English learning in Thailand: the simple fact that no one seems to get

As a teacher and father of bi-lingual children, Gary Ilnes gives some perspective on the controversy of over English language proficiency in Thailand.

By | Fri 1 Jan 2016

There have been a number of articles recently in Thailand’s two main English language newspapers regarding the state of English learning in Thailand. To summarise the state of affairs: successive education ministers in Thailand have entered office and set out new programmes to improve the standard of English learning in state schools and, because they have all failed to improve standards and as Thailand continues to fall behind other nations in Asia and South-East Asia, the government has now turned to Cambridge University in England to design a learning programme to solve the problem.

There is much disagreement about how to go about fixing the problem. Will standardised testing help? Is it a resource or technological issue? Can a top-down approach work or does it need to start with training teachers? Is there a rural versus urban element? Should lessons be more fun? The trouble is, none of these questions actually has anything to do with how a language can or can’t be learned in a classroom.

However, there is certainly agreement on one thing — amongst journalists and apparently the government too since they have outsourced the solution — that this is a problem worth solving and, moreover, that what has been tried doesn’t work.

(Please hold this thought: lots of things have been tried but nothing worked.)

Allow me to go anecdotal for a moment and give you three examples.

First, having taught English as a foreign language in classrooms for ten years in three countries, I can honestly say that I never met a student in any of those schools, genuinely proficient in English, who gained that skill in a language school.

Secondly, I have two bilingual children who learned Thai from their mother and by growing up in Thailand, learned English in the playground in an international school in China, and yet after seven years of daily lessons in Mandarin neither of them can speak a word of Chinese.

My third example is the two international schools where I worked in China. In both schools, the language of the classroom was English. In one, which had a wide range of nationalities and the natural communal language of the playground, corridors and classroom was English, children with zero English became fluent within three semesters. In the other, which was almost entirely Chinese children, children could spend their entire school life at the school and never become proficient in English.

Now add a fourth piece of evidence: In Thailand, lots of things have been tried to improve English learning in classrooms but nothing has worked.

A pattern is beginning to emerge, is it not? And it leads to the most simple of facts, but a fact that no one seems to get. Here it is: No one ever became a proficient communicator in a language by learning it in a classroom.

As shocking and controversial a statement as this no doubt is to many people — and anyone who has anything invested in it being false will argue against it to the dying end — it is unquestionably true.

But all is not lost, thankfully. However, we need to introduce a new word to the lexicon of English teaching and learning in Thailand. That new word is ‘literacy’. It’s a word you never, ever hear.

The concept of literacy is absolutely fundamental to solving the problem of how to educate Thai children in English.

Children, anywhere in the world, do not go to school to ‘learn a language’. When they enter school, they already have a language. To put it in the terms of Piaget, they are ‘post-symbolic’. They are already able to describe and interact with their world using the symbols that we call language. They have that skill. The skill they don’t yet have is the ability to convert this into written symbols and to decode those written symbols – reading and writing. That is what all children have to be taught — usually at school. Literacy is something that can be taught and indeed must be taught or else a human will never acquire the skill. Literacy is a skill which emerged way, way down our evolutionary development and is an artificial acquirement; ergo, something that is tailor-made for the classroom.

So what does all this amount to?

It’s actually enticingly simple.

English language learning in Thai schools will never be successful, or be perceived to be successful, as long as the objective is to create people who can ‘communicate’ well in English. That is an unachievable goal through learning in a classroom. Once that is accepted, as painful as it may be, the picture becomes clearer. The objective needs to change to one which can actually be achieved. That objective is to make Thai children literate in English. To put it very simply, if a child can match a picture to a word, or better still if they can produce a word or words to describe a picture (on paper or in their mind), then they have become literate. They already have the language skills — or as Piaget would describe it, they are post-symbolic. They get the concept that a word represents a thing in their world. All you need to do is build on that skill. Yes, it’s a different language. Yes, that makes it harder. But the basic premise is exactly the same. Any teacher in a Thai primary school who knows how to teach a child to read and write Thai already knows how to do it.

And that’s pretty good news.

And don’t undervalue the importance and usefulness of being able to read and write. That will give children access to all the English language literature and that will enable them to pass exams which are entirely reading and writing. And don’t undervalue the importance of reading aloud — which can also be taught in a classroom. Public speaking, debating and acting are all at their essence reading aloud. Even an English oral exam is essentially reading aloud.

So forget about ‘communication’ and ‘conversation’, as wonderful as it is (and that can come later) because that cannot be acquired in a classroom. If you can focus on the goals which actually can be achieved and begin to use the language of literacy, then Thailand doesn’t need some fancy scheme from Cambridge University.

It just needs an achievable goal.