Poor English Skills Bring Frowns to the Land of Smiles

The launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of this year is expected to bring about a whole slew of opportunities and competition among its member nations, as well as throw in a number of added challenges for many. Thailand, in particular.

The  “Land of Smiles” finds itself under considerable pressure to improve the country’s dismal ranking in overall English-language abilities, especially when compared to such countries as the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Why the emphasis on English in regards to the AEC? Well, given the diversity of languages spoken throughout the 10 member nations of the AEC, English is slated to become a lingua franca in a more integrated economy in Southeast Asia.

Tackling the language issue is no small feat for Thailand, as this has been talked about for years now with little to no change observable in overall average English proficiency.

According to the latest English Proficiency Index (as of November 2014), Thailand comes in near the bottom with “very low proficiency,” ranking #48 among the 63 countries listed. Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia come in at #12, #13, and #28, respectively. For some reason, the Philippines does not seem to be included in the index, but the country is well-known for its overall high level of English proficiency. Although the index is by no means the authority on measuring language abilities, it certainly helps to paint a clear picture.

Thailand’s low score may come as a surprise considering how, as a major tourism and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) destination, a large number of Thais interact daily with foreign visitors as part of their job. As well, let’s not forgot that most Thais have English lessons as a standard part of the curriculum starting from elementary school.

“English will be extremely important as a means for communications in business,” said Treenuch Phaichayonvichit of the Thailand Development Research Institute, a non-profit Thai policy think tank. “However, Thai students seems to perform poorly. The mean score on national tests in English has always been below 50, which is a failing grade by any standard.”

So why are so many Thais still struggling with basic English proficiency? Perhaps there is no straightforward answer, but there are a few obvious factors.

Despite the reality of the situation, many still believe that rote learning—particularly for tests—should dominate the English classroom. On top of this, there is a more-or-less “no-fail” policy for students in the Thailand’s public schools. Small wonder how a student can spend years learning English and still struggle to string together one sentence when asked.

Additionally, spending a disproportionate amount of time on grammar is often counterproductive. Presenting students with what amounts to overwhelming rules, exceptions, and subtleties of English grammar makes learning the language seem at best tedious and at worst completely impossible.

For those who can afford it, they study English outside of work or school with tutors or by taking classes at English language schools. While this is certainly a good step, many language learners assume that taking a class 2–3 days per week for a few months will enable them to speak English. Students generally do not practice speaking outside of class, nor do they maintain consistent exposure to the language over the long term. As such, they lose motivation to push further when they experience only minor improvement.

What are the latest moves to deal with this? Despite efforts in the past which promised much and yielded little, the Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is pushing forward with his educational reform campaign, which includes a “Superboard” to head the implementation of these reforms nationwide. These include English teacher evaluations, more extensive teacher training, and setting higher standards for English proficiency. These changes are especially important for underfunded schools in Thailand’s vast rural areas, where learning standards are consistently, and unsurprisingly, worse than in urban centers.

On the business end, many language learning franchises such as Kaplan International and Wall Street English are actively looking to capitalize on the continued push for Thais to improve their English. Kaplan has even opened its first head office in Thailand and is expected to expand quickly.

For some Thais, especially those in the service industry, now is definitely the time for them to step up their English game, and fast. Otherwise, they risk being edged out of countless job opportunities in the near future.

H/T: Bangkok Post