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The good soul of Ban Phang Heng Secondary School – An interview with Ms Saysamone Singhalath

Ms Saysamone Singhalath is 26 years old and has taught history at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School for six years now. In addition, she takes care of the Didactics Room. This means she opens it in the morning, takes care of the equipment and materials and checks if everything is working as it should be.

She also joined our “(Non-English) teacher Beginners” lessons in 2016 and 2017 to improve her English and has made a lot of progress since. From Monday to Friday she also visits the private English lessons in Ban Phang Heng Primary School, offered in the evening by different Lao teachers of English for adults and pupils.

As a “Beginner” learning a foreign language, she practises a lot and made a lot of headway during this past year. Ms Saysamone is very open and readily speaks in the foreign language without hesitation now, so communication with her is easy, always fun, and also a rewarding and enriching experience. 

With her very friendly attitude and always smiling demeanour, it is always a pleasure to meet her in one’s daily school life – she lights up even the worst day with a smile or a joke and everyone can count themselves lucky to have her as a companion and friend.

LM: “Did you learn English at school? What were the lessons like?”

Ms Saysamone learnt English at school. As she told me, it was “a lot of listen and repeat”, but she always thought that the lessons were good. Still, it was not one of her good subjects and she did not know how to improve. “When I was a student, my English was not really good and I didn’t understand it. I can’t even pronounce ‘thank you’,” she laughed. “Two years ago, I didn’t study English in evening class.” She would have had to pay money for it. After finishing school she dropped the idea of improving her English, but that changed about two years ago.

Her first teacher of English after school was Ms Monika Schellberg, a private volunteer for the Angels for Children foundation. She taught her and some other teachers. In addition, the director of the evening school told her that as a teacher at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School she would not have to pay for the English courses. Since then, she has studied hard and has had a lot of fun while learning English.

LM: “How does learning English now with the volunteers from Germany and your teachers in evening school differ from learning it at school?”

“I think both is very good for me, because when I talk to you I have to know the pronunciation. When we speak, you correct me directly and that’s what I can remember.” In evening school, she learns how to build sentences in a correct way, also grammar rules and how to apply them. The combination of practice and theory is what she thinks is best for her improvement. “If I only talk to you, I know how to talk, but not how to make a [correct] sentence. If you just learn and study, but I don’t talk English, my English will be not so good. Talking makes your English better!”

LM: “Did your responsibility for the Didactics Room help you to get in contact with the volunteers from Germany and improve your English while talking to them?”

“It’s very good for my English, because normally I’m too shy to speak and now it’s my work and I have to talk to you because we have to work together.” Ms Saysamone is convinced that taking care of the Didactics Room makes her English better. As a “non-English teacher”, she says it is her only chance in school to practise: “When there are no people I’m talking to, I will forget everything.”

Apart from her special task in our project, the “Non-English teacher” lessons played an important role in her development. After the beginnings with Ms Schellberg, she had different teachers: Ms Pauline Kern, Mr David Schrep (Team III), Ms Venetia Dariou (Team IV) and Ms  Jessica Porscha (Team V). All of them helped her to gain confidence in speaking English!

LM: “What did you think about the project when you first heard about it?”

Anika (Team III) asked her to take care of the Didactics Room. “I was so exciting and happy to hear that I should take care about it.” She reported that she knew Team I and II, “but I didn’t talk to them because I didn’t know how to speak.” Ms Schellberg was still at the secondary school at the same time, so the English and Non-English teachers were taught in different ways. Therefore, at the very beginning of her English speaking career, she was still very insecure.

Before the project started, no one told her that the German teachers from the University of Education Karlsruhe would come to Laos, so this came as a surprise for her. Two years-and-a-half later, she really likes the new system and “if it’s possible I would like to learn English like the English teachers, about 2 or 3 hours per week”. (Editor’s note: We started out with 5 lessons a week for the English teachers, and as they became more confident, used two of those hours for preparing lessons together instead.)

LM: “What do you like about English?”

“For me I think English is very important because English is a very important language because all the world has to know about English. When I can speak English I can go everywhere. For this school, we have foreigner that come to our school every year and then it’s better if I can speak English to talk to them and to help them. I wants to help you because you are very important for our school.”

This appreciation, even from someone who does not benefit from the project as much as the English teachers do, makes me even happier about having joined and being part of this project. This is also what this project is about: Not only teaching/learning English, but making new friends and connecting to others’ lives.

“I think if my English is better when I speak with you or we communication. If I say somehing, but I didn’t mean it like this, there will be misunderstandings. English is a very important language and I’m very happy to speak English. I never think that I could speak English or this moment would be possible. Not possible without Monika because she was the first person I talked to and she supported me. Ms Monika told me to study English and how I can learn it.” She told her that only talking to people will improve her English continuously.

LM: “What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?”

“First of all I would like to be a good person and I feel about improving my English. I want to speak English very well and confidently.”

LM: “Can you please name three wishes for your future?”

“The first thing, I would like to do something for my family, parents, they should be good and happy everyday. The second thing I would like to buy a new house for me and my family. I will take care of my parents when they are old. The last thing, I would like to be a good teacher and I would like to go to university to improve myself and to get a higher level.”

Right now, Ms Saysamone has a high certificate in History, but she would like to get a Bachelor’s degree. “People in Lao want to be bachelor degree.”

Striving for more is a well-known phenomenon for most of the people in this world with many opportunities. In my opinion, Ms Saysamone already improved a lot, even in the short period of my four months in Laos, and I hope she stays keen on learning a foreign language and developing her skills!

Text by L. Malchow

Photos by R. Dengler & L. Malchow

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