The Sorry State of Thai Education – Part 4: Dismal English-language education

One of the things PM Yingluck Shinawatra has often been criticized for since she took office in August 2011 is her English. So much fuss was made about how she spoke English at her first meeting with Hillary Clinton in November 2011 that the substance of that meeting got lost in the fight between her critics and defenders about the state of her English.

Many Thais were quick to point out that she said “overcome” instead of “welcome” to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her welcome speech in their joint press conference. Verbal battles about the relevance of the PM’s accent and ability to read an English-language speech correctly heated up Thailand’s social media for days. Put next to the former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Eton-Oxford-polished English, PM Yingluck’s often stuttering and grammatically flawed English failed to inspire admiration among certain educated urban crowds. To her critics PM Yingluck’s lack of English fluency is taken as a national embarrassment and even liability.

Given such a fuss, someone who doesn’t know much about Thailand could be forgiven for thinking that Thais must have high standards of English. Those familiar with Thais would be excused for chuckling at such a notion.

It is no secret that Thais’ competence in English leaves rather a lot to be desired. And the state of Thailand’s English-language education is such that it would make anyone who appreciates the importance of the English language feel legitimately overcome indeed.

Lackluster TOEFL performance

On the 2010Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) Thailand ranked 116th out of 163 countries. Thais’ Internet-based total score was better than those of Cambodia and Laos, a point or two above Vietnam and Burma, but trailing behind Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, and Taiwan, and was left in the dust by Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. (See Table 1)

Table 1: 2010 TOEFL Internet-based (iBT) Total and Section Score Means – All Examinees Classified by Geographical Region and Native Country

For a middle-income country, Thailand’s TOEFL score is undeniably poor. Thai students’ 75 average total TOEFL score in 2010 was below the international average of 80. The section scores for reading, listening, speaking and writing were all below average (see ETS report).

Of course, TOEFL scores are not representative of English proficiency of the overall Thai population, as it is usually taken by motivated students aspiring to continue studies overseas and young graduates seeking a good white-collar job—not masseuses, taxi drivers, waiters and waitresses who use varying degrees of English in their work. But actually, many Thai university students can be easily put to shame by the English ability of some bar girls and taxi drivers, such as this motorcycle taxi driver who just gave an interview partly in English to the BBC.

Mr. Dejchat Phuangket (who became a local celebrity after he got the first scoop of the recent Bangkok bombing) has never been to college. He taught himself English and can actually speak it with foreigners as well as write it daily in his tweets — this puts him in a small minority of Thais who can do either or both. Many English-language teachers would be happy if their Thai college students can use English at the level of Mr. Dejchat.

The level of English proficiency among the overall population of Thai students is far worse than reflected in Thailand’s TOEFL scores. It is dismal.

English: The least favorite subject

English is the least favorite subject among Thai students. And it shows. The average English test scores between 20-30% in the national standardized O-NET over the past three years mark English as the worst performed subject among primary and secondary Thai school pupils. The score distributions show even more deplorable performance with large groups of pupils getting only 10-20% in the national O-NET which is also deplorable in its own right.

Keeping the dismal record consistent, Thai university applicants scored an average 28.34% in English in the recent university entrance exams. It is little wonder that Thailand produces a “workforce with some of the world’s weakest English-language skills. In a recent IMD World Competitiveness Report Thailand was ranked 54th out of 56 countries globally for English proficiency, the second-lowest in Asia. Singapore was third, Malaysia 28th and Korea 46th (Reuters & The Korea Herald).

Most Thai students feel about an English class the way they feel about a dentist appointment. For some it must feel like a tooth-pulling appointment. A third-year student at Srinakharinwirot University said:

[My friends] don’t study English that much because they are scared of speaking English.

English: The fearsome language

I guess it’s not so easy to be good at what you are afraid of. But why do Thais feel such an aversion to English in the first place? Do Thais really dislike English? Is it fear of the language itself, fear of the learning process, or fear of the embarrassment for not being able to speak it?

Anyone who has spent some time in Thailand would have observed the fear of speaking English among the general population in daily life. Shop assistants, service workers, even university-educated office employees can be commonly seen scrambling to find someone else other than themselves to speak English to a foreigner needing assistance. Telephone calls from English-speaking customers are put on hold or given one transfer after another. It looks as though Thais have a pathological fear of speaking English.

Of course, not all Thais have Anglophobia. There are odd Thai students who want to practice English and try their best to communicate in the language. Some fortunate ones enjoying good English instruction at (often expensive and highly competitive, elite) public or private Thai schools can conduct a reasonable conversation in English. A tiny minority whose parents can afford tuition at quality international schools learn to speak English like native speakers from an early age.

No doubt more young Thais are now able to speak English better than a decade or two ago. I have noticed more young workers in the service industry more confident and competent in speaking English. Still, only a small proportion of Thai high school and even university graduates can competently conduct a conversation with a foreigner in English.

There are many factors why Thais’ English is so dismal, I believe. Primary among them is the poor-quality and wrong-headed English-language education in the Thai school system, which is part of the Thai education failures as a whole. There are also some cultural explanations. But first let’s have a look at how Thai students typically learn English.

Thai students and English-language learning

A Thai teacher in rural Isaan was recently quoted on Twitter saying that Thai school pupils can “speak English” all right. All the important three words of it: ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘OK’. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but sadly not by much.

In fact, most Thai school pupils can “speak English” in full sentences, the most typical of which are:

Good morning, teacher! How are you? I’m fine, thank you, and you?

They know these by heart and can even say them all in one breath—usually while standing up as the teacher walks into the classroom. They also often say them in such unison and intonation that you’d be forgiven for mistaking the greeting as a ritualistic recitation of a Buddhist mantra—which in a way could explain why some students might have a little difficulty switching from “good morning” to “good afternoon” if the class takes place after lunch.

English language education in Thailand is not new. It has been a core subject in Thai schools for decades. Yet, after years of English lessons from primary school most Thai students’ English lies somewhere between poor and non-existent. Most high school students, especially those in poorer rural schools, can barely string a few words together to make a coherent sentence, or write a small paragraph in English.

Rossukhon and Mr. Langlois. Source: Bangkok Post Learning

In a recent Bangkok Post report a Mathayom 6 (Grade 12) student gave her take (in Thai):

Thai students don’t speak English in their daily life, so we are not familiar with using it. We only learn [English] in the classroom. When the class finishes, we switch to Thai.

Indeed. The student, Rossukhon Seangma, is studying at Kunnatee Ruttharam Wittayakom School, which is not a remote rural school but a local public school in metropolitan Bangkok.

Rossukhon’s teacher, Mr. Guillaume Langlois, a French native who has been teaching English at the school for five years, said many Thai students were unable to speak English in real-life situations because they have seldom been prodded to do so. He gave his impression of Thai students:

Compared to [students in] other countries, [Thai] students are not very interested in foreign languages. They [can’t apply] what they learn in class to real-life situations. At school they learn grammar and vocabulary but they don’t ask questions So when they meet foreigners they are not confident to speak.

(See a short video of the interviews with Rossukhon and Mr. Langlois in their classroom.)

Yet, the focus on grammar and vocabulary at the expense of classroom interactions and students’ speaking ability does not translate to students’ written English skills. The director of Rossukhon’s school in Din Daeng district revealed a ghastly fact.

Some Mathayom 1 (Grade 7) students still can’t write A to Z. We have to teach them the fundamentals again and again.

Surely Thai students’ aversion to English could not have helped their learning the language. But the real reason for Thai students’ terrible performance is likely not their fear of English but the wretched instruction that they have endured without any apparent benefit, which also might have contributed to their fear of the language in the first place.

Thai teachers and English-language teaching

In recent years many schools in Thailand have started to hire native English speakers and English-speaking foreigners to teach English. But foreign teachers numbering in the thousands are only a small number. Most schools still rely on Thai teachers, most of whom unqualified, to do the job. Many don’t speak the language well enough, or have sufficient English knowledge and instruction skills to guide students in their learning.

A survey carried out in February 2006 in collaboration with the University of Cambridge to gauge the qualification of some 400 Thai teachers of English revealed staggering problems.

  • Over 60% of the teachers had insufficient knowledge of English and teaching methodology; what they had was below the syllabus level they were teaching.
  • Of the 40% that had passing knowledge and teaching skills, only 3% had a reasonable fluency in English whereas 80% were not teaching the right grade of students for which there were qualified or competent.
  • Some were teaching the level of English inappropriate for the students’ age groups. For example, they were trying to teach English for 15-17 year olds to 11 year olds.
  • There were huge disparities in English proficiency among teachers and students across schools. For example, in a group of over 40 schools representing nearly 80,000 students in primary and secondary education, some primary school pupils in some schools scored higher in some random tests than the teachers in other schools!

Understandably it was hard for the teachers to accept the test results. There was an attempt to set up intensive upgrading programs for the teachers but the schools resisted the initiative. Instead the schools said their teachers had “qualified” through various Thai universities and colleges, hence such intervention was unnecessary.

However, some teachers were honest. Many primary teachers in the government schools freely admitted that they were forced to teach English although they had little or no knowledge of the language whatsoever.

Now Thailand has the National Institute of Educational Testing Service (NIETS) to help hone Thai teachers’ skills. But given the NIETS’s own performance as demonstrated in the O-NET, it is doubtful that the quality of Thai teachers will change for the better very soon.

The Thai government has recognized that something must be done with the appalling state of the country’s English language education. It has made 2012 the “English Speaking Year,” in which Thai schools are to make one day of each school week an English-speaking day. Too little but still better than nothing is my take.

Thailand’s Education Ministry is also now working with the British Council to bring 2,000 native English speakers to help. But again, like most government initiatives that tend to lack components conducive to success, the 2,000 new teachers will be hired on a part-time basis only and the schools will have to pay part of the teachers’ salary. This means poorer schools which are the neediest will be left without qualified English teachers like before.

Since 2008 Thai government increased the requirements of foreign teachers of English in an effort to curb the influx of unqualified teachers or prevent the schools from plucking any farang backpacker off Khao San Road. English-language teachers in Thailand now must have at least a bachelor degree (preferably in education or linguistics) and a teaching license. Failing the latter, the teachers must take a 20-hour Thai culture course, a one-year teaching training course, and pass four exams. A rule is one thing and reality can be quite another, however. One would like to believe that the new rule has brought in more qualified teachers of English to Thailand in recent years, but it appears that at least some foreigners teaching English in Thailand are still without required teaching qualifications.

Unmotivated and incurious – a negative side of the Thai culture

The popular site for foreign teachers of English in Thailand has this answer to a question: What are Thais like to teach?

Be under no illusion – Thais can be a lot of fun to teach, and other times they can be painful.  Many of them (particularly male teenagers) have zero motivation.

Srinakharinwirot University vice president for international relations Aurapan Weerawong explained the nature of Thai students to Channel News Asia:

They are kind of passive learners, because they respect teachers, they have to be quiet, sitting, listening and jotting down—which is something teachers expect from them…. But students who need to learn English for communication, they have to be very active learners.

We all know how archaic rote learning kills curiosity and creativity. Thai students are pitiable victims of this stifling learning tradition. Still, even without rote learning being forced down their throats Thai culture has not encouraged them to be active and inquisitive. Assertiveness is not rated highly in Thai culture, especially in younger persons.

Respect for elders (which often goes hand in hand with fear of authority) means students hesitate to ask questions in class or dare to challenge the teacher when they doubt the validity of what’s being taught to them. To challenge the teacher would be to make the teacher lose facean ultimate Thai classroom taboo. Also, students may not want to lose their own face by trying to speak English through trial and error. The Thais’ aversion to making mistakes on the other side of the coin is another obstacle.

Then there is a seeming lack of drive to succeed characteristic of students in Confucius cultures like China, Korea and Vietnam. How many Thais—students or adults—use an English dictionary regularly? How many Thais try to learn English on their own by reading any English texts they can find, practicing speaking with CDs and DVDs, or asking others to correct their mistakes? How many Thais regularly proof-read their own English writing or use spell-check? Not many that I have seen to all questions.

Not many Thais I know read English-language books, fiction or non-fiction, even those who were once English majors or have a graduate degree. I have come across several Thais capable of writing a fair amount of English who don’t want to write comments on English-language blogs because they fear they will make mistakes and subsequently be embarrassed, although nobody will care.

A reader of my blog shared his experience about his Thai friend who was completing a master’s degree. She asked him to check the grammar of her thesis she just wrote in English.

For me I feel very serious with my research…I face with some big problem I have a problem about English gramma…I bother you help to check gramma of this research……But if you are busy…..I am sorry that I bother you…..again and again.

Apparently the thesis was written in the same style of English. How a thesis adviser can deal with more than one of this kind of thesis is beyond my imagination.

One seldom meets a Thai person who is truly serious about improving his or her English. Among a handful that I have personally met and been very impressed by is a female Thai university graduate who has lived all her life in Thailand but has learned to speak English as if she had grown up in America. She learned it from Hollywood movies. Another is, well, not a Thai: my Burmese housekeeper who speaks four languages fluently and who has two years of formal schooling.

Part 5 will discuss 2012 as the English Speaking Year and how to improve English-language education in Thailand.


This article was first published for SiamVoices on Asian Correspondent on 21 March 2012. See more comments there.

21 responses to “The Sorry State of Thai Education – Part 4: Dismal English-language education

  1. Great post, Kaewmala. I agree with you completely that there are serious cultural barriers in the way of getting kids to speak English. Learning a foreign language is a totally active process and the students must make the effort and take responsibility for themselves. After two years in a government school, I’ve come to see that the habits and values I tried to encourage in my class (daring to speak out, trying to put words together on one’s own initiative, rather than simply reading like a robot from a pre-written script), are not really encouraged throughout the rest of the day. It’s an uphill battle, but I do think I reached a few students. Unfortunately though, I think the majority of kids start to believe that learning English is impossible, because they feel they have been “studying” English since nursery school, yet they can barely introduce themselves. Then they are being taught about the passive voice and subjunctive mood with their Thai teachers – grammatical concepts that are tough even for native English students. I’d be frustrated, too.

    • Dear Paul,
      Thanks for the comment. I believe a lot of English teachers share similar experience. It is truly a pity that the long years of bad instruction has formed such a negative attitude towards learning English among Thai students. I am glad that you are taking a positive view towards your teaching and I’m sure the students whom you have reached really appreciate your continued efforts. Keep up the good work. 🙂

  2. A great post

    For me I feel very serious with my research…I face with some big problem I have a problem about English gramma…I bother you help to check gramma of this research……But if you are busy…..I am sorry that I bother you…..again and again.

    I read that last passage and immediately it stuck out as a Thai translating into their native language, it’s pretty much what I initially did when I started learning to speak Thai, I still do it now, but then I don’t have 10 yrs study behind me.

    When I originally started language exchange, I lost count the amount of times a Thai student would use a strange word that as a native English speaker, I had to find out and check the translation, or the Thais would ask about tenses and all sorts of stuff like that, I made a note of some words and asked why they used those words, apparently those words were taught at school, as a native speaker of nearly 40 years, I was blown away from the standard of words.

    For me it was a complete waste of effort, learning words that English speakers seldom use, it’s far better to use words that are used in daily usage.We are talking words you would use in a court room or very low usage words.

    Tenses and trying to explain even to this day is tough for me, I just speak the language, sheesh trying to explain it, now that’s an art.
    Present perfect tenses, future tenses, passive all the other tenses, I had to go back to school again, well I had to read a few English websites to try and work out what those were.

    I bet most English natives could not tell you about their own language, yet I find loads of Thais know more about my own language than I do, it’s kind of embarrassing.I really do feel sorry for Thais, I can understand why some students must cringe at the thought of learning English, and even I don’t understand my own language. Although if I had 1 baht for the amount of times I have heard “no have” even from students with degrees I would be a rich man.

    I am not an English teacher, but having spoken with many students and practiced languages, I can see a lot of repeated patterns, that seem too common.

    I Know a cleaner in a very important hotel that is used for translation when things get tough, she learnt most of her English watching movies, and practicing initially when I had 1000s of questions about her language ( I still got plenty of “why do Thais say that”, save that for another time)
    Yet because she does not process the degree that is a must for any job it seems in Thailand, yet she is still a cleaner.

    So the girl with the degree from a prestige university in Thailand gets the reception job but can’t deal with a leaking tape and arrange for it to be fixed, but the maid can sort the issue in a flash.
    I guess that the same as the Indian that has the degree but no Thai can understand his accent, but the native English speaker that don’t have a degree but wants to offer his time for free as a volunteer.

    Still when you compare to the amount of long termers that have been here more that 10 years and cant string a sentence together, I would say the Thais don’t really don’t have much to be embarrassed about.
    A foreigner that has been here more than 5 years but yet can’t order a food or ask directions, now that is embarrassing.

    Great blog, I book marked it.

  3. Pingback: English Language Teacher | JobDesk.ORG·

  4. Dear Jason

    I read your comment about the article and I am an Indian and a native English speaking ESL teacher who has been teaching English in Thailand for nearly 3 years. I have been educated in English all my life in India, a country where English is also one of the official languages. I was quite offended when I read the part where you mentioned ‘I guess that the same as the Indian that has the degree but no Thai can understand his accent, but the native English speaker that don’t have a degree but wants to offer his time for free as a volunteer’.

    I don’t think it’s fair of you to be biased about any nationality. You cannot just generalize things without collecting enough authentic data. Might I add here that there are very qualified Indians speaking fluent English in the teaching profession as well as in other professions all over the world. There are also many Indians doing voluntary work in many countries, and are ready to offer their time for free. In India education is considered as a service.

    In relation to what you said, I would say it is just like we generalize things about Thai students, but it might not be true for each and every student.

    Regarding accents, every nationality has their own accent. That is what is unique about English as a global language. There are many countries in different parts of the world where English is the native language and it does not necessarily make it any easier to understand those accents.

    I would also like to ask you what you meant when you wrote: ‘I Know a cleaner in a very important hotel that is used for translation when things get tough, she learnt most of her English watching movies’. Did you mean a ‘cleaner’ is used for translation? Because that is what I understand from what you wrote.

    I think what you might have been trying to say is this: ‘I know a cleaner in a very important hotel who helps with translating things from Thai to English when things get tough.’

    • @Ajarn Purnima, Thank you for your comment and nice explanation to Jason. One of my English teachers in high school was Indian and I had no problem understanding him at all. It’s really unfortunate that many people tend to have a prejudice against Indians (and South Asians) with regards to their English accent. Anyone who appreciates English as the global language understands that there is no one correct or best English accent. Even in the UK there are all kinds of regional accents that native English speakers from within the UK and outside have to make an effort to understand. Many Americans have trouble understanding the British accent.

      @Jason, You are right about foreigners who live in Thailand and can’t string a sentence together in Thai. That would be embarrassing indeed. However, the point of the dismal English-language education in Thailand is not so much embarrassment but about the future of Thailand. The fact that most Thais have been taught English from primary school and can’t even carry a simple conversation with a foreigner after they have graduated from high school or university, shows there is something seriously wrong about the education system. I don’t care what accent Thais speak in English but given the importance of English-language skills in many facets of life today and in the future there is a legitimate reason to worry for Thai children who are poorly served by an education system that basically has wasted their time and not giving any tangible benefits. We’re talking about education quality, not face.

      • Dear Kaewmala

        Thank you so much for your reply to my comments. I appreciate what you wrote about me taking a positive view and Thailand needing more teachers like me and Paul. I am sure that there are many teachers out there who also think alike about doing their best with the few students who really want to learn English and are working hard just like us. Yes, I absolutely agree with you about teachers needing to understand about the quality of education and not just the face value of it. And that the education continues even beyond school hours.

        For example, if Thai teachers started speaking more in English with each other, then the students might also look upto them and start doing the same. This would help the students in overcoming the inhibition that English is something that is alien and something that cannot be used in daily life.

  5. Dear Kaewmala

    Wonderful post and it’s great that you’ve taken the time and effort to write it up.

    ‘This is a very interesting article indeed and it is like a wake up call for all teachers of English in Thailand. I have been an ESL teacher in Thailand for nearly 3 years now.

    I would like to add that there are those few students who are very motivated and like to ask a lot of questions in English. They really want to learn the language and practice it with foreigners. I’ve observed this at the university where I am carrying out my research. It’s unfortunate that the majority of the students who might not be that motivated are those that mostly represent the population.

    I also teach an eight year old boy at home and his English skills are above average than most primary students that I have come across in Thailand.

    I am in agreement with what Paul said about reaching out to the few students that you can. If all teachers made a small contribution in their own way, then I’m sure the effects of the hard work that the teachers put in would go a long way.

    • Agreed. It would be too demoralizing to just focus on the negative. The flaws in the system are overwhelming but there are bright spots to be found–those few students who need nurturing and mentoring. If we can’t fix the system, at least focus on the kids who need and deserve attention. Thank you for taking a positive view. Thailand needs more teachers like you and Paul. 🙂

  6. I am not a teacher. But as one of my many ideas for an income stream I enrolled in and qualified as a TEFL teacher. But as I completed it I realised I did not want to be a teacher struggling with tenses and other things in the course that I had never even heard of. Also they would not give me feedback on the test, as I wanted to know what I got wrong, apparently I passed.
    But I have since tutored a Thai couple who astounded me by wanting to learn and being prepared to pay for it and then expressing a desire to emigrate to New Zealand. I mainly focused on conversational English. I found their reading skill at Thai year 6 high school to be OK. Anyway it will be interesting to see how they go. I wish I could get the same motivation from family members in school now, the 4 and 5 year olds are very good but the early teenagers are not interested.
    Look forward to a discussion of how things can get better.

  7. I have a step daugther who is 11 years old.I have seen her English text book and sad to say that there are full of mistakes.I ask her why after some years of learning she still cant form a simple sentence.
    The answer is that in school the teacher only teaches her the word of object in English but no grammar so if I point out to her certain thing or object and ask her what is it called in English she will get it right 10 out of 10.
    But if i were to ask her to string up a sentence she got lost.I cannot teach her myself as i need to travel out of the country due to the nature of my job and the only western teacher that i found in where we lived(Phayao) are only interested in the tution fee and not much else.
    I am not a teacher and i believe that even if one is a native speaker that doesn’t mean he/she is qualified to teach.
    In my observation I believe the key is to improve the kids English is the teaching method itself and to re-train the local teacher.
    It will also be helpfull to make them realise that English in an important langauge that are used everywhere which is what i told my step daugther.
    As for the other subject i am sure you have some smart kids somewhere who can make the grade but as i have mention earlier on,the problem lies with the teaching method.
    One last note,to all who are reading in,if anyone know of a good English teacher living in Phayao do drop me a line.

  8. Pingback: More about Thai Education | Erin Flew the Coop·

  9. As a director of an international NGO and a part-time resident of the Kingdom for 20 years, I can attest to the low level of Englsh proficiency. It is a sad stae of affairs when waitresses who have little or no higher education have picked up from their jobs better English than university students.–Dr. Johannes Maas

  10. Great series of posts. Agree with pretty much all of what has been said here. One thing I’d add: bringing in legions of foreigners won’t help much – even if they could bring in enough – because foreign teachers usually have to work within the confines of the Thai system anyway. That means they usually have to teach poor materials for poorly designed courses with assessment procedures that make little sense.

    As a foreign teacher here for quite some years, I can tell you that my students’ abilities do not frustrate me one bit – what drives me to despair is the way they are being failed by the courses they are asked to take. Only in very few courses do I or some of my other foreign colleagues have the freedom to write our own syllabi, materials and tests. In the majority of cases, we are as straitjacketed as the students by curricula that appear to have been drawn up by people with zero knowledge or skill in curriculum design.

  11. Pingback: What’s hair got to do with child rights — in Thailand? | Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics & Love·

  12. Pingback: Higher education in the Kingdom of Thailand | LouisMMCoiffait·

  13. Hi there Kaewmala et al – great article and thoughtful posts 😉
    I’m an Australian slowly slowly learning Thai. It’s hard! But awesome. Every time I go back to Thailand I learn a little more, mostly by just living actually.

    The post responses suggest some powerful things about function and face:

    Function: people will learn if they see a reason to know. That’s why the lady who is a cleaner has such great English – it’s a functional part of her working life. I know my Thai is better because in Thailand I need to eat, catch the train, ask directions, go the bank etc.

    I would love to see the Thai government (and host countries) send Thai language teachers on intensive but fun trips to native English speaking countries – without context and culture, how can you understand how the language functions?

    Face: I stuff up a lot in Thai – who knows how much hilarity I’ve provided to Thais with my bad Thai! But, overwhelmingly, people are very kind and patient – because I have a go.

    I really admire the English teacher above who worked so hard to get his students to relax and not worry about making mistakes. But it is very hard. You have to build trust – people have to know that you won’t judge them.

    As I am a Chinese speaker I’ve met many people from China. I’ve seen a lot of boring, inefficient rote learning of English there… it doesn’t help.

    From what I’ve observed, young Thais are contemporary people who love new media, new ideas, new technology. And, if learning a language is not fun … well, it just won’t happen. That’s the way it is here, as well! I have seen a lot of crap, boring, culturally inappropriate text books that bear zero resemblance to the real world. (Those textbooks have been for English, Mandarin and Thai btw). No wonder kids don’t want to learn.

    And you know, there are very very few farang who speak, read and write fluent Thai. There is just ONE course in Australia that teaches Thai language at university level. That’s an embarrassing disgrace for a country so close to Asia, with so many Thai Australians….

    On the other hand, because 1/4 of us Aussies are not born here, we are pretty relaxed about English. Most of us have dodgy English and worse grammar. But it’s ok because we function, we live our lives.

    So I wonder if that is the key – it’s not about status, or perfect English, or knowing all the crazy grammatical rules. Yes, learning English will help Thailand move forward economically. But it has to be functional and practical… and fun!

  14. Hi Kaewmala and everyone. That was a very interesting article and it’s so nice to see everyone sharing their opinions on this blog. I sincerely think one of the main reasons why Thai students are afraid to speak in English is because of culture. I have heard many of my students say that when Thais are with other Thais, it’s not really appropriate to communicate in English with each other. I also often see Thai teachers mostly communicate in Thai with their students outside the classroom, although they teach them courses in English. I think there’s a necessity to make it comfortable for students to use English socially with Thai as well as non-Thai teachers. From my students’ experiences, it seems that when they communicate in English with their Thai teachers, they are afraid of making grammatical mistakes, for the fear of being corrected by their teachers and feeling incompetent to communicate in English. So, from what I have observed around me, and also from getting students’ opinions, I think there is a strong need to make the social atmosphere more comfortable. This will hopefully help students to communicate fluently in English and lessen their inhibition to speak in English socially.

  15. Kaewmala,
    Thanks for the interesting article… the following are my opinions on this topic after being in Thailand and teaching for two years:

    1) Thai students at a certain age (especially boys) are definitely not passive, instead they are little hell-raisers who come to class and do everything they can to disrupt it. Although a portion of this is simply budding hormones, nonetheless a large part of it reflects the fact that they are well behind in their level of English proficiency long before they ever enter their respective grade… they know it, and the teacher knows it, and the students simply give up without even trying.
    2) The Thai educational system, especially regarding English, rewards students for memorizing, but makes no attempt to instill a sense of independent analysis and understanding of the subject matter by the individual student.
    3) There is a methodology for teaching English that ideally should build on a hierarchy of easy-to-more complicated prior knowledge as the student advances from grade to grade. However, knowledge of this hierarchy, or even that it exists, is completely lacking in all Thai teachers of English. (Also, these days the Western world is destroying its own educational system by trying to demonize any hierarchy about anything).
    4) Thai staff and teachers seem to have an automatic distrust or possibly disdain of foreign English teachers. Absolutely no attempt is made to incorporate their skills into a unified program. Most often it is a case of sink or swim for the foreign teacher, with มั่ยเปนรัย and “do your best” thrown in. The foreign teacher is never apprised of school schedules or planning, except at the last minute when it is far too late to do anything about it. In addition, in those few cases where there may actually be a known plan, it is most usually not followed.
    5) Traditional Thai society values the male automatically. Thus when growing up, Thai girls are given duties and responsibilities, while boys are generally allowed to do whatever they want with little or no consequence. When this is applied to school, the results are deleterious for everyone. Then in later life, it is my theory that such attitudes inhibit any attempt to instill a meritocracy in which the individual gains rewards for improving his mind, body, and skills. I have yet to meet many Thai males that I would view as competent; instead, they seem to keep plugging along in life until by their late 30’s some of them finally realize that they had better shape up and become at least average at whatever job they’ve fallen into. Also, it is my view that without a meritocracy, it is easier for a person in such a society to become corrupt by being on the take for bribes.
    6) Finally, knowing English well involves a change in mindset, not just a good memory. Compared to the Thai language and thus Thai thinking styles, English is heavily involved with capturing time, and with being precise in terms of definitions. Although I realize I am on shaky ground with this premise because my Thai language skills are poor, nonetheless I have run this theory by some of my Thai private teachers who seem to concur. Therefore if English is not taught with the intent to instill in the student a sense of the new thinking styles that are required, then that student will never become proficient.

    Oh well, those are my thought, for good or ill. Thanks for your site, and keep up the good work.

    • ไม่เป็นไร = mai pen rai, your spelling is ‘interesting’!
      Very interesting insights Charles. We can only hope that the attitudes of people like you rub off on Thailand at least a little bit.

  16. Hello again,

    I’ve considered some other issues that I neglected in my last comment. As the old English saying goes, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

    7) The Thai system caters to students with respect to having fun first, and instilling a sense of discipline dead last. A Thai adult assumes that the appearance of respect displayed by the student is somehow an outer function of internal self-discipline by the student, but in fact it is simply going through the motions, a facade. The school makes no attempt to keep track of students between classes and allows a multitude of them to fool around outside when they should either be in a class or in a study hall (the latter is never set up by Thai schools). If a student wants to skip class, he does so without consequence, since there is certainly no teacher or other staff assigned outside to monitor such behavior. Also the academic schedule is constantly interrupted throughout the school term by “fun time” activities, which could better be done either after school or on weekends, and of which there seem to be entirely too many. I am forever wondering why whole classes of mine don’t show up, only to find out later that they are off on some kind of good-time event sponsored by the school. This kind of situation even takes place during the run-up to finals, when the kids should absolutely be studying their little derrières off instead of having their mind taken off of academic matters.
    8) There are no immediate consequences meted out for failure. Teachers are required to give all students no less than 60% passing grades, including all students who are otherwise failing. I don’t know if this policy is set by the MOE, but the practice is everywhere in all Thai schools both public and private (although in truth I don’t know if a truly international school would also enforce this). This system absolutely destroys any relationship in the student’s mind between effort and reward, and lack of effort and bad consequences.
    9) Neither the school nor the parents stress homework. Instead I see a number of other factors that occur, including artistic projects being brought home instead. Of course the students love these projects, and they will spend large amounts of time and effort on them. Another factor is rampant copying from student to student, including whatever minimal homework is assigned being done on the spot at school instead of being taken home to wrestle with. Copying is especially prevalent, and everyone knows it. Any teacher with any experience whatsoever can also determine who is copying off of whom, but teachers make no effort to discourage this. I see it all the time, but with 1300 different students each week it is impossible for me to address the issue effectively; however, Thai homeroom teachers should easily be able to pin down exactly which of their students are involved, but they make no effort to stop it. Truly, if a student never is forced to wrestle intellectually with a specific problem, they will find ways to bypass it, which then sets the pattern for the rest of their lives.

    I will reiterate point (6) from my earlier comment: English is not just a different language, it is a different way of thinking.

    After having discussed these issues with Thais and foreigners, I am well aware of all the historical and cultural reasons why such things happen. However in the final analysis these are simply rationalizations and excuses in which people can hide so that they never have to try and change anything. And so nothing ever gets changed. Traditional Thai culture is wonderful and beautiful; it doesn’t have to be changed so much as it needs to be optimized. If there is no recognition of that, if there is no effective reward system, if there is no attempt to instill self-discipline so that each individual can optimize whatever innate skills they are born with, then success is simply a random outlier in the statistical distribution of life and international English rankings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s