Don’t Speak Thai in the Classroom

Posted by claudio on August 29, 2011 in Teaching in Thailand |

A question I often get when I talk with people interested in teaching English in Thailand is “Do I need to be able to speak Thai to be effective as a teacher?”

My answer to them is a resounding “No.”

When I went through my TEFL training, I was taught to never use the local language in the classroom. I fully agree with this advice.

I’ve discussed this point with many foreign English teachers. Those who speak some Thai and use it in the classroom defend their position by saying: “Using Thai in the classroom saves a lot of time. How could I possibly explain some of the things in English when the students don’t speak it all that well yet?”  I always wonder if those teacher have considered that they may be teaching above their student’s level?

poll at Ajarn Forums back in 2005 resulted in 54 % of teachers saying “Yes, it makes a huge differene,”  23 % of teachers saying “It helps, but it’s not a big deal,” and 23 % of teachers saying “No, it makes almost no difference.”

To be clear, I highly recommend learning to speak Thai fluently to anybody who lives in Thailand. I also agree that it will make a huge difference for English teachers to speak the language well. You will not only be able to build better relationships with your Thai colleagues, but also understand what your students are gossiping about…

Nevertheless, I hold on to my opinion that Thai should not be used in the classroom.  Here is why: as I wrote in “Why do kids learn languages so easily?”  research suggests that learning words by inference is more powerful than just being told their meaning. In other words, refraining from speaking Thai in the classroom forces your students to use different muscles in their brain. They will discover the meaning of a word based on your pictures, drawings, realia, gestures, and descriptions.  Sure, it is a bit more work for you, but the results will speak for themselves, and will make you a better teacher in the long run.


  • Steven says:

    I think it’s a great principle to not use Thai in the classroom, but I wonder if the effectiveness of an all English class is also limited by how many times the students meet the foreign teacher each week. If they are meeting often (more than 2 times), the students will learn much more since they are forced to learn to understand the teacher regularly. However, if the students see the teacher only once a week for an hour, I don’t think it is as effective to try and speak only English to them. It will be faster to use some Thai to get things moving so that the the students can focus on the actual lesson.

  • Claudio says:

    The effectiveness of English classes in Thailand in general seems very limited if foreign teachers get to teach just one period per week. I’m glad to see a trend in some schools to increase the number of hours for each student through their English Programs or Intensive Programs.

    I believe even teachers who can just meet once a week with their students will be ultimately more effective by not using any Thai in the classroom, because it leads the students to learn the words and sentences by inference. Having said that, there always is an occasional exception. If a foreign teacher speaks fluently Thai, there may be some situations when using it in the classroom can be beneficial, such as explaining concepts or classroom games.

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