One of the first questions I get asked by would-be English (EFL) teachers considering teaching in Thailand is “Do I need to be able to speak Thai to teach English?” The short answer is “No”. The long answer, of course, is a little more complicated, but before you go off and spend money on a Thai language course here’s what you need to know.
Speaking Thai Is Not Necessary – If you get a job teaching English (EFL) at a school in Thailand, you’ll discover quickly most of the staff at the school speak enough English for you to be able to get what you need and to do your job. At language schools almost anywhere in Thailand, the level of English is even higher and, of course, in corporations, if you teach business English, you’ll have no problem as English is the language of business.
Thai Schools Prefer Teachers Not To Speak Thai – When you accept a teaching job at a school in Thailand, many schools will inform you they prefer you not to speak Thai in the classroom or with the students, even if you do speak it. I have English teacher friends who speak fluent or excellent Thai, but they don’t speak it around the children they teach at all. The reason is, if the kids you teach know you can speak Thai, they’ll often become lazy and try to speak to you in Thai rather than in English. As you’re there to improve their English and not their Thai skills, you end up wasting a lot of their learning time in school. In fact, at some schools in Thailand, they will fire you if they catch you speaking Thai with your students.
Thai Co-Teachers – Many schools in Thailand have Thai co-teachers in the classroom at all times with the western English teachers. They speak enough English that they can understand what you’re trying to get the kids to do, and will translate in Thai for the children if absolutely necessary. Thai co-teachers are also an excellent resource for help at the school you work it, both with planning lessons and communication with the school’s admin.
Students Can Understand Even With Low English Skills – One thing you’ll realize quickly when you begin teaching English (EFL) in Thailand, is how easy it actually is to understand basic information just from hand signals, facial or body language. I’ve taught five year olds who knew about 30 words of English, and still managed to get them to learn what I wanted them to learn from pointing, frowning, laughing and being silly.
Children Pick Up English Quickly – Another reason you don’t need to speak Thai when teaching in Thailand is the speed with which your students will learn. If you teach English (EFL) to children, you’ll be amazed at how fast they pick up English, particularly the younger ones, and even adults learn fast too if forced to speak it every day. When I first started teaching in Bangkok, one of my classes could barely string three words together in English. By the end of the first semester, they were speaking in full sentences and even laughing at my very English jokes. Amazing how fast kids learn.
Do Learn Thai – Having said speaking Thai isn’t important in Thailand, I should of course clarify. Needing to speak Thai to be able to teach English in Thailand is absolutely not necessary. However, if you want the true Thai experience, want to make Thai friends and learn about Thai culture, it’s imperative you learn to speak Thai (just don’t tell your students when you do!), as most Thais all over Thailand speak little English.
Before I came to Thailand, I took five months of intensive Thai language classes at a Thai temple in Los Angeles. While I didn’t arrive in Thailand speaking fluent Thai, I did arrive being able to communicate in simple Thai language, which made everything my first few months so much easier. I also made lots of Thai friends, learned about Thai society and Thai food, and generally immersed myself in Thai culture. Plus, knowing just a small amount of Thai when I got here, it was phenomenal how fast my Thai vocabulary and grammar improved.
If you’re coming to Thailand to teach English, you do not need to be able to speak Thai. However, if you want the best experience you can possibly have, take a quick Thai course when you get here, or invest in a Thai language course on CD. It’s only a few dollars but will benefit you in spades.