Much Obliged: Going Beyond ‘Thank you’ with ESL Students

Much Obliged
Going Beyond ‘Thank you’ with ESL Students

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 15,270 views

I’m a great believer in teaching our ESL students to speak politely.

This might be a result of having my roots in Britain, where we thank and apologize for everything, but it’s a great habit to have, and will pay dividends as our students climb the language-learning ladder. Introducing this habit is especially important for students from cultures who do not routinely thank each other for things; there aren’t many of these - certainly less than the popular press would have you believe - but reinforcing politeness and courtesy is never a bad idea, no matter where your students are from.

Here are some ways to approach, practice, and ultimately go beyond ‘thank you’.

6 Useful Tips to Go beyond ‘Thank you’ with Your ESL Students

  1. 1

    Make It Routine

    I teach my students that ‘thank you’ is simply expected in our culture whenever you’re given something, so I begin on Day One by requiring a ‘thank you’ every time the students are given a handout, or have assignments returned. I encourage it with something akin to the Thai ‘wai’, a gesture in which your hands meet (as though in prayer) under your chin. A quick nod of the head can also remind students to thank you, or each other, for having done something helpful, such as lending a pen or dictionary.

  2. 2

    Exploit the Pronunciation

    As it is said so commonly, there are few words whose pronunciation you’ll need to teach quite so early on. Happily, ‘thank you’ consists of at least three knotty pronunciation issues, giving you a terrific chance to nip these problems in the bud from the outset.

    • ‘Thank’ begins with what linguists call the ‘voiceless dental fricative’, and what we all know as the ‘th’ from ‘thin’. In the IPA, it is written /θ/ and it occurs in actually very few languages; of the major world tongues, only English, Greek and Arabic include it (others include Icelandic, Castilian Spanish, Swahili, Hebrew and Albanian).

    Encourage your students to ensure their tongues sit between their teeth (something which, again, few languages have) and protrudes by as much as a centimeter (but no more). A great way to check this is to place your index finger upright against your face, with its tip on your nose; if your tongue touches your finger during the pronunciation of ‘thank’ (or any other ‘th’ word), then you’re doing it right.

    • For ‘thanks’, we run into another problem common to the Asian languages: consonant clusters, in this case /ks/. The tendency is to separate these two sounds and insert a schwa /ə/ between them.

    Remind your students to keep these two sounds together, with no voiced sound in between; their vocal chords should not vibrate at all after the ‘n’ sound of ‘thanks’ has been pronounced. Check this by seeing how many syllables are sounding during this word; is it two as in /θænks/ or actually three as in /θænkəs/? A physical remind is the closing of thumb and forefinger as the word is being pronounced; this can help minimize the gap between the consonants.

    • The final consonant in ‘thanks’ is a voiceless (sometimes called ‘unvoiced) /s/ sound, not a voiced /z/ sound. Spanish speakers sometimes confuse the two. The easiest way to check is with fingertips against your throat; if you feel a low vibration, you’re voicing the sound. The same technique can check whether you’re producing the unvoiced ‘th’ /θ/ or the voiced ‘th’ / ð/, as in ‘there’ and ‘father’.
  3. 3

    Teach the Alternatives

    While we thank each other all the time in English, we use a much broader range of words than simply ‘thank you’ or ‘thanks’. Consider teaching your students some alternatives, with an eye on the register of the word, i.e. how formal it will sound, and in which contexts it’s appropriate. For instance, you probably wouldn’t thank someone for clipping your train ticket with, “I’m enormously grateful to you,”, neither would you say “Thanks a bunch” to your new father-in-law-to-be for permission to propose to his daughter.

    • I appreciate (what you have done)
    • I’m grateful (for your help)
    • I’m indebted to you (for saving my life) / I’ll forever be in your debt
    • That was very kind / helpful / considerate / good of you
    • I’d like to express my thanks / gratitude / appreciation

    There are less formal ways, of course:

    • Cheers
    • You’re a star!
    • Nice (one)
    • Good one
    • Great!
    • Awesome!
    • Perfect

    It will be very important to establish the correct contexts for these expressions, as to avoid embarrassment.

  4. 4

    Look at the Cultural Side

    This is just fascinating. Every culture has different traditions for expressing gratitude, and many have different words for strengths of gratitude, situations, audience etc. Set up an interview, best done in multi-national groups or pairs, where your students will explain these traditions to each other, and perhaps even teach some of the L1 expressions. Hilarity will very often ensue; my favorites have been watching a Korean student trying out the Turkish ‘teşekkür ederim’, and two Chinese students ardently trying to persuade Saudi boys to use the correct downward tones when pronouncing ‘Xie Xie’.

    Are there gestures associated with thanking people in their culture? What would be the difference between thanking a friend, and a grandparent? Or the king?

  5. 5

    Explode Some Myths

    While we’re on this topic, it might be good to examine a long-held myth about languages which touches on the idea of ‘thanks’: that certain language have no word for a given thing. You’ll have heard plenty of these. It’s been asserted that Chinese had no word for ‘humor’ or ‘logic’ before importing them phonetically; no less a figure than Edmund Blackadder claimed that German has no word for ‘fluffy’ (he’s wrong on this one score; it’s Flaumig).

    Have your students research some of these myths, focusing on the idea that certain cultures have no word for ‘thanks’; Hindi and Finnish are sometimes accused of having no word for ‘please’. Does this mean that those cultures lack the concept of politeness ? (Hint - of course it doesn’t, but it’s interesting to see how gratitude and polite requests are expressed around the world).

  6. 6


    Back to our routines, now. The best way to have your students practice ‘thank you’, with all its awkward pronunciation and cultural implications, is to require it when handing them something. If I don’t hear it, I take back the handout until the student relents. I’m partly training politeness as a routine, but mostly I’m listening for a nice clear ‘th’ sound at the beginning.

Politeness is its own reward, and I encourage you to establish ‘thank you’ as a routine with your class from your first day together.

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