The use of English in Thailand, while far from being as developed as in the Netherlands, Germany, the Scandinavian countries or the Philippines, is nevertheless slowly increasing through the influence of the media and the Internet. Thai university applicants scored an average 28.34% in English in recent university entrance exams. Thailand produces a “workforce with some of the world’s weakest English-language skills.” In a recent IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 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.
The government has long realised the importance of the English language as a major core subject in schools, and it has been a compulsory subject at varying levels for several decades. Since 2005 schools are being encouraged to establish bilingual departments where the core subjects are taught in English and to offer intensive English language programmes.
Notwithstanding the extensive use of and exposure to English in everyday life in Thailand, the standard of correct English in the schools is now the lowest in Southeast Asia. In 1997 Thailand was still in the forefront, but by 2001 Laos and Vietnam had caught up, and by mid-2006 were clearly ahead.
Following the announcement of the University of Cambridge to launch a new course and qualification for non-native speaker teachers, a survey was carried out in February 2006, with the collaboration of the University of Cambridge as part of a field trial, by one of the country’s largest groups of independent schools of its 400 or so teachers of English.
The project reported that in over 60% of the teachers, the knowledge of the language and teaching methodology was below that of the syllabus level which they were teaching. Some teachers for age group 11, or lower, in the language were attempting to teach age groups 15, 16, and even 17. Of the remaining top 40%, only 3% had a reasonable level of fluency and only 20% were teaching grades for which they were qualified and competent.
Within the group of over 40 schools representing nearly 80,000 students in elementary and secondary education, random parallel test groups of elementary school pupils often scored higher in some tests than many of the teachers in other schools of the same group. The schools resisted the initiative of the central governing body to provide intensive upgrading programmes for the teachers. In spite of the evidence, the schools doubted the results and, to save face, argued that their teachers had qualified through their universities and colleges and either had nothing more to learn or could not afford the time.
In the government schools the standards are similar and many elementary teachers freely admit that they are forced to teach English although they have little or no knowledge of the language. A debate began in academic circles as to whether teaching English badly during the most influential years is better than not teaching it at elementary level. Whatever results that any formal research may provide, there clearly exists room for much improvement.
The situation is further exacerbated by a curriculum, which in its endeavour to improve standards and facilitate learning, is subject to frequent change, and thus misinterpreted into syllabuses by the teachers themselves at levels often far too advanced for the cognitive development of the students.