Ajarn Street

Fear of change?

Why the reluctance to adopt English as an official language in Thailand?

In October 2010 the previous government turned down a proposal by the committee on education reform to make English Thailand's second official language. The reason given by the Education Minister at the time, Chinnaworn Boonyakiat, was that people might misunderstand Thailand's history and think that it was once a former foreign colony!

Why he used that frail excuse is anyone's guess. After all he could have come up with compelling reasons like the cost of dual signs and documentation, the problem with lack of sufficient English teachers, the need for skilled translators, the training of current and future government officials, the additional exams that would be required and so on. Or even admit the likely real reason- a fear of dilution of Thai culture and language.

The governments of several other countries have also run into resistance on making English an official language. In 2001, the south Korean government suggested making English a second official language on Jeju Island - as apart of its future status as an international free trade city, but ran into severe opposition from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and prominent academics who felt that this would lead to the loss of Korean identity and language.

And in 2000 the office of the Japanese Prime minister made a plea for the importance of English but admitted that, "it may be possible to make English an official second language, [but] national debate will be needed" (cited in Hashimoto, 2004). Eleven years later and Japan is no closer to giving English official language status, and many would say, not-coincidently, no closer in improving English speaking ability among the overall population.

This hesitation in making English an official language is due more to inertia and fear of change than lack of knowledge of the need. Indeed, politicians, businessmen, and educators in those countries clearly recognize the importance of English.

The Prime Minister's Commission in Japan, over ten years ago, stated that, ‘all Japanese should acquire a working knowledge of English---not as simply a foreign language but as the international lingua franca. English in this sense is a prerequisite for obtaining global information, expressing intentions, and sharing values" (cited in Hashimoto, 2004). And Korea's Prime minister Roh Moo-Hyun, in 2003, openly supported the introduction of English as a second official language.

Of course the three countries spend a huge amount of money, privately and publicly on English education. Yet all are far behind, in English, countries like Singapore, Philippines or Brunei - who give English official status- and where English is the language of business and technology.

In Thailand the government has set 2012 as English Speaking Year with a goal of encouraging students to converse in English every Monday. Such policies are useful but the major leap of enacting legislation to make English an official language for Thailand is also needed. One only has to look further south to Malaysia and Singapore where English is a welcome part of society at large to see that given a well funded 10 year (ok 15 year) plan Thailand could achieve dramatic improvements, and give itself an advantage over Korea, Japan and other laggards.

Once this is put into law, then rapidly expand the number of bilingual schools until all government elementary and secondary schools adopt the model. This could be brought about by (as one possible element) an arrangement between the Philippines and Thai governments (under ASEAN), where well qualified English teachers from education departments are invited to teach in Thailand under similar salaries to Thai teachers. Another step includes rewarding English speakers (using a recognized international proficiency test) in Thai government service by connecting salary increase to English ability and insisting new hires achieve levels of English. Also increase funding for media outlets to include English content, and indeed do anything that helps lead to English being more and more widely used.

Can most of this be done without making English an official language? Yes, it could, but a legislative act has more than symbolic power, it will tend to rivet the people of Thailand on the urgency of English learning: children and their parents will, rightly, start to link success directly to their study of English. Officials, business leaders and the general public will gradually expect and eventually demand that English be a part of daily life in Thailand.
Finally, about my earlier comment, on the fear among some pundits of dilution of Thai language and culture. Well that will need another article.

Hashimoto, S. (2004). Foreign language education in Japan: A Japanese Perspective. Paper presented at the Policy Forum: Global Approaches to Plurilingual Education. 28-29 June 2004, Council of Europe, Strasbourg

Robert Kirkpatrick is an assistant professor on the Master of Education program at Shinawatra University. He can be contacted by e-mail


"Schools are now substituting native speakers with non-native speakers because the parents feel Thai English teachers are good enough"...

Do you think this is really a significantly large trend? I'm not sure...

By Matthew, United States (12th May 2012)

May I just react on this line - "This could be brought about by (as one possible element) an arrangement between the Philippines and Thai governments (under ASEAN), where well qualified English teachers from education departments are invited to teach in Thailand under similar salaries to Thai teachers". If what you meant was that the skilled Filipino teacher comes to Thailand and be paid the same amount a Thai teacher does, you are out of your mind.

If Thailand needs teachers and Thais could not teach the lessons and people from other counties are hired to do the job, then that should be considered a special skill and should be paid more, otherwise, send your Thai teachers to the Philippines to learn the skill. The Philippines has a need of teachers and it's being filled up by qualified Filipinos, and they never hired foreign teachers to teach in the Philippines. Even if they do, those foreign teachers receive higher pay. The Philippines, despite its being two years short of its basic education system in the past, was able to send out around ten million of its people as skilled workers in many (if not all) countries the world over.

Many south Koreans solved the problem of hiring teachers from overseas and yet could not fulfill the expectations mainly because of cultural reasons and pride (which is very similar to Thailand). They set up international schools in the Philippines for Koreans to advance their English skills before moving to an English speaking western country, and they hire Filipino teachers who are paid lower than what they receive if they teach in Korea, which seems to be reasonable. But the result is better and meet their expectation. And the reason is mainly because the students were more, although not totally, detached from their cultural influence and pressure which is the main reason why they could not advance in their learning process in their own country.

In any country, if a company (whether in the teaching business or not) has needs of skilled personnel, and they could not find a qualified local candidate to fill the position, they hire from other countries but NOT to be "paid under similar salaries" to local employees.

Learning a language is not just studying the mechanical system and laws of the language but it also involves total immersion to the culture where that language is part of, because it does not just involve speaking but it also includes the thinking process as well. That is the reason why many foreigners learn the Thai language easily because they did the same thing. As long as Thailand keeps on hiding and disguising its resistance behind its "preservation of its culture" reasoning, it can never achieve its goal, and as one of the commentators said that if Thailand only moves if it sees money as the only reason behind, it will soon find itself lagging behind its neighboring countries. In fact, the reason why all ASEAN countries are required to improve their English skills is for their own survival and advancement.

By Art Tiwanon, Malaysia (12th May 2012)

Mark - you are 100% correct ! Teaching or learning English in the land of smiles is just about $$$$ ! It has nothing to do with education ! ! ! !

By kanadian, China (30th April 2012)

The Education Minister mentioned above was initially (for about a week) in favor of making English the official second language. I guess it made too much sense. TIT

By Gary Conigrave, Saraburi (16th April 2012)

The Thais are not hiding anything with their comments if you read between the lines. Seldom do Thais actually state what they mean. The MOE is stating that English is not really a priority and I believe English will become more and more irrelevant. Schools are now substituting native speakers with non-native speakers because the parents feel Thai English teachers are good enough. Thais learn English to profit from tourist and expats not to learn English as a member of the ASEAN Economic Community. Thais value their culture far more than any membership in an economic community and unless Thais feel like there is a profit to be made then English will continue to decline.

By Mark, BKK (12th March 2012)

From 2015 all members of the ASEAN Economic Community will be using English as the lingua franca. This was decided in 2008, along with the decision that citizens of member-states will be free to seek work in any other ASEAN nation without work-permits. This means that Thai job-seekers will be competing with, for example, Singaporeans, Malays,and Filipinos, and English will be the language of communication in many work-places. All of these countries have better standards of education generally, and in the case of the first two, better English.

The Thai Education authorities have done virtually nothing of any substance to prepare for this. The declaration of 2012 as 'English-speaking Year', along with the suggestion that schools adopt a policy of setting aside one day a week as 'English-speaking Day' is a very weak response. Very few schools are in a position to comply.

The time for nationalist rhetoric has passed; it is a fait accomplis: ASEAN countries are all going bilingual. It will be interesting to see the Thai authorities in panic-mode when the penny drops.

By michael CM, Chiang Mai (2nd February 2012)

Thanks for your comments on the article Matthew! I agree with all you say, especially the piece about how difficult it would be for our own countries to become bilingual, does show what a huge step it will be for Thailand --albeit a needed one.
I will make a start on the "Cultural Decline if English is made an Official Language" topic in the near future.

By Robert kirkpatrick, Bangkok (19th January 2012)

Thank you for this article. There is a lot of food for thought in it. I believe that foreign English teachers in Thailand (whether a so-called 'TEFLer' on gap year at a Thai government school or a visiting 'Ajarn' at a university..or any other iteration) do well to make a habit of 'stepping back' from the specifics of their particular classrooms and survey the 'big picture' -the 'hows' and 'whys' (and perhaps 'ifs')- of the evolving character and function of the English language in Thailand. If nothing else, it helps to imbue a very often challenging endeavor with perhaps a bit more meaning -and hopefully sense of value and worth- on those days when 'all seems lost'. We can then better avoid the burnt-out cynicism that we so often encounter online or in our staffrooms and/or experience ourselves as teachers 'facing all...THIS'. Because, without meaning to sound too grandiose, we as English teachers ARE involved in something far more consequential and weighty and historically relevant than your average person. We ourselves are nodes, points of connection, in an unprecedented process of global change. We're doing a job that is truly much 'bigger than ourselves". And so it's absolutely necessary to be able to 'step back' and appreciate the scope of the project and our limited, but essential piece of it.

Why do we so often feel like we're 'teaching uphill' in Thailand? Are we wrong to imagine a kind of overall cultural positivity to learning and speaking English...that seems entirely absent around us? It so often seems like our students culture and society itself does NOT 'have their back' in the process of learning this international language. And when we hear a Thai Education Minister explain his opposition to recognizing English as an official language because it would presumably be nothing more important than a force for the dissemination of lies and misunderstanding...well...we can only tip our hat to the cynic across the table.

But not taking such things at face value, and giving ourselves the space to dig a bit deeper is good. Your article compares Thailand's shaky relationship to English with Japan's history of ambivalence. If we looked further, I think we'd find numerous examples of countries wrestling in not-so-graceful ways with the 'challenge' of becoming bilingual societies. A bilingual society...while we're 'stepping back', here's an activity in visualization: imaging our home countries easily applying a policy that expected a functionally fluent bilingual population. Wow. In America? Wow...

The point is not to 'excuse' Thailand for its sometimes ridiculous seeming approach to what is clearly an important - nay, necessary - new mandate. But simply to have some perspective (which is what this article gives -- in so much contrast to the 'rants' we often read in the letters section of this site and elsewhere). As English teachers in Thailand, especially as a primarily casual, non-advanced degree'd, second career type teacher community, need a steady diet of this...perspective.

Your final rumination on what accounts for Thai pundit's expressions of seemingly outsized fears that the English language brings with it the seeds of Thai cultural death is intriguing and I hope you follow up this article with more...perspective.

We don't need rants. We don't even really need opinions. What we before any of that is more perspective. Thanks for sharing some.

By Matthew, Boston via Bangkok (18th January 2012)

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