The Secret to Developing Thailand’s English Skills?

 | Fri 21 Mar 2014 13:53 ICT

Citynews – The results of research are speaking loud and clear: Thais are having a lot of trouble speaking English. Thailand is ranked 55 (out of 60) on EF’s English Proficiency Index (EPI)and Thailand scores lowest in Southeast Asia in the English Language Assessment (JELA).

Among many other research results there are my own experiences of the English skills (or lack thereof) among Thais after living here for the past 3.5 years. First there is the famous English sentence that all Thai kids are taught to use when greeting their English teacher: “Good morning teacher.” In English speaking countries, teachers are never addressed as “teacher,” but as Mr/Mrs/Ms (given name). This, of course, is just a literal translation of the the Thai way to address a teacher as “(?)?.?

Another painful example is how Westerners in Thailand are addressed as “you” in situations where the Thai person is calling them because they forgot something. When forgetting my receipt at 7-Eleven or my change at a gas station the cashier will call me back by saying “you” which sounds rather aggressive. Of course, it’s simply a literal translation of the Thai word ? which is a polite way to call somebody you dont know. In English speaking countries you would use the words Sir or Miss/Maam.

These two examples are simple conversation mistakes that are caused by a lack of exposure to the English language. If people had more opportunities to be exposed to English speakers, they wouldn’t make this types of mistakes so frequently. 

Then there are the pronunciation problems with sounds that are difficult or don’t appear in the Thai language such as the difference between cheap and sheep (the ? sound can be pronounced as both sh and ch) and the problems with l and r sounds in words like pleasure and pressure.

Again, if people were exposed to native English speakers from a young age, their accents would have been much better, since human beings learn accents and the set of sounds we can make from what we are listening to when we are young.

A lot has already been done

In the past years many things have been tried to improve the quality of English language education in Thailand, both by the Thai government and by governments of English-speaking countries such as the British Council. Skills in general are improving. EF measures scores of 5 points higher in 2012 on their proficiency test compared to scores in 2007-2009. But the trend is too slow with the opening of ASEAN coming closer and closer.

So, why are some countries doing better?

Looking at countries that scored high on EL’s EPI test, it  seems obvious to assume these countries have just simply better education, and this is probably true, but next to that there is something else that influences English skills in general and, more importantly, listening and conversational skills.

It’s television and movies.

In this map (above), marked blue are countries where movies (except for those that have a target audience of children who can’t read) have the original soundtrack with subtitles. Countries coloured red use dubbing for foreign movies.

To compare, here is a map of Europe showing English proficiency skills. The darker the colour, the higher the country scores in the EPI test. There is an obvious correlation going on here. Although, I have to mention that the EF Test of English ( only tests reading and writing skills.

Data in Southeast Asia

Let’s have a look on the available data of the South-East Asian countries.

Countries with the highest EPI scores: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Singapore: Almost all English television and movies are broadcast and shown with their original soundtrack. Chinese films are subtitled in English.

Malaysia: almost all English television is broadcast with original soundtrack and subtitles.

Indonesia: almost all English television is broadcast with original soundtrack and subtitles.

Vietnam: almost all English television is broadcast with original soundtrack and subtitles. Programs and movies for young children are dubbed.

Country with very low scores: Thailand. Almost all television programmes and movies on television are dubbed. Some movies shown in the theatres in the bigger cities are shown in English with subtitles, but most are dubbed.

Worldwide, more and more people start to prefer subtitling over dubbing. Francesca Riggio states in her article that this trend might be the result of the rise of available video content through new media.

So, what should Thailand do?

The easiest, cheapest, most effective and most elegant key to better English skills for Thai people is simple. Thailand should show more, if not all, English movies and television programs in English with Thai subtitles. It will increase English skills, and especially listening and conversational skills, dramatically for almost 100% of the people as almost everybody (even people in rural areas) have access to television.

It’s a very cheap, quick and easy to execute way to educate almost all layers of society. It’s almost the only way to save Thailand from falling back as soon as the borders of ASEAN open up.


Possible disadvantages of subtitling

1) Some of the spoken language will get lost.

People read slower then they listen. So some of the things said in movies might get lost and will not be translated in the subtitles.

Counter-argument: In dubbing, even more gets lost in translation. Word jokes, for example, are difficult to translate. When people’s English skills improve, less and less will get lost, because people will simply start listening more to the soundtrack.

2) Dubbers will lose their jobs.

Counter-argument: In Thailand only one very small company is doing all dubbing of all films and television. These people will still have to do dubbing for films and television for children who are not yet able to read.

3) People working in education will lose business and jobs.

At this moment a lot of people in Thailand are making money teaching either in public or private schools, or in the many tutoring businesses all throughout the country. When more and more people are getting better in English, these people might lose jobs and have fewer customers.

Counter-argument: As we’ve seen from the data in Europe, it’s not just subtitles that help improve the English skills of a country. Subtitles are just a means to better conversational and listening skills, and to reduce thick accents. But in all these countries that score high on the EPI test, much is done to improve English skills all throughout the different forms of education. People working in education will not lose their jobs. Their jobs will just get a little easier.

4) Dubbing is part of Thai culture.

The small group of people that dub all movies and television in Thailand is somewhat famous in Thailand. At least their voices (and rather funny way of speaking) are known throughout the country. People like to imitate their way of talking as a way of joking. The dubbing team also likes to add Thai word jokes to the movie.

Counter-argument: Many Thai people who started watching movies with original soundtracks don’t ever want to go back to watching dubbed movies. They think it’s awkward and sounds stupid. When more and more people start watching movies with original soundtracks, perhaps they will look back to those old days when movies were still dubbed thinking, “Why did we even like that?”

5) People don’t like to read

Yes, watching television with subtitles might be a little bit more tiring and often people just want to relax when they watch television. The entertainment business might get fewer viewers for those programs.

Counter-argument: This is why this can only work if the government enforces all the organisations and companies by law as to what movies and television programs should be subtitled and may not be dubbed. It will benefit both the people of the country as the country as a whole. Reading is an important skill that is worth developing and has the potential to open up new doors for everyone.



Developing English Speaking Skills of Thai Undergraduate Students by Digital Storytelling through Websites
Manussanun Somdee & Suksan Suppasetseree, Suranaree University of Technology, Thailand

Ways to Develop English Proficiency of Business Students: Implementation of Content and Language Integrated Learning
(CLIL) Approach
Dr. Wipanee Pengnate
College of General Education and Languages
Thai-NIchi Institute of Technology


Attapol Khamkhien
Kasetsart University

The online encyclopaedia of writing systems and languages

Education First

Musings on Data, Science and Behavioral Economics

Dubbing (filmmaking)

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