English proficiency in Thailand: Who says it’s so bad?

 |  February 1, 2016

In the January 2016 issue of Citylife, you may have read my article about how English learning in Thailand’s schools might be improved by focusing on literacy rather than conversation or communication. That article was inspired by all the discussion in the Thai media about the failure of Thailand’s education system to improve standards of English proficiency in Thai public schools.

The publication of that article of mine coincided almost to the day with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which came into effect on December 31st 2015, whose rules include free movement of labour in certain professions including: accountancy, engineering, surveying, architecture, nursing, medical services, dental services and tourism. Although this offers potentially exciting opportunities to Thailand’s young and up-and-coming professionals, there is now general consternation in Thailand’s educational circles that Thais may lose out in such a competitive job market to the other job-seekers from those ASEAN countries whose citizens exhibit superior English skills to ours. On January 2nd 2016, two days later, the Bangkok Post published an article online which states:

“Thais’ poor grasp of the English language has generated concern among students, teachers and policy-makers, and comes despite the vast new employment opportunities promised by the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).”

So, where does this idea come from that Thais are particularly bad at English compared to their neighbours, how is such a thing measured, is it really as bad as it is being made out to be, and if it is not could there possibly be some agenda behind the scare-mongering?

The evidence for Thailand’s lack of international competitiveness in English proficiency and the statistic always cited by the Thai media and government comes from the English Proficiency Index which is published by a company called Education First (EF). According to the 2015 figures, Thailand ranks 62 out of 70 in the world and — more relevantly, concerning the opening up of the ASEAN labour market — Thailand ranks 14 out of 16 in Asia, they say.


I have noticed, however, that in the numerous articles which quote these figures the journalist will never examine the nature and validity of the data. It’s just taken as a given. So just how valid and reliable is the English Proficiency Index?

Firstly, the question arises as to why there are only 70 countries in the world. The answer to this question leads to two interesting revelations about the data: 1) The data samples come from self-selected groups and 2) The minimum sample size to make it into the publication is only 400. This is hardly impressive, really. The test may be taken online by anyone willing to do so and if a country can muster a minimum of 400 internet users then they will get a ranking. Because the sample is self-selected, this means that the data is not comparing like with like. The EF website doesn’t give actual sample sizes for the countries which do get ranked, but we can assume that the one hundred and twenty or so countries which are not listed managed fewer than 400 users or maybe none. We can also assume that each country which did participate provided a different size sample from the others.

(As an aside, I would add that the very fact Thailand gets ranked at all is encouraging and shows that Thailand ranks in the top 70 countries in the world which have an active interest in learning English. So on that alone: Well done Thailand!)

The second thing about this data worth being aware of, in relation to Thailand’s chances of success in the new ASEAN Economic Community, is that out of the ten ASEAN nations, Thailand ranks fifth of the six countries which participated. Myanmar, Brunei, Laos and the Philippines did not participate — or at least fewer than 400 people did. You never hear that Thailand is (possibly) fifth of ten in ASEAN; we only ever hear that we are 14th out of 16 in Asia. Why is that?

To this I would add that it is also no great shame to have a lower English proficiency than countries — Singapore and Malaysia — whose official language is English. Education First claims that the research does not include first language learners, but even so. If we can accept that it will be hard to compete with Singapore and Malaysia then that leaves us with the much more digestible problem of how to catch up with Vietnam and Indonesia. So by how much are we below these two nations?

Well, Vietnam has a score of 53.81, Indonesia a score of 52.91 and Thailand a score of 45.35. Perhaps this is a significant gap and certainly Thailand should be aiming to make up the ground, but let’s put this into perspective. In order to catch up Vietnam, Thailand would need to improve its score by 18% and to catch up with Indonesia, Thailand needs to improve by 16%. Considering, again, that we are talking about a range of different sample sizes, some possibly as low as 400 and self-selected groups, no peer-reviewed academic journal in the world would accept this as conclusive data. Furthermore, if you look closely at the data when broken down into age groups, you see that in fact the percentage gap for the age group 26-30 is even less than the overall difference and this is the age group (I suggest) most likely to be competing for cross-border jobs in the AEC.

Overall, based on this data, any serious academic conclusion would have to be that we are talking about extremely marginal differences and low statistical reliability.

A third point worth considering too is that the minimum age for participation in the Education First tests is eighteen years. So this is not a measure at all of the English proficiency of students who are currently at school and therefore this ranking system cannot in any way be used to suggest that recent education improvements have been failing. They may well have been failing and, like most centrally planned educational initiatives, I suspect they have been failing, but this cannot be held as evidence to the fact. We might also expect that young people who are currently immersed in English language learning in school would do better in tests than older people who left school long ago and have forgotten whatever they might once have known. That would be the same for the other countries too, true, but it does raise the questions as to what and who is actually being tested and it’s not school children even though that is where most the solutions are being directed.

So when we look at the data in this new light, it seems strange does it not that so much stock has been set on it. With such limited and dubious conclusions from these online tests, you would think that educators and officials who are keen to defend their records would be falling over themselves to point out that we should not read too much into such results. And yet no one appears to be pointing this out, almost as if the evidence of failure is welcomed. There is also great inconsistency in the party line. As I mentioned in my previous article in January, when it comes to English learning most programmes in Thailand are focused on communication and conversation skills and yet these Education First tests do not include any speaking component in them at all. That’s right; they are purely written tests, online tests, and do not in any way test or measure communication or conversation skills — although to be fair there is a listening component. So, considering we are talking about tests producing severely inconclusive evidence which do not even attempt to evaluate conversation or communication, does it not seem very strange indeed that the Thai media and government are constantly holding them up as proof that Thailand must get its act together and be better at communicating in English? I have no idea why this is the pervasive spin, but it seems fishy to me. Either everyone is too lazy to do the background work or else there is a vested interest in the idea that Thailand is really bad at English.

I stand by the proposition from my January article that Thailand’s schools need to focus on literacy rather than conversation and indeed my proposal to focus on literacy would benefit Thailand’s EF ranking since the ranking is based on written tests, but nonetheless the Education First proficiency scores which Thai journalists and politicians love to quote leave the question completely unanswered as to how Thailand ranks and how our young people might fare in the AEC job market regarding the ability to communicate in English. The data for this is sorely lacking. Perhaps, with Thailand’s long history of successfully fusing international cultures and getting along well with everyone, and our rich tradition of hospitality and entertainment, perhaps our young professional people may take ASEAN by storm and by surprise. Personally, I wouldn’t bet against it. Let’s hope so and let’s continue to work hard to improve but, please, let’s remain optimistic because no student was ever helped, inspired or encouraged by being told that he or she is the dunce of the class.

You can contact the author, Gary John Ilines, at gilines@protonmail.com