It was late summer of 2010. I had letter of acceptance to Kasetsart University in my hand. I was really looking forward to my exchange studies at Bangkok, Thailand.
My English skills were at a good level by then, but I was insecure when I needed to talk. Speaking went well when needed, but I hestitated with opening the conversations. One major expectation for the exchange period was to get some fluency in my oral English skills.
Finally, I was in Thailand. Everybody seemed to speak excellent English… until I stepped out of the airport. The reality hit me. Outside workers didn’t speak English at all when I tried to find the place where hire a cab.
|Jani in Thailand|
I was lucky with my Taxi driver. He spoke good English on the scale in Thailand. There was massive traffic jam on the way to my hotel so I had a plenty of time to chat with the driver.
Because of the traffic jam, I walked the last 1.5 kilometers to my hotel. I stopped every now and then to ask directions from the locals. Usually they didn’t speak English at all, but they understood the word ‘Hotel’ and the name of it. Finally I reached the destination after 27 hours of travelling.
On the first day of school, we met our tutor teacher. I had received emails from him earlier and those were written in fluent English. When he opened his mouth for the first time, reality collapsed. It was extremely difficult to understand nearly anything he said. His pronunciation was way different that we Europeans were used to.
At least all subject teachers spoke understandable English. Some of them like natives.
During my exchange period, I made notations that it varies enormously how well Thais speak English. Young generation and especially university students spoke at least that much so that you were able to have basic conversation with them. Naturally, people in the tourist business spoke understandable English. A little by little, my ear got used to Thai-accent and it was easier to understand them day by day.
In everyday life I developed a habit of speaking very simple English. When I bought some fresh fruits from a street shack I didn’t say: “I would like to have two water melons”. Instead of it, I said “two water melons” and pointed out what I wanted. It influenced my English skills in a negative way. Nevertheless, I was speaking English every day and I had various situations during the day I needed to use it so I got confidence to start speaking with foreign language without hesitation about words or bad pronunciation.
I was travelling around the south-east Asia quite much during the exchange semester. While travelling, I met a lot of other travelers which gave me opportunities to communicate with proper language. While communication with people from other countries, for example from Europe or middle-East I noticed that the level of English skills of Finnish people is in a quite high level comparing to them. We are just too dismissive about our skills.
After the exchange period, I kept travelling for a couple of months. I had the time of my life. I spent many nights in restaurants hanging out with other travelers just waffling on everything possible on earth.
The last week I stayed in Thailand, I was travelling with a person from the States. I really enjoyed accompanying a person who speaks native English. Just within a week I expanded my active vocabulary enormously.
As an epilogue I could say, the trip was an eye opening experience. I got confidence in my oral English skills. It was cheerful to notice that in my summer job where I spoke daily English on the phone.
If you have an opportunity to go on exchange, GO!
Text and picture: Jani Vehviläinen, student in the course Independent Study in English, spring 2013