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.