Number one for English language teachers

Diary from Bhutan: The first month

Type: Article

When Stephanie Earnshaw told us she was going to be teaching as a volunteer at the monastic school in Nalanda, as well as taking up a number of other teaching positions, we couldn't resist hearing more about teaching in the beautiful Kingdom of Bhutan. Here, she shares her first impressions.

Reception class in Bhutan

I've been in Bhutan for almost a month now and I've been lucky enough to have a wide range of teaching experiences. I'm currently based in two schools and a university, as well as volunteering in a monastery. Apart from the cultural differences, the teaching style is new to me as the official languages of Bhutan are Dzongkha and English, and the language of instruction in school is English, or at least it's supposed to be!

In practice Dzongkha is the language spoken day-to-day while English is preferred for written work and for most official documents. This means that both languages get mixed up frequently and some Bhutanese have said to me that they feel they speak neither language well. Many people prefer to write in English and speak Dzongkha.

The PP (reception) class that I'm teaching often learn several English words a day but they can't really use the words in a sentence. They're used to learning by rote and having their teacher explain everything in Dzongka, a teaching technique that continues right the way up through the school and causes problems later on. It's understandable that teachers use Dzongkha because they often have 40, 50 or even 60 students in a class and limited resources. Everyone understands Dzongkha as they all grow up speaking it at home and outside of school, so less of the broader curriculum would be covered if English was used as exclusively as it's supposed to be. However, the result is that many children leave school knowing the English alphabet better than the Dzongkha alphabet but are unable to form coherent sentences in English. For those who want to pass their grade 10 exams and go on to college, that's a big problem.

Bhutanese schoolboy with Alice Apple

One thing I've noticed that all students have in common, but particularly the older ones, is a reluctance to participate in class discussion. The older they are the worse it is. Students in Bhutan are very respectful of their elders. The little ones bow, say, 'Good afternoon Ma'am' and move out of the way when you walk past. The older ones cover their mouths when they speak to a teacher. All of this shows respect and, of course, being from England where things are very different for teachers, I initially thought it was wonderful! However, when it comes to trying to hear students and get them to discuss opinions and ask questions in class, this attitude can be very challenging. It's monsoon season here and in my English class last week the students spoke so quietly I couldn't hear them for the sound of the rain.

At the monastic school monks are very reluctant to speak before their superiors. In my class there is one monk who is a reincarnation of one of the founders of the monastery, so no one will speak before him or answer a question that he has his hand up for. Students are also afraid of asking a question the teacher can't answer for fear of making them lose face. In contrast, I'm used to students actively competing with each other to catch me out!

In trying to make the students into more talkative and inquisitive learners I'm asking them to behave very differently in class to how they would outside. It seems wrong to ask students to behave contrary to their culture. After all, who am I to question the social code of a country that coined the term 'Gross National Happiness'? But the teacher in me can't help feeling that sitting passively won't really get the students anywhere. If they're not asking questions and trying things out, how will they really learn? Many of my colleagues are also keen for things to change, while others are still using corporal punishment.

If my students think they can just sit through my lessons without talking, they've another thing coming! But ultimately, many of the changes will be on my part. From food, to making friends, Bhutanese culture is a minefield of social codes that I can't understand, even when people switch from Dzongkha to English for me. I've found that people are very friendly to chillips (foreigners) but some things just don't translate. The language is tonal and so, for a westerner, devilishly tricky. I haven't had much more luck with cooking. My first attempt at making Bhutanese dumplings (momos) ended in disaster for my boyfriend who was sick for a week after eating them. Accusations of cholera were slung but I think I just need some more practice.

Rock painting Bhutan

The other day, perhaps due to stomach trauma on his part, we caved in to our bread cravings and snuck down to one of the only restaurants in town with western pretentions to buy a lovely wholemeal loaf. A taste of home, or so we thought. Unfortunately for us a middle-aged Bhutanese lady was already there buying up all three, yes, all three, of the last loaves. 'I've heard this brown homey bread is good for digestion,' she told me. 'Wholemeal? Oh yes,' I said and smiled weakly, thinking of my boyfriend's cholera-ridden digestive system. 'I will buy all of these for my husband's dinner tonight,' she said, 'I don't like, but it will be good for his health.' We had rice for dinner.

Looking on the bright side, though, the view from my bedroom window is fantastic.

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