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.