English and ASEAN

English and ASEAN

Ever since I arrived in Bangkok in 2011, I’ve being witnessing the amazing spread of English fever. At the national level, Thailand is wholeheartedly invested in the promise of English – the idea that proficiency in English will make ‘it’ happen for them, be it more economic development, more participation in global spheres or more 21st century cosmopolitan look to the international community. “Learn/teach English, better and faster!” is very much the message at the education level where we are seeing the rising number of English-medium programs in secondary and higher education, the constant come-and-go of fly-in/fly-out ‘language experts’ in Bangkok, and mushrooming private English language schools throughout the country. Similar to those in many other non-English speaking Asian nations, everybody I know wants to learn English to get a good job, and most academics I meet speak of English as the key to Thailand’s brighter economic future.

The discourse of English for employment and for national competitiveness was also on everyone’s lips at this year’s Thai TESOL Conference (27 -28 Jan, 2012). One of the first panels on Day 1, “Thailand English language readiness and action plans for ASEAN 2015”, argued that English is imperative towards the launch of the Asean Community in 2015. In less than three years from now, they pointed out, the ten Asean nations will open their national borders, and Thai nationals will have to compete against English-speaking professionals and skilled workers from the other member states in local employment sectors. The panel warned that Thai people’s English is not good enough and that lack of English will leave the nation out in the cold, a sentiment that is widely circulating in media. Having attended this panel and other papers, I came out of the conference with a sense of renewed interest in the issue as well as a great sense of puzzlement.

First of all, although everyone seems to recite “Thai people’s English is not good enough”, the discussion stops short of explaining what not good enough means and for what. Most academics I speak to suggest that the notion of ‘native-speaker’ is dead in that non-native speakers should be proud of their ‘non-standard variety of English’ (whatever that maybe). However, papers at the conference and discussions I’ve had in Bangkok to date seem to suggest otherwise; these are all about how a Thai accent has to be eliminated or how Thai grammar interferes with standard English grammar, or that Thai people should stop being shy, etc. All of these discourses are evidence for the fact that the native speaker/Western ideal is well and truly alive. This schizophrenic-like approach to assessment of what’s good English is the hidden mechanism that keeps Thai non-native speakers of English forever insecure about their English, and that keeps Western native speaker teachers popular in the job market.

Another sense of puzzlement comes from a near-absence of research reports on actual language needs in Thailand’s employment sectors. This strikes me as odd, particularly since the current push for English has a strong employment basis as discussed above. At the conference, little information was offered as to what level of proficiency in what languages are needed or valued for what kinds of positions in what industry. The lack of such research, and the single-minded focus on English, also seem to blind us from multilingual resources that already exist and have worked well in industries such as tourism, and that could be expanded to strengthen Thailand’s competitiveness.

Phanisara (Nina) Logsdon on the panel above rightly called for a sustainable approach to improving language policy and education in Thailand towards 2015. Collaborative research between researchers and local industry partners, with an aim to producing an in-depth understanding of linguistic resources and changing linguistic needs in local employment sectors, may just contribute towards building part of a sustainable approach. In Asia as a whole, it’s been a popular practice to bring in Western ‘language experts’ to a country for a week or so, but such an approach has proven to be of limited benefits. A sustainable approach to researching language resources and needs entails inviting experts with a proven record of industry-based research, to work with us for capacity building on a long-term basis.

Without empirically-based research and long-term research collaborations between local and international researchers from relevant fields and industrial partners, Thailand’s debate on language policy and programs, including Thailand’s Year 2012 English Speaking Program (for which Tony Blair is a fly-in/fly-out English teacher), will remain uninformed and even continue to work as an unproductive threat to society.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 - 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Syeda Wajiha Ali

    Very well written!

  • Willie

    Right to the point! Well done, Kimie.

  • Suzi

    Interesting indeed!

  • Bee

    Very well written and I agree with you.

  • Thanks, Kimie! The process is called capitalist market expansion …
    To rely on native speaker models and teachers is a bit like setting the fox to keep the geese …

  • Ron

    This article raises a pertinent point that Thai’s are being criticized for their apparent lack of ‘perfect English’ when that notion itself is misunderstood. Attempting to attain perfection is not the correct strategy to employ. Examining the implosion of the ELT industry in Japan, a lot can be learned from attempts to teach perfect English. In just two decades, language colleges began to spring up overnight from eager Japanese students of varied backgrounds desperate to sound like Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise or Jude Law. Thus began as has been termed the commoditization or ‘McDonalds-ization’ of English. Korea is reeling from this phenomenon now. What east Asia had to realize that their Malaysian and Singaporean counterparts learned long before was that it is acceptable to settle for your own unique style of English. Thailand has challenges apart from its draconian and ineffective education system and it needs to work on mutual intelligibility in the workplace rather than perfection.

  • Christof Demont-Heinrich

    While I am very sympathetic to the push to create space for multiple Englishes and the “English belongs to everyone” movement/claims, as this post makes clear, there’s a big gap between somewhat utopian rhetoric about opening up spaces for Englishes, plural, and actual practice. Another place where this gap is, well, gapingly apparent: Global academe. There, World Englishes proponents sing the praises of multiple Englishes while publishing their work almost exclusively in Anglo-American standard written English (they typically don’t have a choice, actually). When space opens up for dozens of written forms of “standard” Englishes to be accepted forms for publication in the same “international” academic journal, that’s when I’ll say some true progress has been made in the battle against the hegemony of Anglo-American English.

  • oui

    Thank you Kimie. sounds interesting. ^^

  • Soe Than

    Kimie, many thanks for sharing your valuable thoughts on this important topic. The sad fact for majority of local students, whatever means, methods or materials the teachers use to engage and motivate them, is their innate shyness to speak a foreign language in public, and their inability to see the relevance of English outside of the classroom. Sometimes one even wonders it may be necessary to brainwash them to think it is ‘cool’ to be fluent in English. AS for Speak English 2012, one should recall that they are going to do so only on Mondays — assuming once a week of English will be sufficient to remedy the current state of affairs in Thailand EFL….. However, I like the fact that you have pointed out that there seem to have been little or no research studies listing what particular English skills are important for Thai students in the workforce. When you have time, try talking to high school teachers in English, you will be even more enlightened to see the root…..

  • And apparently the Japanese geese are no longer really all that happy about it:-) http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/ed20120205a2.html

  • Thanks, Christof! Spot on and I really love your book review in which you elaborate on this issue: Demont-Heinrich, C. (2011). Review of: Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages, by Alastair Pennycook and Sinfree Makoni (Eds.). Journal of Sociolinguistics, 15(3), 398-401.

  • Vatin

    English is definitely important. But the advent of technologies coupled with an opportunity to acquire the language early will gradually make our next generation become increasingly well-versed in the language as being fluent in the language doesn’t require a high level of intelligence especially in kids. Saying English will open doors is as moot as saying more skills will lead to more choices.

    Lost in the language debate is the lack of focus on the ability to communicate effectively. Instead of trying to fix something that will naturally be improved, we should place a strong emphasis on the skills that will allow us to convey our ideas in any language. For instance, the abilities to organize our thoughts logically and articulate them creatively should be part of language training. After all, language is only a tool for communication. The accent is irrelevant so long as the communication is well-conveyed and well-received. IMHO it’s not our English that’s not good enough.

  • Pat

    I love your written. It recalled me When I was young I studied English just in the classroom not use in real life. It hard to speak well or write well because use in limit way. Maybe they mean Thai student who study English for many year but cannot communicate with foreigner their English is not good enough. Government thing!

  • khan

    Thanks Kimie for sharing your experiences and insights on Thai Language Policy Development. You post invite me to think again on some very important issues: What good enough English means, the question of treating expatriate as magician, the discourse of English employment and for national competitiveness and central issues of the values of other languages. I really find it hard to form any judgment on them and come to realize after reading the works of my senior scholars (you are certainly one of them) in the field, that it is perhaps best to see how individuals negotiate with policy in their daily cycles of life. I used to take individual as devoid of agency, someone who does not negotiate with such macro discourses but my PhD study has revealed something different. I do not see individual as a simpleton, voiceless creature. He/she contributes to policy in such complex ways.
    I think it is very important to challenge the natural, commonsensical practices because beneath the veneer is always a complex set of ideological perspectives, interests and politics! Wonderful post indeed. Look forward to reading more from you.

    Karachi Pakistan

  • Lars Wetterstrom

    After spending much time in Thailand I get a vague feeling that English education in Thailand has an old-fashioned focus on correct grammar and pronounciation rather than on communicating. This causes anxiety with the students, sure. Maybe there are fundamental errors in the prevailing TEFL-TESOL teaching methodology which need to be addressed? I once had a boss in my job as a government official who taught me to think in versions or steps. I think this applies very well to learning languages as well. With practise and with time, even the more intricate grammar issues will come out correctly. And rather effortless. And without anxiety.

  • Thanks, Kimie, for a wonderfully astute analysis of problems and needs. Good work has been done in both Norway and Denmark to identify language learning needs in international communication (not only in commerce!) in English and other foreign languages.

    The opportunism of the Anglo-American TESOL business is breath-taking. It is curious that so few academics seem to have moral qualms about their professionalism. The insistence on monolingualism and native speakerism that I analysed at length in my 1992 book ‘Linguistic imperialism’ remains fundamental to the export of TESOL know-how. I have just recorded a half-hour keynote lecture which builds on denunciations from several parts of the world of the irrelevance of an obsessive focus on English for the website http://www.tesolacademic.org. I assume it will be posted there soon. Quite a few of my recent articles on related topics can be downloaded from my own website, http://www.cbs.dk/staff/phillipson.

  • Good to talk to you today, Ron and I look forward to getting your paper on the ethnography of Thai languages!

  • Thanks, Pat! Tell me more about the ‘government thing’ on Friday;-)

  • An excellent post Kimie – I totally agree that “Without empirically-based research and long-term research collaborations between local and international researchers from relevant fields and industrial partners, Thailand’s debate on language policy and programs … will remain uninformed”. Over the years I have conducted X2 research projects with Thai students and teachers c.f. Jarvis and Atsilarat (2004) “Shifting paradigms: from a communicative to a context-based approach” http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/december_04_HJ&SA.php and Jarvis (in press) “Computers and learner autonomy: trends and issues” and I have also supervised Thai PhD students. Over the years I have been a regular presenter at Thai TESOL and I am a big fan HOWEVER I have to say that I think Thai TESOL needs to be much more pro-active in its promotion of research informed practice. I think the over-emphasis on talks around “handy tips” is simply not enough.

  • Everyday I learn a great deal from listening to our MA students who are teaching English in private or public schools in Bangkok, about their experience of having to deal with policy changes and with limited teaching resources and training opportunities. When I was writing this post, I had your doctoral work and your post in mind (http://www.languageonthemove.com/language-migration-social-justice/language-education-and-poverty). Thanks, Khan.

  • Thanks, Soe, and welcome to Language on the Move! I have a feeling that many students here *already* think that it’s cool to speak English (this, of course, has to be confirmed by some research – interested?), so there have to be a bunch of other reasons that we need to find out, through research (again, interested?). I’m convinced that shyness is not innate, though. Being shy is something they *do* differently in different contexts and for different purposes.

  • Thanks, Oui 🙂

  • Thank you so much, Robert, and welcome to Language on the Move. I read your work on linguistic imperialism very closely when I was a doctoral student (under the supervision of Ingrid Piller). So it’s great to receive a supportive comment from you and information about your recent work (your keynote lecturer is not there yet – only those by Tony Lynch, Vivian Cook and Alastair Pennycook @www.tesolacademic.org). I’ll definitely keep the Norway and Denmark work in mind in my future debate and publications.

  • Rest assured that the keynote is on its way! I am waiting for the disk which is in the post. In the meantime readers might like to know that there is quite a bit “critical linguistics” on the site including talks from Pennycook (keynote new), Edge and Widen (Book authors & eds. 08-10).

  • Prof. Phillipson’s talk is now available on the website.

  • Sun

    This issue interests me so much because it’s new for us to study how to be a part of ASEAN Community by using English as an international language or can we are developing our English to be secondary language. My research topic is about Thai English teachers’ perceptions on becoming member of ASEAN Community. It will effect directly to my career in the future. So, the study of the perceptions and the changing of identity of Thai English teachers interest me to do the research. I want to know what is Thai teachers’ attitudes on the government’s policy of using English, how do Thai teachers expect to improve their English proficiency, do they have to do some investments, and what problems do they anticipate in becoming a member of the ASEAN Community and how do they think these problems could be resolved.

  • As a local English teacher in Bangkok, I read the the discussion thread with great interest.
    Asean has made a bold move in promoting English as its only lingua franca (Article 34).

    EU could not do it this way, as English is perceived to be neutral in Europe. So the EU is somewhat forced to adopt a multilingual approach (they end up hiring an army of translators!)

    English use in Asean is growing significantly. I agree with the observation that Thailand has been influenced by the inner-circle standards. I myself not not worry about the many kinds of Englishes to be spoken in Thailand. I love to have more native speakers to help create a more English-using society in Thailand and in Asean at large.

    I think most Thai who are learning and using English know too that their pronunciation and accents are far from perfect and native speakers (Australian, American, English, etc) teaching in Thailand do not expect them to sound like native speakers, RP, or even General American, or Paul Hogan’s Assie.

    I think when more Thais start to use English with fellow Thai, Asean citizens, and others — out- of -class use of English will create many interesting varieties — by default.

    Just my two cents.

    Janpha Thadphoothon

  • Thanks, Janpha. I’m not sure it’s correct to say that the EU has been ‘forced’ to adopt a multilingual approach. Multilingualism is part of European democracy. There is nothing wrong with employing translators and interpreters, either, as you seem to imply. It’s certainly a more efficient way to communicate than making a majority of people speak a language they are uncomfortable with …

    If you are interested in European multilingualism, check out the resources of the European Commission at http://ec.europa.eu/languages/index_en.htm

  • Ingrid and others may be interested on my co-authored Thai-based work on communicative approaches and the need to go beyond this. http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/december_04_HJ&SA.php The work is a bit dated now, but nevertheless thought provoking I hope.

  • Sumaetin, Peak, Saengtriratnukul

    Your observation is right to the point. English is pretty much over-stressed and over-emphasized these days in Thailand. It’s true not to bear in mind that language learners must sound and use the language like a native. This somehow hinders the process of effectively learning the language. (Yet, the word “effectively” is still needed to be defined.)

    For me, as a Thai and linguist, the problem lies in the insufficient understanding of Linguistics. The teachers are of course good at English, the language itself, but sadly not the tool of teaching it. Teaching English is an art combined with science. This is what I think Thailand lacks.

    However, there is a point needed to be mentioned. The level of the language required can be roughly divided into two chunks. The first one is the communicative level, which your writing is very well explained. The other one is the more advanced level, which I think is still needed to be looked at.

    Expectation arises when someone hears that a person is graduated with a B.A. or M.A. in English or in English-related field. She or he is expected to deliver a near-perfect level of the language, if there ever is such a level. The expectation like this is the drive of the native-like language competence.
    … (to be continued)

  • Sumaetin, Peak, Saengtriratnukul


    I know first-hand that teachers and lecturers are not looking at the way, though. They merely want to improve the student’s proficiency by the way of pushing them towards the perfection, hoping that their students will become better at using the language in their later life, and work.

    I know this is just a tip of the iceberg. There are many more issues out there. And, yes, Thailand needs to rethink about its stance on English. So do the teachers and lecturers. Linguistics, from my point of view, can serve as the remedy.

  • Richard

    Interesting! Exacctly what is it then, that “is not good enough”? And how might it be improved?

  • Saluton

    I come to this article, a little late but better than never. I was disappointed with the comment of Janpha, who is in view of supporting of English in his/her own country but also for the ASEAN. Certainly, I am a citizen of ASEAN whodo not see eye to eye with this. WE in ASEAN can never be as perfect as the English native speakers no matter how hard we try it. Our daily chores are occupied with the local languages and how many minutes are left for English.

    What Dr Philipson said is correct and we in ASEAN should consider using Esperanto as the commond language but not imperialist language , http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/mar/13/linguistic-imperialism-english-language-teaching. If you can pay attention to the European development, they would be going Esperanto but not English in order to maintain multilingualism. ASEAN has the large pool of languages are facing disappearing leading by Indonesia with 700 languages and now left less than 600.

    Most of the ASEAN countries are not rich countries. Spending time and money on English are unwised move by the political leaders. If you don’t want the future generation to lose the competition read http://www.2-2.se The Esperanto is taking shape in Thailand now with Asia University is doing a research on that. Vietnam is a famous Esperanto country and 1st Indonesia Esperanto Congress will be held this April https://sites.google.com/site/iek2013bogor/

    We are moving to Esperanto rather maintaining the colonial lang

  • I would like to share with you that the good effect Esperanto brings to our future generation. http://www.mondeto.com/1/post/2011/09/immediate-and-lasting-advantages-of-early-esperanto-1-brain-building.html

    Look at how the The English language teaching sector directly earns nearly £1.3 billion for the UK in invisible exports http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-research-english-next.pdf

    The dominance of English creates the prejudices and stereotypes http://miresperanto.narod.ru/en/english_as_intern/hegemony_of_english.htm

    This topic is also highlighted recently in this web discussing the China situation.

  • Janpha, I hope you are not gauging Australian English on Paul Hogan. Australian speakers, through gradual change and worldly maturity, have long passed his comedy strine a long time ago. Australian speakers are up there with the best in the western world. Our young have what I call a lovely neo-Australian accent, clear and succinct in its own style.

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  • Dennis Faulkner

    Your observations have a great deal of validity.
    Your confusion is mirrored by many people, including long term NES teachers such as myself.
    Now, of course, the time for research has run out and there is little or no surprise there.
    I teach conversation as my preference to grammar or Intense, mainly because of the fluidity and dynamics of the English language and the beauty the Thai accent adds to my native language.
    The Thai accent should never be discouraged, ;listen to the lilt of the Thai voice in such words as teacher, computer, popular. The sounds of English spoken with a Thai accent is one of the most pleasant in the World.
    However, given that the education system, whilst spending around 20% GDP on education fails to attach any real importance to language learning, such as adding it to the grading system, students will continue to see their
    English lessons a a ‘sabai’ time and bring their phones and sleeping bags into the classroom.

  • Pasakorn (Ohm)

    Personally, I could see only some schools here preapre for AEC. They don’t have budget to hire teachers who can teach and pronounce effectively. Teachers just read and ask student repete exactly the same thing from the text book. Student could not produce their own language. Beased on my experience, thai student don’t have much chance to use English outside the classroom.

  • The above article describes some views held by people, that the typically found Thai version of English, the pronounciation, ways of speaking and using the language, should change to be more like English as spoken in the originating country of the language. I do not see Thai English being less valid than American English. If English should be used in it,s purest form, then I would argue that the written and spoken English as used by many Thais, is better than that used by most Americans.