Have you ever explained a task to your students, checked to make sure they understood, and then let them go to work – only to realize as they stared blankly at their work, that they actually didn’t understand? In my first years of teaching, I was so puzzled by students telling me they understood when they clearly didn’t. Even when I would ask directly, “Do you understand?” the answer I was given was often “Yes, teacher” before it became clear that the opposite was true. This was frustrating! It seemed so obvious to me that honest communication would be better for their learning. Why wouldn’t they tell me they did not understand?
Then I moved overseas, became a language learner, and started saying that I understood all the time when it was true almost none of the time. “Kao jai! Kao jai!” (I understand! I understand!) became my favourite phrase.
Here are my reasons for saying “kao jai” when I didn’t kao jai at all:
- I wanted the conversation to continue. Most of the time, “I don’t understand” was a conversation ender. If I said that too many times, people gave up on trying to communicate with me.
- I wanted the conversation to end. Occasionally, an unusually tenacious person would continue to repeat the same thing, the same way, until I agreed or said I understood.
- I got tired of being the one out of the loop. I wanted to laugh when everyone else laughed, even if I didn’t get the joke. I wanted to be a part of the conversation instead of a hindrance to it.
- It MIGHT have been true. I MAYBE understood. I HOPED I understood. I couldn’t say for sure that I didn’t understand.
A couple of times, I got myself into trouble with this tactic. However, rare inconveniences aside, pretending to understand helped me learn. What I really needed was the chance to practice the language – the opportunity to use my slow-growing skills and to improve them. Faking comprehension allowed me to participate in conversations, and over time, my “kao jai” became less of a lie.
Now, I try to remember that my students usually know what they need more than I do; even though I have studied teaching methods and the English language, I should trust their approach also. I have found other ways to make sure they understand my instructions or expectations, and I try to remember what I was thinking when I was a language learner.
Have you had an experience as a language learner that changed your perspective as a language teacher? What methods do you use to ensure your students understand? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!