Recently I read with considerable interest an article on The Nation website that stated that adults in Thailand are ranked 55th from a list of 60 countries on their English proficiency skills.
From what I have seen as an English teacher working in government secondary schools here in Thailand over the last 10 years I must say that I'm not surprised and actually relieved that someone else is aware of how bad the situation here really is. But it begs the question: with all the emphasis and effort on employing native English speakers to teach English language lessons throughout Thailand, why then is Thailand so far down the ladder?
It's interesting that at a time when we are inundated with messages about how Thailand is "Ready for ASEAN" every other ASEAN nation ranks above Thailand for English proficiency, even countries that Thai people look down their noses at, such as Myanmar and Laos
How can this be? Are these countries all achieving something superior to Thailand with their limited budgets? Are they attracting "better" English teachers by offering higher salaries and better ‘perks'? The answer, I believe, has more to do with how students learn in Thailand and not the teaching being offered by foreign teachers.
I am constantly amazed at how many year 12 students (Muttayom 6) find it almost impossible to speak even the simplest English sentences. These young people who have been ‘learning' English for approximately 10 years are unable to even answer the simple question, "Where are you going?"
Obviously I am making an enormous generalisation here but it seems that the older a student is in Thailand, the worse their English language proficiency is. A stroll around any Thai government school will reveal why this is.
A flawed system
Thai students are not ‘taught' by their Thai teachers. As an outsider it's easy to come to this country and criticise aspects of Thai life that don't ‘measure up' to what we have back home. I don't wish to sound rude, arrogant or even racist, but it is a fact that the government-funded education system in Thailand is totally teacher-centred and revolves around students copying ‘information' from either a blackboard/whiteboard or from handouts.
Incredibly, the Thai teachers never question this, never wonder if this method is beneficial or effective and is used as a method of ‘teaching' in every subject. When the students are eventually tested they are asked what they can remember, not what they know.
In Thailand there does not seem to be any understanding of the enormous difference between these two. English is, of course, no different. For example, students can remember what the phrasal verb "take off" means but are totally incapable of using it when speaking or writing. I have a couple of stories to illustrate how ‘teaching' is done here.
My first school teaching position was in Phuket and there were children from primary and secondary levels being ‘taught' there. I was teaching the secondary students and I was interested to see how Thai teachers taught the younger ones in the primary level.
One of the primary teachers was a lovely, friendly lady called khun Dang and I went and observed one of her classes when I had some free time. She was in charge of a room full of 50 grade 2 pupils who were totally out of control until khun Dang began copying a large section of text from the textbook that every pupil happened to already have on their desks.
Going through the motions
As soon as khun Dang stood up, the boys and girls all began to copy whatever she wrote into their notebooks. When khun Dang had finished she sat down at her tiny desk at the front corner of the room and simply sat there looking totally bored and disinterested.
One by one the students would finish their copying and bring their notebooks up to khun Dang's desk where she would tick and sign their work with a red pen whilst not even looking at what the children had written. Then the students would go back to their desks and resume playing/fighting/dancing, etc.
With perfect timing the last student had their book ‘marked' just as the lesson finished and khun Dang stood up and walked out of the room. Suffice to say, I was absolutely gobsmacked.
Recently I was teaching at a secondary school in Nonthaburi and I arrived to my classes to find that all my grade 11 (Muttayom 5) students were busily copying words into their notebooks. I was not overly concerned about this because (a) this happens in almost every class that I teach and (b) no matter what I say or what I do it is impossible to stop Thai students doing work from other subjects in my lessons without them resenting me.
On this occasion, however, it was the same information being copied for all of my grade 11 classes and even my best students were doing it. I was able to ask them what they were copying and this is what I discovered: every student was told by their science teacher to copy every word from a six-page handout (which contained information about health and nutrition) into their notebooks. If they did this then they would receive 6 points towards their end-of-semester score.
You can't fool the students
I taught six grade 11 classes with an average of 45 students per class. That's 270 students and a total of 1,620 pages copied into their notebooks. I asked my students (the ones who understood my questions and were able to answer me) if (a) they honestly thought that their teacher would sit down and read 1,620 pages of hand-copied notes to make sure they had been copied correctly and (b) if they thought they had learnt anything from this exercise at all.
They were honest enough to tell me that they did not even read what they were copying, merely transcribing letters and words and that they hated the exercise and had no respect for their teacher. The teacher had copied the text from the internet, printed it off and given the resultant 6 pages to each of her students.
If I had the temerity to do that for one of my classes, I would have quite deservedly been sacked, no question. I wondered what the teacher's lesson plan must have looked like but that's neither here nor there.
Obviously these are only two isolated incidents and I do not wish to appear that I am critical of every Thai teacher in Thailand. My point with these two stories is that from my experience it is the Thai education system and the way that Thai children are taught which is the biggest reason why their English language skills (and no doubt the skills that we take for granted in their other subjects) are so appallingly low.
Thai children are not encouraged to question anything in class. Walk past a Thai lesson in progress and you will rarely if ever see a student with their hand raised (unless they want to go to the toilet, which is often).
Thai children are not curious about the world around them, they do not wonder about things. They are aware, for example, that there are such things as British English and American English - but they never ask why. They accept everything they are told and that's it.
By the time Thai students reach native English teachers in a classroom situation they have been programmed to sit on their hard, wooden chairs at their tiny wooden desks and to magically absorb whatever comes from their teacher.
When we present a model of English in the board the students are unable to process the information and use it in a way that we take for granted. They are only able to copy words without thinking and this, of course, is no way to master a foreign language.
Unless the authorities in Thailand seriously consider totally overhauling the way Thai children are educated in Thailand, encouraging inquisitive young minds and nurturing young talent the English proficiency in particular in Thailand will always be appallingly low and the country will be the laughing stock of ASEAN when it eventually joins it.