With the impending ASEAN Free Trade Agreement scheduled for 2015, the push for English language proficiency has been gaining momentum. An increasing number of native English speakers are being employed in the belief that the standards of English language teaching can be increased at an exponential rate. This influx of perceived foreign talent tends to lack the experience of English language teachers from the host country in that they have not had to study English as a second or foreign language; in particular the understanding of how a particular L1 influences the acquisition of English in given contexts.
This paper looks beyond English (Ginsberg, Honda & O'Neil 2011) and focuses on the incorporation of linguistics into English language syllabi in one university in north-eastern Thailand by demonstrating to the pre-service and post graduate teachers taking the courses that their bilingual skills are an advantage (Finn 2011) and not a hindrance.
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Linguistics, English language, teaching, learning, Thailand
Not everyone agrees that a student's first language (L1) interferes with their second language (L2) learning. On arrival in Thailand as an English language teacher, the author of this article was soon able to see a pattern of errors that were being made by secondary school students (grades 7-12) and then later on, university students. On investigation it appeared that many of the students had the same errors which had been fossilised over the years resulting in students in tertiary education having the most basic of errors ingrained into their normal use of English.
The use of English in Thailand is not widespread outside Bangkok. As 85% of the population live outside the capital, the problem for English language learners is that they learn English in school from the first grade and do not have the opportunity to use the new language outside the classroom and as a result do not have the chance to develop their language skills through real life experiences (Larsen-Freeman 2012). In addition, the vast majority of Thai teachers of English who teach English in Thailand's primary schools have not been trained to teach English in a student centred way using communicative activities in line with the 1999 Education Act, which was passed in order for Thailand to change from a teacher centred rote learning style of teaching.
Thai teachers of English in basic education settings have graduated in subjects other than English and those in rural areas find themselves overworked, underpaid and with the burden of excessive administrative tasks. With only quick fix short courses available with no continuation training or scaffolding, these teachers find themselves teaching the way they were taught.
It is very rare to find qualified foreigners working legally at primary and secondary schools in rural communities in Thailand, as they are generally too expensive. Some up-country schools have volunteers who live locally who work illegally without qualifications conducting conversation classes and some basic lessons. Schools in the city are better financed, so there is more opportunity for foreigners to find employment. Research has shown that many foreigners arrive as tourists and then live for many years on small local salaries, some working as English teachers (Howard 2009).
This paper puts forward the argument that the employment of foreigners may not be the magic bullet that the general public thinks it is and that the Thai teachers of English are a far better resource that needs to be nurtured and made aware of the skills that they have which puts them in a far better position to teach Thailand's students. Having overcome the difficulty of learning English as a foreign or second language, it would make sense that these Thai teachers of English would be in a better position to understand the problems that their students were facing and with some training, they would be able to anticipate problem areas and plan strategies to overcome them.
Students attending the B.Ed. English and MA TESOL courses over an eight year period in a university in the north east of Thailand were taught a course called Academic Reading and Writing where a study of two pieces of work were used to make the pre-service teachers and MA students aware of the way that the Thai language interferes with the learning of English and how they as teachers can prepare ways to overcome these problems.
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Whilst conducting the literature review on this subject, it was important to look at different areas that contribute to the understanding of linguistics and its associated neighbours. For example, the four skills can be investigated individually in order to appreciate similarities and grasp differences and problem areas. An investigation by Silva (1993) explained that L2 writing is easier to read and less fluent, less effective and less accurate than L1 writing as the writers in his study had problems planning, setting goals and organising their material.
With regard to academic English, Phakiti & Li (2011) published an article which looked at Asian ESL students attending an MA TESOL course at an Australian university. Areas covered were the general academic difficulties these students encountered as well as academic reading and writing difficulties. Time management and dealing with assignments were deemed major stumbling blocks as well as the organisation and use of academic vocabulary, location and paraphrasing of information, plagiarism and an understanding of what academic writing represents.
Looking from a more Thai specific viewpoint, Jenwitheesuk (2009) found that determiners, subject verb agreement, tenses and prepositions were the four dominant errors demonstrated by the participants of the study and concluded that this was due to L1 interference, a lack of knowledge of the sentence structures of English, as well as not being able to understand the grammatical rules of English.
The tenses past simple and present perfect were investigated by Baker (2002) as to how they contrast with the Thai language. His reason was to identify what Thai learners needed to know when studying these tenses. In addition, he stated that he felt that if teachers were aware of how these tenses are used and their differences to the Thai language, teachers would be more aware of which areas to give emphasis to when teaching their students.
Suthatsanee (2011) explained how senior year Thai university students demonstrated a lack of ability to use the correct cohesive expressions when writing argumentative essays. Problem areas included too much repetition, too many lists, an impersonal style and a lack of focus on conclusions. Having identified these areas, it is possible for teachers to intervene and allow their students the opportunity to investigate these difficulties and overcome them.
To counter the charge that pronunciation is not given the same attention in Thailand when compared to the 4 main skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking), Khamkhien (2010) identifies a problem for students when using the 4 skills if students are not able to pronounce words correctly. He also stated that students did not have the opportunity to practice English outside the classroom; so as a consequence, teachers must use the target language as much as possible. In addition, teachers were asked to make learners aware of the English stress patterns as it would generally benefit the teachers and more specifically be beneficial to the students.
Looking beyond English
The stimulus to write this paper came from an article on the internet by Finn (2011) which gave a summary about research conducted by Ginsberg, Honda & O'Neil (2011) into the use of linguistics and how it could be incorporated into the curriculum of ESL learners so that they had the opportunity to compare and contrast their L1 and L2 in what they called contrastive analysis (Dulay & Burt 1974). As such a curriculum did not exist, O'Neil had to write one. This incident resonated with the author as he had been in a similar situation at a university in Udon Thani in north-eastern Thailand where two articles were used to demonstrate some of the errors Thai students of English were making when they were learning English.
If we start at the beginning, English is taught in Thai schools from Prathom 1 (grade 1). New research shows that babies as young as 6-9 months can learn the meaning of new words through everyday experience with language (Bergelson & Swingley 2012). Four experiments by Horst & Samuelson (2008) urges caution as they found that 24 month old infants demonstrated limitless referent selection abilities; however, they did not show significant retention when it came to naming the referents in the experiments conducted.
In addition, monolingual toddlers who were proficient in their own language were found to be able to learn foreign terminology from foreign speakers and did not extend the knowledge of the newly learned foreign words to speakers of their L1 (Koenig & Woodward 2012). The researchers state they are unclear how this works; however, research like this and a study by Medina, Snedeker, Trueswell & Gleitman (2011) into how young children make initial guesses as to what a word means and then keep that guess alive until proved wrong, show us how malleable children are when it comes to language learning.
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Butzkamm (2003), cited by Song & Kellogg (2011), stated that humans only learn language once and after the initial foundation of L1 vocabulary has been laid, L2 is just a layer placed on top of the original as a palimpsest. Whether you agree with Butzkamm or not, how children learn languages and the influence of bilingualism can't be ignored.
The study of bilingualism gives greater understanding as to the benefits to both teachers and students who embrace the use of at least two languages on a daily basis. A recent study by Barac & Bialystok (2012) showed that three bilingual groups outperformed their monolingual counterparts when it came to task switching. Importantly in this study, they were able to prove that the bilingual processes acted independently from the known variables when influencing non verbal outcomes. These variables included cultural background, language similarity and language schooling. In a previous study, Bialystok (2007) stated that bilingual children were able to successfully obtain executive control functions before their monolingual counterparts and this was also the case for bilingual adults when the executive demands became more complex. In addition, the rate of decline in these functions was reduced for those adults who were bilingual.
A study by Omaki & Schulz (2011) highlights the processing similarities between L1 and L2, which gives credence to some academic views that state that there is not much qualitative difference between L1 and L2.
With regard to the choice of whether to use native speakers or non-native speakers of English as teachers, Liu (1999) informs us of the benefits of being a non-native English teacher in great detail, obviously reflecting on his own experiences. How non-native teachers of English are perceived and what teachers from different cultures are thought to be able to do are classified as racist by Holliday & Aboshiha (2009) in their study of the non-native teacher label.
An interesting investigation by Borg (2006a) into how teachers from other disciplines perceive English language teachers emphasised how those teaching through the medium of a foreign language were thought to have to spend more time preparing their lessons to explain everything correctly. In addition, the use of a foreign language to teach a class was deemed to possibly distance the teachers from the students as they are not using the student's L1. This is in contrast to Moussu & Llurda (2008) who detail the empathy that non-native English teachers have with their students compared to native speakers.
Application in the classroom
The use of a book chapter by Smyth (1987) in which he looks at the pronunciation problems that Thai learners experience when learning English was used to demonstrate to the pre-service teachers and those more experienced educators how the Thai accent tends to stress the final syllable of words, makes it difficult to articulate final consonants and consonant clusters; and gives a staccato effect to Thai speakers English language usage. This staccato effect sounds very much like Spanish where there is equal timing and weight given to every syllable, syllables being given tones, the schwa being used between some initial consonants and the reduction of consonant clusters at the end of a word to a final consonant.
The author found it strange to have to use work by a foreigner explaining how the Thai L1 interfered with the production of English L2; however, it proved to be a very effective technique in the classroom. Students who were introduced to this text were asked to either look at their own English language learning experiences or that of their friends and to make comparisons and contrasts with what Smyth was saying. Those teachers studying for the MA TESOL were asked to consider their students as well.
One example deserves a particular mention and that is a store called Global House which tends to be pronounced "Gohben How." Analysing the particular problems concerning this name was both informative and amusing. Once the analysis of pronunciation was seen as a tool to express differences and problem areas, the students were motivated and engaged, making it easier to reflect on their past learning experiences and those of their friends and students.
When completing their course-work, all the 92 students that took part in either the group-work or individual assignments agreed with Smyth's observations of Thai speakers of English. Students were encouraged to add further examples of the types of pronunciation errors that they made allowing them to express their experiences with confidence in spoken and written form.
The second resource was an article by Lush (2002) where he studied the writing errors in his Thai classroom of third year university students. He found that definite and indefinite articles, singular and plural nouns, present simple/past simple, subject verb agreement and prepositions featured highly on the ranked list of errors. This was used to reflect and confirm to the pre-service and experienced teachers what they already knew.
The author used this opportunity to ask the students in the various classes studying this text whether they agreed or disagreed with what Lush had stated and to provide more detailed explanations of why he was right. Again, all 92 students were in agreement and they were very happy and able to explain in great depth why certain errors were prevalent. For example, there are no articles in Thai. This was explained by several students as there not being a need for articles because in Thai there are determiners which acted as a substitute for an article at specific times. Some students were not in agreement and this led to some interesting discussions.
Kirkpatrick (2007) puts forward the idea of using a lingua franca approach when designing an English language curriculum with the ASEAN context in mind. For this students have to be made aware of the linguistic features of their language and that of English that could give problems to people from other countries. In addition, attention would have to be given to cultural differences for effective cross cultural communication to take place and finally, the strategies that are needed for this communication to take place; for example, socio-linguistic standards and how to overcome misunderstandings.
Khon Kaen University International College in Thailand have already integrated elements of these three concepts into a course called English for Communication in Multi-Cultural Societies (Graham 2011), so that students have an understanding, awareness and tolerance of other cultures, languages and differences while studying English. Research in intercultural communication puts forward the notion that students should be instructed in how to deal with cultural issues in order to interact in an appropriate way if culture is an issue (Busch 2009).
Linguistics can best be defined by Widdowson (1996) as the study of human language, which happens to be extremely dynamic and continually subject to change. By making students aware of the L1 interference they had previously experienced and the errors that were made while they were learning English, students were motivated and engaged as recounted by Ginsberg, Honda & O'Neil (2011). This comparative analysis that students undertook as part of their studies made them aware that the trials and tribulations they experienced as learners of English, and will put them in good stead when it comes to being teachers of English now or in the future.
Maybe the only way to follow the language developmental process and fully understand it would be to conduct several concurrent projects such as the Human Speechome Project (MIT Media Lab n.d.) where child development is recorded over a long period of time. Comparisons between different countries would expose some interesting data which could be compared by country and gender.
Whether we like the idea or not, English is the working language of ASEAN (Charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 2007, p. 28) and in order to improve English language education throughout ASEAN, English language programs need to be well designed and led by proactive principals who hire qualified teachers who know how to collaborate and are prepared to undergo professional development (Han 2012).
With the ASEAN economic community in 2015 fast looming and Thailand making a late scramble for English language competence, it is worth noting that a study by Mann & Pirbhai-Illich (2007) of another ASEAN country, Singapore, illustrates how young Singaporeans see the use of English as a way to demonstrate international status and influence. By using contrastive analysis during error correction, it is still possible to retain a proud sense of identity as well as the use of English as a lingua franca for dealing with our ASEAN neighbours. This performative view of language (Barinaga 2009) gives the learners focus as they can relate to the relationship between English and its use in an ASEAN context.
Without wanting to sound like a "lexifascist" or a "prescriptibitch" (Smith 2011) it is important to state that an accent is expected and sometimes even welcomed when speaking an L2 language; however, it must not interfere with the communication act that is taking place. When an accent prohibits understanding of the utterance, then communication has broken down and does not take place.
Some students in Thailand speak English with a deliberately thick Thai accent called "Tinglish" which could be described as Ethnic Group Affiliation (EGA). This EGA may well hold the key as to the reason why some learners fail to show their true oral proficiency (Gatbonton, Trofimovich & Segalowitz 2011); however, these Thai students would be in the minority if national test results were to be taken into consideration. The only way to overcome this phenomenon would be for teachers and students to use L2 as often as possible in the classroom. Furthermore, there are students who are from parents of mixed race marriages who sometimes find themselves in a similar situation as white hip-hoppers (WHH) where they have problems with their own linguistic identity (Guy & Cutlet 2011) in that they try to move away from the style of speech they grew up speaking due to peer pressure. More exposure to teacher selected authentic materials, including films, documentaries and videos from YouTube would give students more realistic examples to work with.
A simplified form of English is a version called Globish; however, realistically, this is not an option. A simplified form of English that uses 1500 words with simple grammar may seem like a good idea for ASEAN as it is geared towards tourism and easy business communication, but it is consistently criticised for "dumbing down" the English language (Ribes-Gil 2012). A more natural form of ASEAN English as a lingua franca will find its niche more in line with Kirkpatrick (2007). Piller (2007) believes that for intercultural communication to take place, a more natural language has to be used, which once again follows the ASEAN lingua franca approach by Kirkpatrick. The ASEAN countries will find their own way and develop their own style of English to be used in the ASEAN context. The use of linguistic contrastive analysis can help in the awareness, similarities and contrasts with the speaker's L1 and L2 as well as with other languages from the region.
The quality of teachers plays an important role in how our students turn into graduates. The long term impacts that good elementary and middle school teachers have on their students has been studied by Chetty, Friedman & Rockoff, (2011) by measuring their "value-added". This test score value-added measure can help in deciding which teachers create great value and their study concluded that although it could show the value of good and bad teachers it should not be taken in isolation when dealing with salaries and pay policy. More importantly, this American study found that the students who had the best teachers were more likely to go to university, less likely to have teenage pregnancies and have a better likelihood of earning more money in adulthood.
If we are to look for the best teachers, Medgyes (1992) has an answer for us. The ideal native speaker is someone who has a high proficiency in the L1 of the learners and the ideal non-native speaker is the person who has a near-native like proficiency in English. The author is of a different opinion. Non-native teachers of English have experience of learning the language themselves and have been through the learning process their students are undertaking now (Walkinshaw 2007). They have a shared education, language and culture, as well as probably being more aware of what approaches and methods are successful in their classrooms. Surely the non-native teachers of English are a better option.
As long as native speakers and non-native speakers have the same ability and skills, having acquired English by birthright should not mean that native speakers can claim to be top of the food chain. Learning a language through studying must be looked at as a positive characteristic (Walkinshaw 2007) and due to globalisation, it will not be long before non-native teachers of English find themselves at the forefront of our teaching profession (Hogg 2005).
If teachers possess the knowledge and are alert to linguistic and cultural differences, they will find themselves best disposed to support their students. Linguists have much to learn from these teachers (Mallinson, Hudley, Strickling & Figa 2011). To illustrate this point, Mulder (2011) stated that there is an important role for academic linguists to take if there is to be a "linguistically informed approach to English language education and in supporting teachers in furthering their skills in language and grammar teaching pedagogy, as ultimately such an approach rests on research-based linguistics" (p. 44).
This paper was presented at the 8th CamTESOL conference in February 2012. For a similar contrastive analysis to take place in Cambodian classrooms there is a need for teachers to take up the challenge and promote linguistic enquiry in their own classes and then to distribute it throughout the country without alienation and confusion (Kennedy 2011). Borg (2006b) states that the 10th condition for teacher research is that research must be made public for all to benefit and this is especially important in Cambodia due to a lack of publications on this subject as highlighted by Bounchan & Moore (2010). In their article they were able to show some differences in important areas of orthography, grammar and pronunciation as well as offer guidance to non native teachers who do not possess enough detail concerning the Khmer language.
If we are to implement a program that compares Khmer to English, teaching guidelines relating to Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research by Ellis (2010) can be adopted allowing for courses to be developed using existing research in contrastive analysis and related EFL fields. Ellis reminds us all that it is the teacher and not the researcher that decides the significance of SLA constructs. Now is the time for Cambodian teachers to research and publish!