How can a Japanese woman in Bangkok improve her English?
This was the question an English teacher posed to me the other day, as we were waiting to pick up our kids from school.
The Japanese population in Bangkok is so huge that it’s possible for a woman, who had moved here due to her husband’s work assignment, to function without ever actually learning to speak more than a few words of Thai or rudimentary English.
The upscale malls and supermarkets crammed into the Sukhumvit area – especially around Phrom Phong up to Ekkamai – usually have staff who can communicate in English, or even Japanese.
Their children attend Japanese kindergartens and schools, staffed by Japanese teachers.
International hospitals come with special lounges and reception desks for Japanese speakers, and provide interpreters where needed.
The Japanese Association offers members a rich smorgasbord of clubs and hobbies and services, all in Japanese.
Many of these ‘trailing spouses’ (many of them moms) do try to step out of their comfort zone, and enroll in Thai or English language classes. But too often their classmates are fellow Japanese moms, so naturally any socializing outside class ends up being in Japanese.
So how can a woman improve her English in this kind of environment?
Frankly, the reality is that only actual need and use will improve our speaking skills. It’s the rare individual who can master a language when there is no need for it.
Being myself the farthest thing from a diligent student when not pressed with a deadline, this explains to me why I could speak basic taxi Thai by the end of two years, as opposed to my mastery of perhaps five words of Tagalog after two years in the Philippines.
It seems to be the same for our children too – I think the only reason why they can speak more than one language is that they know I won’t understand them if they speak to me in Thai, and they know their nanny won’t understand Japanese, etc.
So…is there no hope for those of us who are trying to improve a language we do not actually use?
I will only share the words of a lovely, elderly German lady who could speak multiple languages. She said to me (gulp, 20 years ago!):
“You must read, read, read.”
Make what you will of it.