To learn English, we must think out­side box

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Soon­ruth Bun­ya­ma­nee Soon­ruth Bun­ya­ma­nee is Deputy Ed­i­tor, Bangkok Post.

Are­cent re­port about the low pro­fi­ciency in English of Thai stu­dents came as no sur­prise to many. What this tells us is that we can­not not give up, but must try harder. In the lat­est English Pro­fi­ciency In­dex con­ducted by Ed­u­ca­tion First, a global lan­guage school op­er­a­tor, Thai­land is ranked 53rd among 80 non-na­tive English speak­ing coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries. De­spite im­prov­ing on last year’s rank­ing, which saw Thai­land lan­guish­ing in 56th place (47.21) out of 72 coun­tries, the coun­try is still clas­si­fied as “low pro­fi­ciency” in the lat­est sur­vey.

Among Asian coun­tries, Sin­ga­pore was top in 5th place, fol­lowed by Malaysia, ranked at 13th, then the Philip­pines in 15th; In­dia, 27th; Hong Kong, 29th; South Korea, 30th; Viet­nam, 34th; China, 36th; Ja­pan, 37th; and In­done­sia, 39th.

The EF English Pro­fi­ciency In­dex has only con­firmed na­tional test re­sults re­leased ear­lier this year. The lat­est Or­di­nary Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tional Test (O-Net) showed Thai stu­dents, both Matthayom 6 (Grade 12) and Matthayom 3 (Grade 9), fail­ing in English with av­er­age scores of 27.76% for Matthayom 6 and 31.80% for Matthayom 3.

In fact, English is just one of many sub­jects that Thai stu­dents scored poorly in.

The re­sults showed less than 50% of Matthayom 6 stu­dents passed four — sci­ence, maths, so­cial stud­ies and English — out of five sub­jects. The only one passed by more than 50% was Thai lan­guage. On av­er­age, Matthayom 3 stu­dents failed all the five sub­jects.

Many ex­cuses have been given for the poor English skills of Thai stu­dents and the gen­eral pub­lic.

One fa­mil­iar-yet-ridicu­lous rea­son for Thai peo­ple’s poor English skills that I have of­ten heard is that, un­like sev­eral other coun­tries, Thai­land was never colonised by an English-speak­ing na­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, by Bri­tain.

It’s true that some for­mer colonies of the Bri­tish have su­pe­rior English skills but that does not mean that coun­tries like Thai­land that have never been colonised must al­ways be English de­fi­cient.

Look at Viet­nam. It’s a for­mer colony of France, but the coun­try per­forms well in the EF rank­ing, as well as other in­ter­na­tional tests like the Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment (Pisa) which showed Thai stu­dents fall­ing to 54th place while Viet­namese stu­dents’ scores im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly to 8th.

Thai peo­ple can be proud of their his­tory but that should not be an ex­cuse for our stu­dents’ poor pro­fi­ciency in English, the world’s lin­gua franca.

In my view, par­ents are part of the prob­lem and hin­der the progress of Thai stu­dents. Many par­ents com­plain when their chil­dren poorly per­form in core sub­jects like maths or sci­ence, yet they are far less vo­cif­er­ous when their off­spring fail an English test, pass­ing it off with the mai pen rai at­ti­tude, as “English is not our an­ces­tors’ lan­guage”.

Stu­dents them­selves are also part of the prob­lem.

Re­cently, I met a group of English-ma­jor stu­dents from a pro­vin­cial univer­sity. A glance through their study back­grounds showed me sev­eral of them pos­sessed good records in English read­ing and writ­ing. Yet, af­ter I fin­ished my in­tro­duc­tion in English and opened the floor for dis­cus­sion, none asked any ques­tions or spoke up.

Their teacher, who is a for­eigner, ad­mit­ted that his stu­dents’ lack pro­fi­ciency in speak­ing and lis­ten­ing even though sev­eral per­form well in read­ing and writ­ing.

In fact, such prob­lems are not ex­clu­sive to this class. Most stu­dents are shy and try to avoid speak­ing in English for fear of mak­ing mis­takes.

All of us learn our na­tive lan­guage through lis­ten­ing and speak­ing be­fore learn­ing to read and write, but for English, it’s the other way around. Stu­dents are taught to read and write first while lis­ten­ing and speak­ing comes later. In fact, most stu­dents take in­ten­sive lis­ten­ing and speak­ing cour­ses only when they en­ter univer­sity.

Ex­perts have cited sev­eral core prob­lems be­hind the poor English pro­fi­ciency of Thai stu­dents, in­clud­ing low pro­fi­ciency and in­suf­fi­ciency of teach­ers, stu­dents’ lack of en­thu­si­asm and at­ten­tion, and a poorly de­signed cur­ricu­lum.

Cur­rently, nu­mer­ous schools, in­clud­ing those in the prov­inces, em­ploy for­eign teach­ers but, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, many of them lack teach­ing skills.

Some ex­perts sug­gest learn­ing by throw­ing one­self in at the deep end to be an ef­fec­tive way. I agree. These days, ev­ery­body knows Jack Ma. He is an idol to many Thai peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly young­sters, with his suc­cess as an en­tre­pre­neur in the field of dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies.

In fact, Jack Ma should be a model for Thai peo­ple in learn­ing English.

Com­ing from a poor fam­ily that spoke very lit­tle English, he wanted to learn the lan­guage and did not pas­sively wait for an op­por­tu­nity to ap­proach him. In his early teenage years when China was just open­ing up to the world, he of­ten ap­proached for­eign tourists and of­fered to be their tour guide as a way to im­prove his English.

He later chose to study English teach­ing. In 1995, at the age of 29, he took a trip to the US which for­ever changed his life. There, he saw how the Ya­hoo por­tal con­nected in­ter­net users, ig­nit­ing his idea to cre­ate an on­line com­pany in China.

His story should be used to in­spire the young to learn English and ap­plied as best prac­tice for English in­struc­tors to teach their stu­dents.

As many as 35 mil­lion for­eign tourists, al­most half the Thai pop­u­la­tion, are ex­pected to visit the coun­try this year, and Thai stu­dents should be en­cour­aged to use this op­por­tu­nity to im­prove their English con­ver­sa­tional skills like Jack Ma did.

The for­ma­tion of the Asean Com­mu­nity and the rise in global con­nec­tiv­ity and dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies have be­come a big chal­lenge for Thai­land. They will in­crease com­pe­ti­tion among busi­nesses, and open the gates for a greater level of skills and mo­bil­ity among the re­gion’s work­force.

But we are still be­hind our neigh­bours in English pro­fi­ciency.

The eco­nomic gap may de­prive some stu­dents of the chance to im­prove their English skills in class. But no­body is stop­ping them from think­ing “out­side of the box” and tak­ing a more “dis­rup­tive” ap­proach.

THITI WANNAMONTHA

Un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren in a class taught by a vol­un­teer write on a white­board dur­ing an English-lan­guage les­son. Thais still have low English pro­fi­ciency.

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