12 March, 2015

Orbiting Vowels

Kayden Hoang Bui is a recent cum laude graduate with a B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Mandarin Chinese from the University of St. Thomas, a small private Catholic university, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a 2014-15 Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Sukhothai, Thailand. At his placement, he teaches M1-M6 (6th thru 12th grade) students, and during his free time he likes to eat French fries, journal, and drink iced coffee. In five years, he hopes to graduate from a Masters in Public Policy program to continue his journey towards being a Foreign Service Officer.

I greatly enjoy learning Thai. I’m not too sure why. Maybe it’s because I like to be constantly frustrated. When I understand Thai and when I get to learn new useful/funny words, I love it. I get to use it in class with my students to make them laugh, and I get to connect more with the people seeing food at the market by using more vocabulary to learn about their days and life.

I found my predilection for learning languages early in life during my Sunday school years. As an immigrant living in Minnesota, you can imagine how my mother was afraid I would lose the language that lay most closely to her heart. I went to Vietnamese/Catholic study classes for two hours every Sunday, learning the Vietnamese alphabet and the Bible.

Vietnamese seemed first nature to me because it just seemed so simple. After all, after the French and communists got a hold of the language, there was a big reformation and simplification. But after three years, my teachers were still teaching our 29 lettered alphabet and the differences between our three “a”s to my peers. It was pointless for me to be there, so I made my first big decision in life: I decided to dropout*.

The next time I found a love for languages was in 2010 when I became the first student from the University of St. Thomas to study in Bangkok. I chose Bangkok because there were only so many choices for me to fulfill my pre-medical/biology requirements while also abroad.

It was the first time I realized how beautiful learning a language can actually be. Learning biology or learning physics was incredibly difficult at times, but at the end all I received only mostly knowledge I could use with cells and pulleys in a lab.

But learning Thai was different. It was a language that quickly became my second language for communication with the shop keeps and people I meet on the street. Though at Mahidol, my hosting university in Bangkok, only offered Thai 2.5 hours a week, so I found extra lessons through speaking with new local friends.

After I came back to the United States, it was another four years before I would speak more than a sentence of Thai.

In 2014, I was blessed to receive the Fulbright to Thailand. From there, I hit the ground running. I opened up the Thai books to get in as much vocabulary as possible, I tried to speak it as much as possible throughout the day when I’m not with other Fulbrighters. It became much easier for me to communicate if English wasn’t available as a supplementary language. I am constantly learning new words, learning to read and write the alphabet, and teaching English to people using their native language.

I have come to conclude that language is a special beast. Intimidating and almost evil if you are not familiar with it, but is a friend and your most powerful ally if you take time and care for it.

Learning Thai is crazy for many reasons. But the three main reasons are: 1. It may be uncommon for a Thai person in your respective town to speak English well enough to explain why Thai words are used that way or the shades of meaning among them, 2. The writing system is dizzily complex where the vowels go behind, before, above, below, or surrounding a consonant like planets in orbit, and 3. Thai tones and vowel length are sometimes perceptively so minutely different.

I’ve had tons of moments where I would speak simple phrases in Thai, and the merchant would look at me as if I was asking to buy a zebra. Then after moments of pointing, they would go, “Ohh!” Then would proceed to say the sounds I thought I produced initially. It’s frustrating.

But it’s fun!

Learning the language and connecting people with it has definitely been my favorite part of being in Thailand so far, and teaching English is a close second.

I’m not sure of the reason why I like to learn languages so much—especially Thai. Maybe it’s because I’m motivated by something internal, like my need to connect back to Southeast Asia after my family immigrated to the United States in 1991. Maybe it’s an external factor where I am able to get to more places, do more things, and meet more people by learning it. Or maybe I like to be challenged by the 6 different “th” sounds and the nasal and glottal stops.

But whatever the reason, I can solidly conclude that learning Thai and being here with my students have been one of the most rewarding experiences so far in my life. I feel accomplished after learning a new word, like small peaks in the middle of my day.

This a fellow foreign teacher (from the Philippines) and I with some of my students. They are proudly displaying the game they created for the international languages exhibition for my class. 

I’d like to think that my students and I share a common struggle to speak a new language, and that the bond makes our relationship just that much more special. And it definitely helps my motivation when the local shopkeepers give me extra food here and there because they think my Thai is “cute.”

Contrary to many foreign language instructors, I don’t believe in fully using the foreign language to teach unless you live in an area that speaks that language. Creating an English only environment in a Thai classroom in the middle of a rice field is not realistic and is not the most effective. Superficially, it makes sense because what’s faster than 100% of listening only to English?

If I had tried to speak only in English, it’s not only frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for the student, and then both parties are now frazzled and looking forward to the end of the “conversation” which would mostly be made up of both people perpetually explaining the previous sentences.

As a foreign English teacher, I have two main jobs, and teaching English is only my second job, and it cannot be done without the first. The first job of any foreign English teacher—is to build up the students’ self-confidence.

Without self-confidence, the students cannot and will not speak more than a couple sentences at best.

This was fully demonstrated while I tutored one of my M6/1 (12th grade) students—Praew. She is a young woman who rarely spoke up in class, but got very good grades on homework assignments and exams. One day, I encouraged her to apply for a scholarship for an opportunity to go to America, and she was ecstatic that I asked her. At first she was struggling with speaking English, but her vocabulary was there. When I would say a new word, she would translate it into Thai and asked me if it was correct. Often times I would understand her, and I would either confirm or help correct her. Knowing and speaking a small portion of the Thai language helped me build a very strong relationship with her.

Skating with my students as a treat after the interview in Bangkok. 
We spent hours every week talking, writing, and with me asking her questions about her goals and her aspirations. Her self-confidence was boosted every time we met.

And even though she did not get the scholarship, she spoke up more and more every day in my English class. Joking around, explaining things to other students, asking me questions, and just everything else that I hope all my students could be. She was energetic, curious, and was not afraid to make mistakes.

This could not have been possible if I spoke only in English in class because she would be scared initially, and my English would intimidate her. Because of my initial Thai with her, I’d like to think that it broke the ice and allowed her to become a better and more confident student.

I am still working at both my goals one student at a time, but I know that learning Thai and continuing to be passionate about the language is the best way that I can achieve both of them.

Some of my students made it to the U.S. Embassy for the Southeast Asian Youth Leadership. 
*During undergrad, I went back to my church school and became a Vietnamese kindergarten teacher.

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