Thailand will do just fine

Why Thailand doesn't have to fear the future and the ASEAN community

Another day, another example of Thailand's problems with English.

The EF English Proficiency Index, which measures the average level of English skills amongst adults, has ranked Thailand 55th on a list of 60 countries.

The Land of Smiles finds itself in the ignominious 'Very Low Proficiency' category, alongside such economic luminaries as Guatemala, Jordan and Morocco.

It is not necessary to look for very long as to why this might be so. There is a relentless wave of opinion pieces and articles in national newspapers trying to put a finger on why it is Thais have such problems acquiring English. These range from incompetency at the Ministry of Education to corruption in schools to poor teacher salaries.

All of these points have merit. But it is a shame that critics of Thailand's education system won't inject their views with a little pragmatism.

At the top of the above mentioned index is the 'Very High Proficiency' category. Accounted for are the usual suspects: Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Netherlands and Austria.

Beyond being liberal and wealthy, most of these countries have something else in common: regionally they speak minor languages (with the exception of Austria, which speaks German).

There are obvious reasons why small countries are more likely to be bi- or even multi-lingual. Speakers of Hungarian or Icelandic are acutely aware of professional and cultural isolation when the only language they speak is their own.

By contrast, native English speakers are overwhelmingly monoglot. They experience little to no pressure to learn another language because they already speak the world's lingua franca.

Europe's major languages, excluding English, are German and French with Spanish and Italian following closely behind. When it comes to speaking English, Germany appears in the 'High Proficiency' category. Spain falls under 'Moderate Proficiency' and both Italy and France appear in the category just above Thailand's: 'Low Proficiency'.

All four countries have populations large enough to supply most cinema releases with local language voiceovers. Indeed, a Spanish or French cinemagoer can spend a lifetime watching mainstream American movies dubbed by local actors. By contrast, Swedes and Finns watch everything in English with subtitles.

Who in Italy or France feels compelled to learn English when almost everything they'd like to read or watch is translated into their mother tongue?

There are more books translated into Spanish every year than have been translated into Arabic ever. The point is that regional superpowers can afford to take a dismissive view of learning other languages. This is changing slowly but historically has been the case.

My point, of course, is that Thailand, being the big fish in a Southeast Asian pond, feels little cultural pressure to improve its English.

A Cambodian girl who wants to read Cosmopolitan knows she needs to learn another language to do so, because - to my knowledge - Cosmo doesn't yet publish a Khmer edition. A Thai woman need only pick up Thai Cosmo.

For those who hail from small nations with minor languages there is a sense of urgency from the very beginning when it comes to language acquisition.

Take Iberia. Superficially Spain and Portugal appear to have a lot in common but one is a regional superpower and the other is not. Despite the fact that Portugal is poorer on a per capita basis than Spain, the average Portuguese speaks at a higher level of English than his Spanish counterpart.

The only thing that explains this disparity is a sense by the Portuguese that to get ahead in the 21st century a command of English is essential.

People claim that Thailand will be 'left behind' in the coming years, but there is no evidence for this assumption. Its economy has grown considerably in recent decades, all the while with relatively low levels of English proficiency.

The French and the Italians speak barely more English than the Thais yet this hasn't prevented them from being economic powerhouses.

For all the money they've spent Japan and South Korea aren't wowing anyone with their English, yet the countries are regional titans. As for ASEAN changing the game, I won't hold my breath. Thais will still hire Thais, whether or not they can speak English.

There is little doubt that Thailand has its problems. But instead of blaming poor English-language acquisition on systemic failure we should accept that Thailand, like Italy and France, probably sees foreign language acquisition as peripheral and even unnecessary.

The bottom line is that Thailand, unlike Laos or Myanmar, is a country with a vibrant economy that can offer its citizens a relatively promising life while remaining happily monoglot. And given the infrequency of meeting native English speakers who can converse in a second language, that is something we should all understand.

Derek Hopper

 


Comments

ASEAN is a joke. Most of its original provisions have been quietly removed during secret meetings of the member countries over the past 2 years. What remains is a shell of what it was intended to be. For Thailand, that's actually a good thing as they won't be losing jobs to workers from neighboring countries.....at least not in all sectors of the economy.

By Chet, Bangkok (1 year ago)

Well, there is much to be said in favour of your argument. But in addition, should it not be noted also that but a very pale shade of what could be achieved from the investment into English language education in Thailand is manifest in student outcomes? Actually, Thailand gives a lot of importance to English language education, and plenty of opportunities are provided to learn. They have good access to information technology and native speakers in many settings, and English study is a very prominent feature of the curriculum at many levels, and in many different kinds of institutions.

Perhaps it should be added here that the recipe is very simple. All that is required for anyone to acquire a sophisticated level of English language competence - and let's face it, who wants to speak English like a taxi driver or Justin Bieber, it is the academic English proficiency that provides access to the world of educated people's ideas, or the best sort of knowledge and jobs, that we must go for - is a programme of activities, or a set of mental and physical tasks for learners to perform, that provide them with the skills and information we know lie on the road towards this goal. Activities, that is, designed by those who already arrived there to make the process as fast and easy (and it is intrinsically interesting) as possible.
Education theory in the information age has already mapped out, with a high degree of specificity, the cognitive dimensions of this equation. (Hence the emergence in recent times of global TESOL standards, IELTS descriptors are another good example.) And, it has provided us with a multitude of task types and materials that suit the job.

When decent materials have been provided to students, or when this essential platform of effective pedagogy has been put in place, all that is required is for students to perform these tasks, with the guidance of an accomplished teacher to help them out - someone who can explain what it is they are learning, and what they need to draw upon to do so, and why it is important. And, who can help them arrive at the necessary 'eureka moments', or make the pertinent leaps of intuition. If they go through the motions - and real education is not social conditioning these days, it is giving students the nous to construct and utilize knowledge according to the scientific method, or in the case of English language learning giving them the language tools and thinking skills necessary for them to think for themselves using this brand of language 'software' - then Bob's your uncle.

The catalysts for students to perform the learning tasks are classroom rules aimed at ensuring they exhibit effective learning behaviours, or engage with the activities in the appropriate manner. We cannot help them out if they lack the basic disposition they are going to find out what to do, and then do it, and make sure they finish it successfully. Some students need a kick up the bum to get them started until they realize why all the truly creative people in this world value a decent education. An honest evaluation system is the other vital ingredient, there has to be a penalty in place for not acquiring a decent standard of the skills and knowledge that were taught. There has to be a reward too, for those who try the hardest, in the form of a recognition measure (a graded diploma or degree), as well as in the form of access to privileged status in society.

Which highlights the problem in not just Thailand, but in many places, doesn't it? They have access to good materials. But the learners lack even the most elementary thinking and study skills necessary to engage with their education. (Ever tried to get a Thai to think something through systematically?) And a lot of 'educators' they are exposed to, not having ever made the grade themselves - not having been the recipients of a high level of modern education - make very poor ushers through the door. Then, the students are not put under any compulsion to exhibit effective learning behaviours, no decent rules are applied. Because the teachers are too lazy, or because then the students would have reason to complain about how hopeless they are. No decent evaluation systems are in place either - with hopeless teachers, students do not pass, and hopeless teachers and hopeless schools want to avoid being shown up. It leads to social problems for teachers as well if they fail the student whose family has power in the community, Thai society is rotten and corrupt. So 'escalator systems' are employed. Cheating is rife as well.

No decent evaluation system, of course, means no decent reward for dedicated learners. There is certainly no reward to be found within society, if you are smart in Thailand you better learn to keep it to yourself. The other chickens are going to peck you straight away. You are just shooting yourself in the foot.

Hence, there is neither compulsion nor incentive to be an academic achiever, or to perform the essential learning tasks. Hence, a lot of Thais are dedicated to task avoidance, rather than task performance. Hence, English language education is virtually a failure.

The irony is, people then turn around and say 'Western' - really scientifically informed and enlightened - methods of education are a failure. When the only element of a good education that was in place was the materials, all the other pedagogical ingredients - namely the 'Principles of Academic Integrity', Don McCabe provides a pearler set on the net - are lacking.

My point is, so much more could be accomplished. But nobody ever wants to point out the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

By Chris, Somewhere (4 years ago)

Derek, well written, but I feel there are a few mitigating issues with the economy at the macro level. The three issues I see that will effect Thailand going forward are the debt issue, restricted labour force and foreign investment benefits.

Although government debt is at a manageable level, there is the issue of private debt which has been used to fund a housing boom for the last 10 years, this is at the institutional level where banks have offshored the debt so does not show up on the debt charts. The other issue that I think is a bigger danger is the informal lending sector which has led poorer rural households into a form of debt slavery. This has the risk of major social violence due to feelings of exploitation.

Currently the workforce here is protected from competition due to restrictive labour laws (no surprise to us teachers) but with these rules being watered down with the AEC, uneducated Thai's will be competing for jobs against other ASEAN members on a value basis. With many high end businesses here owned by foreign interests, why would they neglect their own interests.

This leads to the last issue of foreign investment and its benefit to the people of Thailand. So many big name companies have set up shop in Thailand to get access to the ASEAN market and cheap labour. No problem there but the issue is that many of these have been set up on massive incentive programs. With so little commitment and with the powers to be worried about losing face, where is their incentive to continue to hire Thai workers when higher skilled labour is available at cheaper rates.

This ignores the issue of corruption which is rampant in other countries in the area.

cheers

By Timmy, Chonburi (4 years ago)

A very well-written article that provides different perspectives into why Thais still speak English so poorly. France and Italy are much more worldly and influential countries, but Thailand is very similar in terms of having a deeply-rooted, self-contained culture. There is not much pressure for most young Thais to learn English because they can't imagine living in a different culture and have no desire to do so. They likewise can't imagine how other cultures might possibly affect their lives in Thailand - past, present, or future. There are both positive and negative arguments about this state of affairs. As a teacher with strong ties to Thailand, I constantly vacillate between the two sides of this debate. I wonder how much pressure most long-term English teachers in Thailand feel about learning Thai at a fluent level...

By Nathaniel, Lat Phrao (4 years ago)

Derek, points well taken. I would only wonder at your conclusion that 'Thailand ... can offer its citizens a relatively promising life.' To the best of my knowledge, Thailand is still Third World per capita, and those who aspire to a real profession (medicine, etc.) still need English to succeed. The rest of the non-English speaking work force seem destined to struggle at poverty-level wages.

By Guy, Bkk (4 years ago)

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