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.
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
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 face—an 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.