As I go through a typical day, one nagging question keeps popping up in the back of my head; Why can't Thai people speak English?
Well that's a dumb question, right? I can already hear some of the answers now. "They're Thai. They speak Thai. We're in Thailand. Duh"
Alright let me rephrase the question then. Considering that English has been the international language of tourism and commerce for I don't know how many decades now, and there are I don't know how many thousands of English teachers all over the country, why is the general level of English so poor?
Why can't even young, supposedly educated college students speak English? Why can't the Pratom (primary) teachers at my school, who are supposed to teach every subject, including English, speak English?
Ok two of them can, but most can't, so we have a situation here where Thai English teachers can't speak English.
The odd thing about it is that they are required to be in my class to help control the students and presumably to learn English as well, which I am thankful for. But when the class is going smoothly and I don't really need any help, the Thai teacher often tunes out my lesson, opting instead to open up his or her laptop and squeeze in a couple games of solitare or log in to Facebook or whatever it is they do.
Not only does this give students the message that it's acceptable to ignore my lesson, but aren't the Thai teachers shooting themselves in the foot when they waste a great opportunity to learn English from a native speaker along with their students???!!!
Recently the director of my school called a meeting with all the foreign teachers. The director (who doesn't speak English) was ranting and raving (in PasaThai) about how Thailand is trying to catch up to ASEAN standards of English proficiency.
He instructed all the Thai teachers that they need to use and teach English vocabulary words in all the subjects. At this point I must borrow the phrase I have seen in other articles on this site and say that it would be comical if it weren't so tragic.
I'm really not trying to put down my school, the teachers, or Thai people in general. Some of the teachers at my school have been teaching for over 30 years, which means they began their careers before I was born.
I realize that learning English is very difficult and takes a great deal of effort. In some ways it may be "too late" for some of the older teachers and older Thai people in general. But like I said, most high school and college students don't even speak English.
Let's look at some of the numbers for a typical 16 year old high school student.
Let's say that "Ploy" is a 16-year old girl who goes to ABC Government School in XYZ city. She started English classes about 10 years ago in Pratom 1. For the past 10 years she has been going to English class twice a week with a native speaker for 50 to 60 minutes each class. She also has English class twice a week with her Thai teachers, and her math and science classes are taught by Filipino teachers with English being the language of instruction.
Doing the math on that gives you the following stats - Ploy has had about 700 hours of dedicated English conversation class with a native speaker over the past 10 years. She's had another 700 hours of English grammar taught by the Thai teacher, and another 700 hours of science and math classes taught by Filipino teachers.
So over the last decade, Ploy has had a grand total of 2100 hours of classes where English has either been taught directly or at least used as the main language of instruction.
So of course Ploy can speak English, right? Maybe, maybe not.
If Ploy is a good student, and she puts in the effort to learn, and she has had even halfway decent teachers, she probably can speak English. But if she doesn't see the need to learn, isn't motivated, and she has had mediocre teachers, she has probably been tuning out of English class for the past ten years the same way her Pratom homeroom teachers have been doing for the past thirty.
So how can we fix this problem?
I don't have all the answers, but I think that Thai people will continue to put in a very small amount of effort as long as they don't see any real need to learn English.
But as ASEAN becomes stronger and more unified, and as the world in general becomes more of a tight-knit community Thailand will soon see they are lagging far behind other countries where many if not most of the citizens actually speak their second language.