What I’m dubious about is the idea that Thai students are worse at speaking English than their counterparts in Japan, China and Korea. All this is purely anecdotal, or lacks any empirical research on my behalf to back such a claim, and I know there have been studies done recently that suggest otherwise; nonetheless, it seems clearly the case to me that not only are Thai students, generally speaking, no worse in terms of their abilities than those to whom we might appropriately compare them in the aforementioned regions, but also that there are several features of their culture that might, theoretically speaking, in fact make them more receptive to acquisition of the English language. Although perhaps I need to qualify this a little further; the Thai people with whom I’m familiar, who, coming as they do from the nether regions of Isaarn (Sisaket and Ubon), are really only arbitrarily ‘Thai’ at all, have a cultural predisposition that really seems to lend itself to the learning of other tongues.
So what are the grounds then, upon which I put forward this notion? Well to begin with, the year before last I taught English at my own university in Australia (‘mine’ in the sense that it is the university in my home region, the Far North Coast of New South Wales, and that it is the university from which most of my qualifications have been attained); naturally speaking, my association with the international office there acquainted me with, in terms of their countries of origin, an extremely diverse group of students. What I noticed being that the Thais, most of whom were either the spouses of Australian men or on development scholarships, and thus usually from the Isaarn region, were usually better at speaking English to begin with than the other Asian students. Although of course if you’re married to an Australian, you enjoy a certain advantage over other would-be English speakers in terms of your previous exposure to the language, and indeed Australian men are far more likely to marry the better English speakers in the first place; having taken these factors into consideration, however, and having contemplated the peculiarities of the cases with which I became familiar, I still feel inclined to offer that observation.
Then, there are my own experiences in Asia. I’ve been to Korea, where I am currently situated, three times now; last year, I spent a year teaching at university in Ubon. Although my association with Thai culture far exceeds my experiences in this period; I came here on a Bicentennial scholarship from Australia when I was kid, and since then have spent considerable resources on studying the language. What I can honestly say, on the basis of these travels (and my intimate acquaintance with these two places has precipitated fairly close engagement with young Asian people from a lot of other places as well), being that if Thai people are worse at speaking English than other people in their situation around the Asian region, this is something that has yet to poke me in the eye. Particularly with the Koreans I’m teaching at the moment (17, 18 and 19 year olds at a public high school), my most considered assessment is that, as a group, they are exactly the same in terms of their speaking ability as any comparatively situated group of students that I’ve come across in Thailand.
Furthermore, as I say Isaarn students seem to be possessed of several cultural features that really lend themselves to learning speaking. To begin with, in any class I ever taught there the students were at the very least bi (and read on before you go jumping to any conclusions here!), and in many cases multi-lingual; I’m sure that anyone who has learnt to speak other languages would agree with me when I say that after the first, the rest come easy. Their multilingualism exists, moreover, on account of their multiculturalism; this region of Asia isn’t multicultural like Indonesia in the sense that there is a border around a whole bunch of culturally disparate regions (a bit of an outrageous generalisation, but I’m sure you get the gist of what I mean), it’s a truly mixed-up population (no double entendres intended here either!). The consequence of this, of course, is that students from this region lack the type of cultural secularism that monocultural populations typically tend to display, and thus the barriers to learning other languages that are part and parcel of being possessed of an inward-looking weltenschaung (such as that of the West). Finally, there’s the nature of their culture, if we treat its multiplicity as a single entity now, itself; it is, like many of what I like to think of as the ‘Sunda-Sahul’ cultures, a caring, sharing culture, and of course as we know carers and sharers lack the individual conceit and animosity towards others that is so prohibitive to language osmosis.
In fact, might I, in conclusion here, offer an alternative possibility for why, in the part of Isaarn in which I lived, the students were generally thought of by Western teachers as being dreadful at English, and why the students and native Thai teachers alike have thus been sadly convinced of their inferiority to students in other places? Isaarn doesn’t have much money to spend on English education, and of course the lowest pay generally attracts the least attractive teachers; part of what might make a teacher less universal in terms of their ‘hireability’ includes a number of things, like low levels of or non-specific qualifications, advanced age (putting teachers into the ‘selfish generation’, Koreans aren’t stupid), colonial mentality and generally poor attitude towards other people, that we could consider walk hand in hand with what that wise man Edward Said coined the ‘orientalist’ outlook. (Perhaps it needs to be added too that looking for a wife half your age – or less – in a developing nation generally requires the sort of exploitative outlook that similarly typifies an orientalist nature?). Could it be, in other words, that criticising the students as hopeless simply performs the following purposes; on the one hand, it directs blame for their unreceptiveness to lessons and reluctance to speak to the instructor away from the quality of teaching, while on the other it provides yet another reason for why, as European tradition would have it, Asians are inferior? Certainly, I believe it to be food for thought.