As a language educator in Thailand my in-box is always full of invitations to conferences devoted to ASEAN and English language teaching. At such conferences, keynote speakers from the UK or the US make similar, if not identical, arguments for the importance of English as a lingua franca in the linguistically diverse ASEAN region. Their trump card is normally the economic value of English.
For example, at a seminar I attended recently in Bangkok, an American TESOL celebrity told an audience of Thai English teachers that: “English-speakers earn THREE times more than non-English speakers” [capitalization original to her Powerpoint slide]. This was a fact, she assured us, by referring to a report about English in the Middle East and North Africa. Commissioned by the British Council, the report claims that English-speaking receptionists in a city such as Bagdad in Iraq can earn three times more than their non-English-speaking counterparts. It’s impossible to determine the sample size but the results are based on 50 job ads for all kinds of professions. Only receptionists have a three-fold earning differential. To generalize on the basis of a handful of job ads for receptionists in Baghdad to a global assertion is, well, problematic, to put it mildly …
Propaganda such as this result in a single-minded wave of English fever. Of course, this is not unique to Thailand – Japan, South Korea and many other Asian nations also have their hearts set firmly for English. But it is important to ask ourselves if such a narrowly focused belief in the power of English – based as it is on questionable data and assumptions – is a good thing for Thailand and for its ASEAN project. The reality of ASEAN nations today are the ever-increasing flows of people and businesses from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds; in such a fluid transnational space, chances are that languages other than English are more useful or more realistic choices.
Let me illustrate this point by an example of a major Japanese company in Thailand. This company is considering providing English lessons for their Thai drivers, whose job it is to drive expat Japanese employees and their families stationed in Bangkok. Most of these Thai drivers speak poor English. As many of the Japanese employees and their families themselves have limited English proficiency, communication between the two parties is rather constrained.
A Japanese expat wife, whose husband works for this company, told me that she was scared of asking the driver to drive her and her children to their school in the morning. Because they don’t have a language in common, a number of failed communications have led to mistrust between them. Funded by her husband’s company, she’s learning English at a school in Bangkok, but with only a one-hour lesson per week she’s making little progress. Frustrated, her family’s decision to solve this problem with the driver was rather unique – they moved next to their children’s school.
The ideology of English as ‘useful’ is obviously implicit in the company’s consideration of providing English lessons for their drivers. It seems to keep the company from considering a more efficient option: teaching Japanese to the Thai drivers and Thai to the Japanese expats. In addition to such lessons where they can learn basics, both groups will get many daily practice opportunities with each other.
Despite last year’s flooding that affected over 450 Japanese companies in Thailand, more Japanese companies are planning to launch their business here. According to Teikoku Data Bank (2011), 3,133 Japanese companies are registered in Thailand, and approximately 37,000 expats (plus approx. 13,000 non-company worker Japanese) are sent from Japan to work in this country. According to some Japanese expats and business owners I’ve met, they need not English-speaking but Japanese-speaking Thais or Japanese-Thai translators. While they also pay lip-service to the importance of English and are often forced to use English, they would actually prefer to use Japanese in business negotiations and feel much more at ease in the presence of Japanese-speaking Thai interpreters. According to one consulting company, the demand for Thai-Japanese interpreters is on the rise. However, they are difficult to find. Actually, Japanese-Thai interpreters can easily earn much higher salaries than English-Thai interpreters!
For instance, a newly opened Japanese restaurant hired a Japanese-speaking Thai waiter and his starting salary is 40,000 baht – four times more than his non-Japanese speaking co-workers, twice as much as that of my English-speaking Thai friend working for an international education firm in Bangkok, and close to that of a foreign lecturer with a PhD at a reputable university in Bangkok.
Furthermore, one Japanese expat working for a major Japanese company told me that English is often not the preferred choice of language among their increasing number of Korean and Chinese clients operating in Thailand. For instance, a Japanese expat, Ken, whom I met recently, had a meeting with a Korean expat businessman in Bangkok. Ken began his meeting by greeting in Korean (Ken is Japan-born Korean with basic Korean proficiency) and mostly used Thai and sometimes English during the meeting as his Korean client speaks good Thai but cannot speak English. He had a Thai secretary who translated Ken’s ‘no-so-perfect Thai’ into ‘proper’ Thai to her Thai-speaking Korean boss.
For Thailand to be competitive in ASEAN and the global economy, English will continue to be of importance, of course. However, it seems short-sighted and dangerous to ignore other languages. As Thailand prepares for the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 and as it strives to attract foreign investments from ASEAN Plus Three nations Japan, China and South Korea, the importance of a workforce that speaks their languages is paramount.
The need for more diverse language education and its link to employment needs to be based on empirical research evidence of the emerging language needs of international employers actually operating in Thailand in order to achieve positive policy change. Currently, this evidence doesn’t exist – a blind spot created by the relentless propaganda for English.