I retired from my job in the States last year and decided to spend my retirement here in Thailand, teaching Thai people to speak better English among other things. I knew beforehand it would be an uphill battle. I have spent 4 years of my life here, plus another 11 working at a Thai church near my home in the San Diego area, so I was well aware of the difficulties Thai people have with our language. In fact, most of the few Thai people I know who speak it fluently have a very heavy Thai accent.
This is in large measure because the two languages, Thai and English, come from two entirely different language families. A glance at the Wikipedia map of language families tells the story. English is a member of the Indo-European language family. Thai is a member of the Tai-Kadai family. I further like to point out to those interested that there are 100 million speakers of Tai-Kadai family, with probably 70 million of those speaking Thai. That may seem like a lot, but considering that there are now 7 billion people in the world, it means that only 1% of the world’s population speaks Thai. I therefore try to impress on my students (or whoever wants to listen) that they are fine as long as they stay here. But if they ever entertain any thoughts of traveling abroad, they need to expand their horizons and become at least semi-proficient in English.
Because the two languages are from different families, the sounds they make are different, the vocabulary is very different, the grammar is different and the way we say things are different. In my life I have studied three other Indo-European languages and Thai, and by far the hardest for me to learn is Thai. But I am convinced that English must be even harder for Thai people to learn than Thai is for me.
I have come to the conclusion that there are only four possible ways for Thai people to become proficient at English (if you can think of any others, please enlighten):
1. They have the privilege of studying abroad in an English-speaking nation.
2. They have close, regular contact with English-speaking foreigners for an extended period of time.
3. They have a very high aptitude for learning languages.
4. Through sheer determination and willpower, they decide they are going to learn English, no matter what blood, sweat and tears it requires of them.
Since those in category 3 are a rare breed indeed, and in Thailand those in category 4 may be even rarer, we are left with 1 and 2. Category 1 is largely reserved with those that have sufficient financial resources. That leaves only category 2 as the only one we can really remedy in the short term.
With this in mind, I want to address the recent article in the Bangkok Post concerning a 10,000 Baht per month subsidy that the Thai government will pay out per head for foreign NES teachers at the Thai schools. http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/284237/schools-get-foreigner-subsidy While this is definitely a positive development, there are three scenarios as I see it that it can play out:
1. It will result in an increase in teacher salaries, designed to retain quality teachers here, vice having them go elsewhere abroad. While Thailand is a wonderful place to visit/live, the cold, hard fact is that nobody is going to get rich over here teaching English. My oldest son has been teaching English in Japan for five years now and he probably pulls in three times the salary I get here. In checking TEFL salaries in other countries I have found that Korea and Taiwan are not far behind Japan. Thailand is way behind, maybe in the caboose of the TEFL train or at least close to it here in the Far East. Nevertheless, an increase in teacher salaries is the least likely way I see the subsidy being used.
There are also things in this country that make it less attractive to TEFL teachers. Most notably is the tremendous amount of red tape that you have to go through to stay in the country. Between the visas, work permits, teaching licenses, Thai cultural lessons, etc. it’s enough to put the best of us off. If Thailand really wants to retain good, quality teachers, relaxing those restrictions would go a long way. I understand the reasoning for checking teachers’ credentials to make sure they are qualified, but once this is done, why is it still so difficult, costly and time-consuming?
Finally, increasing the salaries of foreign teachers is sure to correspondingly increase resentment between the Thai and foreign staff of schools. While I don’t see this at the university I work at, from what I understand it can be a real problem at other schools, particularly when the foreign teachers don’t take the time to learn Thai and thus there is the communication barrier as well.
2. A second method that the subsidy could be paid out is an increase in the number of foreign staff per school. This is really the one that makes the most sense, and the one by which the kids at the schools will win the most. More foreign teachers means more teacher –student contact and thus smaller class size. It also means less of a workload for teachers. Also, the more foreign warm bodies that occupy a school during learning hours means that much more money from the subsidy they collect.
3. The final way the subsidy money may be spent is the school merely pockets the money and uses it for other purposes, such as on administrative salaries. Nothing really gets passed on to the kids or foreign teachers. Regrettably, knowing Thailand as I do, this seems to be the most likely scenario.
How the actual money is spent is probably will not be all in one of the ways, but a combination of all three. I would think that out of each 10,000 Baht subsidy paid out, it might average out this way:
2000 – Increased Teacher Salaries
3000 – Increase in Foreign Staff
5000 – Other School Expenses/Payouts
Much as I would like to see it split evenly, 5000-5000 for the first two, it probably won’t. That’s how I see it coming down. Again, if you see it differently or can think of other ways the subsidy will be spent, I would be interested in hearing.