaning) at the end of the week. But most of the time I fail… One of the first English lessons I did with the young adults group was about clothes. I taught them the names of different kind of clothes. We did some games with the words and the clothes, the students used the words a lot, so I was very disappointed that they didn’t remember ANY of the words the week after.  I suppose I learned that they also need to repeat and review the words everyday before they can remember them.

Pronunciation is also very hard for them. When we are practicing pronunciation, I can’t keep the smile off my face, it’s so funny. For example: short and shirts. They couldn’t make the different sounds. They both sounded like “short” and it took them a while to find the right sound. So we sat there making sounds like “oooooooooo” and “iiiiiiiiiiiii”. Quite funny, but after a while they found the right sound! Or what about saying the word “scarf”, I think that’s impossible for them… And the other way around: I’m having a hard time to pronounce their names right. I’m lucky they use nicknames!

And that’s just the speaking part… We also want them to learn how to read and write. If they know how to read and write in English, they have more chances to find a better job than now. That’s why we do a lot of exercises with  ABC. But just to know how the letter sounds, doesn’t make you able to read. That takes much more practice and phonics! Last week I had a new girl in my group, she didn’t know anything of the ABC, but she was very eager (and shy), she copied the words I wrote on the whiteboard exactly. When you saw her notebook, you would really believe she could read and write. But when you asked her to read what she wrote, she couldn’t.

It’s a big challenge to teach them as much as possible and also make it enjoyable and fun to learn.  I’m here for 6 weeks, still 3 to go. That’s a very short time to see some progress, but I hope I will!  Either way I am sure another eager volunteer will come along and follow the curriculum and they will all reach their goals!


This entry was posted in ESL education, Learning Languages, Teaching, Volunteering for Thai Freedom House. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted August 6, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I am from Cape Town, South Africa. It is wonderful to read about the great work you are doing in Thailand. I have been to Thailand a couple of times and I realy love the people. I am considering joining you, so maybe you will see me soon.


  2. Posted November 16, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Hi there, I really enjoyed reading this. It sounds like you had a big challenge teaching English and learning some Thai but that you enjoyed it! It’s interesting when Asian people try to pronounce English words, and likewise when native English speakers start speaking an Asian language. The sounds and grammar are so different. I studied Korean for three years in Korea and when I started out it was like being a baby and learning to talk all over again. But it was a really great experience. Thanks for sharing this story.

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