Thailand is seeing an unprecedented English language learning hype. This hype, of course, is nothing but a closely engineered social phenomenon. It’s been promoted by various organisations and companies which claim that for Thailand to become more competitive as the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 approaches, Thais must learn English. That’s why learning English is a good investment for Thais, says Michel le Quellec, President of Wall Street English (Thailand), the local franchisee of the UK-based Wall Street Institute. He assures us of the benefits of learning English:
While it’s hard to know where Quellec’s conviction comes from, everyone involved in the business of ELT seems to be on his side. They believe that English is inevitable for Thailand and it is a career booster for Thais, but everyone also seems to think that the Thais are excruciatingly bad at learning English. It is at this point where we arrive at the inevitable question – who is to blame?
At conferences, in corridors at universities and in cyberspace, all fingers seem firmly pointed at the teachers: both Thai and foreign. For many critics including Quellec, “[T]he problem for Thailand is that there aren’t enough qualified teachers, while most teaching methods here are inefficient…” The majority of Thai teachers teaching at public schools are reportedly either underqualified or inexperienced, while most foreign teachers hired in public and private schools are shunned as unqualified and uncommitted.
A string of plans to rectify this grim situation are well under way. The Ministry of Education kicked off this year by appointing former British prime minister Tony Blair as the model English teacher and ambassador of Thailand’s Year 2012 English Speaking Program. This was followed by the proposal of increased salary for new English teachers with a university degree, and the announcement of the 100 million-baht budget to send 1,100 Thai teachers to English speaking countries for a training program during the summer vacation. Last week the Thai government working with the British Council brought more than 100 volunteers from the UK to Thailand, who will be teaching English in some 100 schools for six weeks.
In light of this engineered ELL hype and the alleged shortage of qualified Thai and foreign teachers, my friend’s experience in job hunting in Bangkok makes an intriguing story.
Originally from mainland China, Emily (pseudonym) was enrolled in a TESOL masters’ program at a university in Bangkok. To improve her CV, she applied for an English teaching position at a large franchise language school near her university. After a short job interview, a Thai interviewer declared that Emily wasn’t good enough – racially, that was.
“We can’t offer you a job because you are not white.”
Emily was taken aback, but she patiently explained that no, she’s not white, but she has two years of English teaching experience in another province and was studying an MA TESOL. Her persistence paid off and Emily was led to the principal’s office for further interview.
Indeed the Thai principal was impressed with Emily’s English. But this didn’t change the fact that she wasn’t white.
“It’s a shame! Your English is great, but you are not from a Western background. You are not white, you see. Why don’t you teach Chinese at our school? You can start immediately.”
For Emily, the principal’s offer wasn’t a good deal. To begin with, she had no experience or interest in teaching Chinese. She had no official qualification, either. What’s more, the principal asked her to use English to teach Chinese – for the school, she was capable of teaching Chinese, its complex language system and associated culture in English, but she wasn’t good enough to teach English itself. Most unfair of all, she was to teach Chinese in English for one third of the salary that English teachers were paid at the school.
It is obvious that race (being white) or the country of origin (US, UK, Australia, i.e., ‘West’) is not a qualification. Yet, the two categories remain entrenched as the primary criteria for hiring an English language teachers, while actual qualifications or work experience are secondary, if not irrelevant in the current ELT job market in Thailand. The national projects as well as the local hiring practice here are part and parcel of the global TESOL industry which is undergirded by race. What’s the point of believing in English as a global language or ELT as a profession if their race automatically renders Asians as second best?