Phil Roeland

Ignorance or arrogance?

Students and their lack of proper test preparation

Studying overseas has become increasingly popular with Thai students over the last decade, in undergraduate as well as graduate programmes. Not only do these students need robust finances in order to do so, they also need excellent English skills. Most foreign universities expect applicants to take either a TOEFL or an IELTS test in order to prove their English abilities.

TOEFL and IELTS are the two most important, internationally recognised tests for admission to tertiary education conducted in English. By the way, contrary to what I said in my introductory paragraph, this education doesn’t necessarily need to take place abroad since quite a few Thai universities – both public and private – now offer international programmes in Thailand, open to local and foreign students. The need for candidates to take an English language test remains though.

Readers who have ever taken either test or teachers who have taught TOEFL or IELTS courses can attest that for non-native speakers, doing well on these tests translates into a lot of hard work. Apart from becoming proficient in English, students will also need to fine-tune their test-taking skills and build up their endurance and concentration, as these tests usually take about four hours to complete.

Most universities require TOEFL iBT (Internet-based Test) scores of minimum 80 and IELTS band scores of minimum 6. For more exact information, students should contact the university they want to study at. Although most countries have now implemented the latest version of the TOEFL test, i.e. iBT, it is not unusual for universities to still use the older PBT (Paper-based Test) scores.

Anyway, this article isn’t about the exact scores needed to gain entrance to university; it’s about Thai students’ preparation – or rather lack thereof – before taking these tests. Readers familiar with Thailand might know that getting the required score on these tests is often a Herculean task for many students, thus the need to start early brushing up their English, planning wisely and making English part of their daily routine. For more tips on how to improve your English, please read some of my earlier columns.

As taking TOEFL and IELTS test has become commonplace in Thailand for many university entrants and graduates, tutoring schools helping students prepare have mushroomed. Unfortunately, many wannabe (under)graduate students still think preparing for a possibly life-changing English test is something which can be done in a matter of hours, days or weeks, whereas they should rather be thinking of months or even years.

During the last few weeks, as part of my school’s placement test, I interviewed half a dozen candidates, all expecting to be taught the TOEFL or IELTS nitty-gritty in a few weeks. All but one student scored higher than elementary on the placement test. I have to admit that I was not really surprised. The tragic part was that most were planning to take the test at the earliest the next month and at the latest by the end of the year and all considered doing well extremely important.

What baffled me most was that all these people, whose English could at best be described as poor and at worst as appalling, had no reservations at all about being able to study in an international programme where the lectures, assignments and even the possible overseas environment would be exclusively English. One woman, who was planning to enrol in an English PhD programme, couldn’t even answer basic conversational questions. She looked at me as if I was speaking Russian (to her, I probably was) and kept asking in Thai if I spoke Thai, which I of course stubbornly refused, as the whole point of the interview is to assess students’ speaking and listening skills.

I tried to explain to her, with the help of a Thai colleague, that in order to prepare for IELTS, her general level of English needed some improvement first (understatement of the year) before embarking on a much more challenging test preparation course. She pretended to understand yet didn’t sign up for a course, meaning she probably went to another language school willing to let her part with her money and sign up for an IELTS course immediately. At one point I was about to ask her why she didn’t pursue her PhD in Chinese. If she had answered that she didn’t speak any Chinese, I could have replied that she didn’t speak any English either. Of course I didn’t, but I kept wondering if this university graduate whose English was virtually non-existent was really expecting to be able to study full-time in a language she barely understood. Was that out of complete ignorance or arrogance?

This article would have ended here if it weren’t for an irksome incident I experienced the other day. Unfortunately, the title of this article does not exclusively refer to Thais' language skills. As you may know, Thai roads are among the most dangerous in the world and saying that Thai drivers, even the ones employed in the public transport sector, aren't the world's most skilled drivers is tantamount to calling a Turkish bath rather tepid. Although I don't complain easily and I am aware of the cultural sensitivity of complaints and the ensuing loss of face for all parties concerned, a van driver was driving so dangerously during my last trip to Kanchanaburi that my blood started to boil and I couldn’t help berating him for driving so recklessly. I am sure that in just 30 minutes he had accumulated enough traffic violations to revoke his driving license for the next three lifetimes. Although weaving through traffic, speeding and tailgating – simply put, driving like an utter maniac - are very common, I couldn’t appreciate him doing so when it started to drizzle.

In true Thai fashion, he completely ignored me apart from a condescending chuckle. His female companion tried to reassure me all was good by claiming ‘he vely good diver, no wolly’ , but although Evel Knievel slowed down slightly, I still felt far from being in safe hands. The look on the other passengers could only be described as completely indifferent and of course nobody wanted to get involved, either because they preferred running the risk of accidental death to losing face or because the simpletons thought driving like Lewis Hamilton on busy roads was swell.

A few days later, after I had cooled down and decided to start my private boycott of vans, I read an article in the Bangkok Post about road safety. The Thai Health Systems Research Institute recently released figures putting the number of people disabled in road accidents at 35 and those injured at 350 a day. A quick Internet search put the number of people killed in traffic at around 13,000 in 2005, and rising yearly. Taking into account the number of vehicles, miles travelled and population, this is far higher than most other countries. Such tragic figures should spur passengers into demanding safer drivers, especially on public transport. Are drivers so ignorant about what causes accidents or are they so arrogant to believe that their driving skills, amulets and flowers garlands will protect them from any harm?


It is high time that the thai political elite and those responsible for education and other key areas, develop the courage to introspect psychologically, look at the global world without excessive fear and xenophibia and listen more carefully. Drivers should be looking in mirrors more often, and the aspiring middle-class women looking in them to see if her skin is white enough, less often. Inferiority complex cannot be dealt with smiles and superficiality, it needs courage and honesty.

By martin tomberg, Cha-am (1st March 2015)

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