The Nation (Bangkok)
14 September 2004
Thailand’s English Speaking Dilemma
By Ashali Varma
Considering Thailand has been getting 11 million foreign tourists every year and the service sector is so strong and well run it is difficult to understand why very few Thais speak English. Agreed that the tourists who visit the country are from different parts of the world including Europe, Japan and South Korea but on the whole most travelers speak some English, as it has become a universal language, especially in today’s information technology driven, globalized world.
Another puzzling fact is that even though young Thais listen to Western music and love Western fashion, they don’t feel the need to be able to communicate in English. A friend of mine, Deepak who has lived here for nine years describes a scene that took place in Central, some years ago. She had a visitor from Singapore and they went shopping at Central. The visitor needed help to find something but the salesgirls could not understand her, so much to Deepak’s embarrassment her visitor started asking the girls a little heatedly “How come you don’t speak English.” The polite salesgirls looked at each other, giggled a bit and then one of them said, “No need.” Deepak was delighted with the reply as it shut her visitor up.
I agree with Deepak that one has to be sensitive to the culture and traditions of a land and one should not demand English of salespeople but I can’t help wondering of how this attitude of “no need,” may in the long run, affect the marketability of the many bright, young Thais I meet. Already, it seems to me that they are losing out on prime jobs available in the many multinational companies that are located here. Since there aren’t enough English speaking Thais, most of the higher end jobs are taken by Indians, Chinese or Westerners.
A few months ago, my husband’s company advertised for Thai engineers and sales people who could speak English. There were many resumes but few qualified as even though they professed to know English, they could not communicate or write well enough to be considered for a job where fluency in English was required. The company hired Khun Roongrat a bright, young Thai who was an English major from Dhurakijpundit University. What made this young man different? Why had he chosen to do an English major? I decided to find out.
Khun Roongrat studied in a government school. He told me that English was taught in both private and government schools in Thailand but private schools had more money so could afford better teachers and equipment (like sound labs where students listen to English being spoken). But despite the fact that children were taught English in schools it was just a few classes a week and most students were not proficient in the language when they left school. “The reason for this is that we don’t use English in everyday life and most children are shy of trying to speak as they feel that they will pronounce words wrong,” he said.
After finishing school, while his friends took up accounting and engineering he chose a career path that made English skills necessary. He decided he wanted to study international trade in University and for this he had to do four years of English.
Khun Roongrat said that when he was growing up the Ministry of Education did not put much emphasis on English. This is because all jobs, whether in the government or private sector required only Thai speaking skills so there was little incentive to learn English. Thai companies would hire perhaps one or two people to head exports, where English was necessary.
“It has changed now,” he said, “ Prime Minister Thaksin has emphasized that a higher standard of English should be taught in schools along with information technology.”
“Attitudes are also changing,” Khun Roongrat, said, “my friends think highly of me because I work for an international company and although they can’t speak English, they are making sure their children learn.”
I asked Khun Virat, the manager of our apartment building how she came to be fluent in English. She told me that in school, even English grammar was taught in Thai and it was difficult to learn how to speak as her friends and parents spoke only in Thai. She majored in psychology in university but it was also taught in Thai. She felt she would not get a good job unless she studied English so she went to an English secretarial college.
“We had to learn bookkeeping, typing and other secretarial skills, all in English and the first year was really difficult,” she said, “We had teachers from India and Singapore and their different accents were difficult to understand.” She had to study really hard to do keep up.
“I think that people who know English have an advantage and we have more schools and institutions now with bilingual programs. My 15-year-old daughter, Beaut, has gone to America for a year on a student exchange program,” Khun Virat said, “There are many organizations that help to make this possible now.” Then she laughingly told me that her daughter who had earlier also been to New Zealand for a ten week summer course in English, wrote to her from the US and said, “ Mama, I thought I spoke good English but after coming here I realize it is not so good.”
Khun Virat said that she is sure this generation of children will be able to speak English, as more and more parents are realizing the importance. “My friends all want their children to learn English and study abroad,” she said.
I am sure she is right. Bilingual education has become increasingly important and with enough government backing and parental guidance, Thai children need not have a difficult time learning a second language, they merely have to start young. In India, even though literacy levels are much lower, bilingual education starts by age five and most jobs demand fluency in at least two languages. It has helped the country get ahead in the information technology field and also made it easier for its people to compete successfully in an international environment. Thailand can do just as well if its young people are given the same motivation.