Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Future Teacher, Home from Thailand
We’re asking students, professionals, and language enthusiasts five questions on how languages have played a role in shaping their personal and professional success…
Meet Lauren—a speaker of Thai, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. A recent alumna of the Fulbright Program, she caught up with us upon her return from Thailand to talk about immersion, languages, and future plans!
1. After high school, you lived in Thailand as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student, and then as an undergrad, you studied in China with the Alliance for Global Education’s 21st Century City program… If you had to name a single, lasting lesson you learned from studying abroad, what would it be?
Studying abroad is an experience like none other! It’s fun, challenging, and absolutely mind-blowing. You learn so much in such a small amount of time, and by the end of it you leave feeling as though that country has become a part of you.
For me, the lasting lesson from studying abroad in both Thailand and China is that you must always expect the unexpected.
Americans are so used to knowing what’s going on all the time, but when you’re headed to a country where you aren’t fluent in the language, that immediately stops. You suddenly have no idea what’s going on about 70% of the time, but you’re expected to just go with the flow and keep a smile on your face. I can’t tell you how many times I was caught off guard, and I think the normal reaction for Americans is to demand to know what’s going on. But sometimes the situations don’t have any explanation, and you just have to enjoy the ride.
One example of this: When I was studying abroad in Thailand, I was asked to participate in my school’s Sports Day parade. Sports Day happens once a year and is a very big deal: Tournaments for almost every sport imaginable across the school, cheer-leading routines, and yes—a parade! I agreed, but I had no clue what I was signing myself up for… I was told to show up at 3:30 AM!
When I arrived at the school with my host dad, no one was there, and I had no idea where I was supposed to go. After a few phone calls and driving around the city in the middle of the night, I got dropped off at an extremely small beauty parlor where about 10 other girls also were, everyone waiting to be beautified for the parade. Little did I know, my hair would be sprayed, makeup done, and an elaborate outfit—complete with heels—was given to me to wear. After some waiting around, we finally went to join the parade at 7 AM. After the parade, I had no idea what would be going on, but as fate would have it, it was one of the best and most fun days of my exchange. I made so many new friends and enjoyed cheering on my team with them until about 7 PM that evening.
The best part of it all? I had no idea it was coming. So—always expect the unexpected, and when the unexpected arrives, go with the flow and enjoy every moment!
2. In 2016, you became a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Thailand! How was it different to go abroad as a teaching assistant compared to your travels as a student?
Being a teacher or professional in a foreign country is so different from being a student in that country, and I definitely encourage you to experience it if you have the chance.
As a student, my mindset was more focused on myself. I wanted to experience the culture and learn new things, because I wanted to see myself change and grow. I focused on having fun and living in the moment, and I generally didn’t have too much responsibility, aside from going to school. This made it easy to make lots of friends and say “yes” to everything, and it was a total blast.
As a teacher in Thailand, my mindset was more focused on my community.
While it’s okay to have fun, I realized that as a student, I had been living a somewhat affluent life in Thailand that wasn’t exactly how the average Thai lives. In going back as a teacher, I better understood my position of privilege. I transitioned into living more like a local; I earned a local salary and tried my best to become a part of the community’s fabric, something I hadn’t even considered doing as an exchange student.
I realized that as a teacher in Thailand, I was entering a class of highly revered individuals (teachers are very highly respected in Thailand), and I needed to adhere to the culture as best as I could in order to be respectful. My role was to set a good example for my students and to share my culture, all while ensuring my lessons were accessible for everyone, no matter their background or learning level.
This kind of mindfulness was an experience in and of itself, and I focused much more on the community around me—connecting with administrators, developing friendships with coworkers, reaching out to students—than on my own “change” or “growth.” Of course, with all of this, I still believe I grew in so many ways from the experience of teaching, namely becoming a more confident, comfortable, and flexible teacher.
Both experiences as student and teacher were incredible and I wouldn’t change a thing about them, but going back as a teacher was humbling and impactful in ways that my time as a student was not. I gained a lot of perspective and ultimately made a much more significant impact than I had as an exchange student.
3. What aspects of the Chinese or Thai cultures have you incorporated into your life or routine here in the States—something that was totally new and has since become essential?
I completely disliked tea before ever traveling to Asia, but at one point in Thailand, in the spirit of trying new things, I tried it again and absolutely loved it. After discovering I liked tea, when I went to China, I made sure to experience the tea drinking culture fully by going to a “tea city”… a huge mall-like department store where vendors sell every kind of tea imaginable. Of course, I bought as much as I could and continue to drink tea on an almost daily basis no matter where I am.
Aside from tea, I think one cultural concept I’ve taken with me is a more “fluid” concept of time. As Americans, we’re always rushing around to get from one appointment to the next. In Thailand, time is fluid, appointment times are more of suggestions, and in general, people are a lot more relaxed and easygoing in regards to their “to-do” lists. While I still manage to make it to places on time in the U.S., I have definitely adapted to a more relaxed way of life, enjoying moments rather than rushing from one to the next. If something doesn’t get done today, there’s always tomorrow.
4. You graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a major in Global Studies and minor in Teaching English as a Second Language… How are language and/or cultural skills important to your current and future professional plans?
I’ve been preparing myself for a career teaching English as a second language, and knowing a language other than English is helpful in so many ways.
By understanding the native language structure of a student you’re teaching, you’re better able to understand why they might make mistakes or choose words differently than native English speakers. You also learn that there aren’t direct translations for everything; not all languages use verb tenses or word order in the same way we do in English. Understanding all of this ultimately helps me to be a better educator, because I can teach in ways that make sense according to my students’ language backgrounds.
As an educator, it’s also so important to be able to connect with others and develop rapport. One amazingly fun way to do this is by using their language!
I may be an English teacher, but I’ve found that practicing the local language with my students outside of class is a fun way to show them my personality, establish trust, and be a good example!
I love showing my students that I’m not afraid to make mistakes and sound silly when learning a language, and they shouldn’t be afraid either.
5. What has been the best part of living abroad as it relates to language learning?
For me, the best part of living abroad has always been the friendships I’ve made along the way, and when you learn another language, the number of friends you can make immediately skyrockets.
I’m not fluent in any of the languages I’ve learned, but I’ve learned how to be conversational and how to speak in a way that “sounds fluent.” This has afforded me so much help throughout my experiences and whenever traveling.
After studying abroad in China, I kept in contact with my Chinese teacher who would sometimes call me and help me practice my Chinese. In April of 2017, I returned to China for a few weeks and found that although I had forgotten a lot since studying abroad in the fall of 2013, I was able to use my Chinese to get around and I was able to make friends while traveling who helped me out on more than one occasion. Likewise, while teaching in Thailand, I used what little Thai I had to connect with my coworkers, many of which had very little English language ability, and I became a part of their friend group.
Knowing the local language immediately impresses people, shows them that you’re genuinely interested in their culture, and allows you to make connections you never thought you could. Once you get the confidence to use the language without fear of making mistakes (regardless of if you’re actually saying it correctly!), you’re on the path to having some extremely unique and profound experiences.
I highly recommend language learning to everyone!
Have you thought of strengthening your language skills with an immersion experience, either before or after graduation? For more information on scholarships, grants, and fellowships (like the ones Lauren was awarded), check out our page on nationally available funding opportunities! Or are you, too, interested in preparing to become a language teacher? Learn about credentialing and teacher-prep programs here!
And to follow Lauren on her next multilingual adventure—or catch up on her previous trips—be sure to visit her Open Door blog.
Does one of the above questions speak to you? Share your answer by joining the conversation @LeadWLanguages on social media!