I had the pleasure of giving a keynote speech recently at a conference held at King Mongkut Institute of Technology, North Bangkok. Here's the text on which it was based.
(Check against delivery)
By Jakkrit Srivali
At the Conference on
“Teaching English for International Communication:
Challenges and Approaches”
KMITNB, 9 January 2003
Good morning. It’s a great pleasure to be at the King Mongkut Institute of Technology, Northern Bangkok, and a great honor to be invited to speak at this conference.
Let me say first of all that I am neither an expert in English or linguistics.
My place is really in the audience, not up here with my knees knocking and addressing this gathering of experts and professionals.
But perhaps that is why Ajarn Sripen approached me to give this talk. I assume it’s because you want the perspective of a layman who is bilingual, writes a newspaper column on English and who has written speeches for some of Thailand’s top political figures as part of his job.
The fact is that I consider myself more a user of the language than an expert on the intricacies of teaching it. So if what I say today is terribly na๏ve or misinformed, you’ll just have to blame it on my use.
The effective teaching of English is, of course, crucial to Thailand’s future.
Unfortunately, in spite of years of lessons, or perhaps because of years of lessons, we Thais never achieve the degree of fluency necessary to communicate effectively.
That may have been acceptable before the advent of globalization, before words such as k-economy, e-commerce, e-government, e-learning and other e’s entered the vocabulary until some of us have become quite ill at ease.
Now, a good command of English is required for most well-paying jobs.
More importantly, with the vast majority of human knowledge available in English, in electronic and paper form, the low level of English proficiency is a major albatross around Thailand’s neck as it struggles to cope with globalization.
This morning I shall try to identify some of the problems I see facing the teaching of English in Thailand.
Many of these problems will be familiar to you, so I shall try not to reinvent too many wheels.
After saying what I think is wrong with the teaching of English in Thailand, I will try to offer a few ideas on how we might help correct the situation.
The problems facing English teaching in Thailand, like most problems facing Thailand, are quite complex.
But I think we can all agree that what passes for education in Thailand is woefully inadequate to the demands of the globalization era.
It is common knowledge that most Thai students take English from a young age but are still unable to use the language by the time they enter or even complete university.
Why is this?
Part of it is due to the way the system is structured on the supply side.
Faculties of education tend to have the lowest admission requirements, and so attract the students who can’t get admitted anywhere else.
Once they graduate and become teachers, these people, not the best and the brightest to begin with, further lose any motivation they may have had.
Their low salaries force them to look for other ways to supplement their income. So they dream of hitting big with the lottery and other get-rich-quick schemes. Teaching becomes a chore, something to pass the time until something better comes along.
With teachers who are poorly paid, lack motivation and have their minds on other things they consider more important, the quality of teaching suffers.
In English, the problem is even more pronounced.
Teachers who have a firm command of English are few and far between.
Many are of the snake-snake fish-fish variety who are compelled to teach English simply because there’s no one else to do it.
Even with the best of intentions, such teachers pass on their mistakes, misconceptions and gaps in knowledge to their students, who in turn pass them on to theirs.
Yes, there are many qualified English teachers who also care deeply about doing their jobs well, but I suspect most of them are probably in this room.
The other part of the problem is on the demand side.
Many Thai students find English boring and difficult.
Instead of being a key to unlock the world’s treasure trove of information and enjoyment, English is something they have to slog through.
I think students of every generation have an instinctive dislike for formal schooling, but the problem seems to have gotten worse over the years.
With the constant sensory bombardment we face daily from the media, today’s youth have shorter attention spans and an instant gratification mentality that do not lend themselves to learning.
So although rote learning may have gotten many of us through school, in this day and age parents and students are always looking for new alternatives, something that would give them that extra edge while doing so painlessly.
Hence the boom in tutoring schools, books, TV shows and, yes, newspaper columns, teaching or purporting to teach English.
On the face of it, this is all well and good.
The tutoring schools get rich, some farangs who might otherwise have trouble seeking gainful employment in their home countries earn respect and decent wages as English teachers, and Thai students become more confident, if nothing else. Your typical win-win situation.
But upon a closer look, there’s something wrong with the picture.
When formal education works, everyone in the country benefits more or less equally.
But when formal education fails, it is the poor, underprivileged and rural students who suffer most.
The rise of the tutoring schools shows that our formal education system has failed.
The well off can always turn to other alternatives.
They can send their children abroad, enroll them in some international school in Thailand, or at the very least send them to tutoring school.
The laggardly pace of education reform suggests that the authorities are not taking the problem too seriously.
If this trend continues, however, we will see further widening of the income gap and further polarization of society, which will pose serious consequences indeed for the country as a whole.
Is our ability to teach English effectively really so crucial to our future?
I would answer with a resounding yes.
You have all heard of the butterfly effect, where the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings can set in motion a series of events that result in a typhoon hundreds of miles away. In a complex system, what seems to be a little thing can mean a lot.
So what do we do? What can we do?
We can ask the government to pay more attention to education. We can ask it to devote more resources to education.
But this approach is not promising.
If you read interviews in Thai newspapers, you will notice that the interviewee almost always wants the government to do more to help his or her sector. You rarely see a Thai saying the government should do less.
But the government is not a magician that can pull resources out of a hat.
There is only so much money to go around. And the money has to come from somewhere.
Even when the money seems to be free, someone will have to pay for it, perhaps another sector, another generation.
With the state of our public finances and with so many people asking for government help, there doesn’t seem to be much more the government can do in this respect.
Even when the government does decide to devote more money to education, sometimes we have to wonder if it knows what education really involves.
I read that the lion’s share of the education budget was spent on the construction of physical infrastructure, things like flagpoles and buildings.
As far as I know – and I hope you correct me if I’m wrong – much less was spent on such things as continuing education for teachers, improvement of teaching standards, and modernization of teaching materials.
The government can throw money at the problem, but there is little cause for hope that the money will be thrown at the right target.
The situation may be bleak, but it is not hopeless.
One of the interesting things about globalization is what Thomas Friedman calls the super-empowerment of ordinary individuals.
One man, Osama bin Laden, managed not only to destroy the World Trade Center in New York, but to transform U.S. foreign policy priorities and the mood of the world.
One woman, Jody Williams, in the face of opposition from all major powers, used email to mobilize a worldwide network of NGOs to bring about an international ban on landmines, an effort that won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
We Thais like to shrug and say mai chai prathet rao khon diao – the country is not mine alone, the implication being that there’s not much I can do to set to rights the problems we see around us and that inaction is therefore justified.
But if one person can achieve so much, surely we can act in concert to improve the state of English teaching in Thailand.
As I have noted, the private sector has taken up the challenge of teaching English to make up for our formal sector’s shortcomings.
But not even this trend, positive though it may be, is enough to teach English to Thailand.
The rise of English schools is a phenomenon concentrated chiefly in Bangkok and major urban areas.
Those who are too poor or too remote are effectively excluded.
This is because the setting up of English teaching schools is essentially profit-driven.
There is no profit in teaching students who can’t afford the classes or get to them. After all, there are costs involved.
The school has to pay for the building, the classrooms, the teachers.
Education is supposed to be so important that the government provides it as a public good, paid for by taxes, with the rich essentially subsidizing the poor.
But when the system fails and the private sector steps in, there is no longer a built-in subsidy effect. Each student pays his or her own way, and the provider earns a tidy profit.
I have no problem with that, except that it excludes the majority of the country’s school-age population.
Another problem with privately provided English education is that the quality can be uneven.
Since teaching English is a billion-baht industry and growing, it has its share of unscrupulous or less than competent operators, all promising a painless path to proficiency.
Certain schools may employ teachers who have no teaching credentials and don’t have that firm a grasp on their own native language but are in Thailand to enjoy our rich culture, particularly of the nocturnal variety.
I’m not saying that this applies to the whole industry, but the lack of regulation and standards means that practically anyone can set up shop and teach English.
If we turn to locally-published books, we find also that they are not all that reliable.
Many of them are written by people who fancy themselves fluent but are not nearly fluent enough.
More than a few English-teaching books that I’ve picked up in Thai bookstores were so chock-full of mistakes that they reminded me of something Dorothy Parker said: This book is not to be put aside lightly. It should be hurled with great force.
I had to resist the urge, however, because if I threw them with any force I’d probably have to buy them.
Another issue that is not a problem per se but is confusing to a lot of Thais is: What is the best way to learn English quickly?
Some months ago, I was asked for my opinion on a heated online debate on Pantip.com.
This stemmed from a certain English teacher attacking another, more famous one, for focusing on pronunciation at the expense of more important fundamentals like grammar and vocabulary.
A lot of people browsing that thread weighed in with their own opinions, but not many seemed too sure who was right.
Because teaching English has become such a big business, different operators will try to develop their own unique selling point and promote it as the magic bullet that will cure Thais of their inability to speak English.
This is to be expected in a society where teachers dream of becoming rich and students of becoming bilingual painlessly.
But just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, so are there several ways of becoming proficient in English.
None of the correct approaches are mutually exclusive, though different approaches may be more effective in developing different skills.
For all-round competence, obviously you need a solid grounding in reading, writing, listening and speaking. You can’t pick and choose, unless you have a very specific purpose in mind.
So where does that leave us?
The government can’t be depended on, the private sector is too focused on profits to really care about quality and accessibility.
That leaves the academic sector.
Not the elementary and high school teachers, mind you, but real experts and professionals such as yourselves.
Ideally, you would teach the students in the poor rural villages, so that they can enjoy a standard of English instruction as high as that provided at the college or university level, but there are not enough of you to go around.
So how do we provide universally accessible English instruction of high quality that would enable Thais to achieve fluency with a minimum of government assistance?
My answer is the right teaching materials.
I have in mind a project that involves the use of information technology, partnership with business, and a little volunteer spirit. Since it is far too big a project for me to carry out, I am happy to share it with you and would be glad if you feel it’s worth doing. If not, then I would appreciate your comments.
The problem with English-teaching software and materials such as CDs and videotapes is that they are mostly copyrighted and rather expensive for the typical Thai student.
If they were not, Thai students everywhere could have access to a self-study course they could use to improve their English.
English teaching professionals in Thailand, particularly university professors, have the necessary credibility to produce a series of teaching materials that takes the user from absolute beginner to a level roughly equivalent to pre-university in the major English-speaking countries.
Since it’s too big a task for anyone, perhaps an ad hoc consortium could be formed.
The teaching materials should be in digital form, so that they could be more easily disseminated and duplicated.
We could have interactive as well as non-interactive materials that can be printed out and given to students.
I’m thinking not only of CD-ROMs that are run on computers, but also audio and video CDs, which can be used even in villages that don’t have a computer.
We could burn CDs and mail them out for a nominal fee to any individual or community that requests them.
Who would pay for all this?
This is essentially pro bono work, although if it takes off it could turn out to be profitable, provided we could get business involved by taking a leaf from the Internet experience. Here’s how.
Much of the Internet boom was fueled by the belief that there would be enough web advertising to go around.
Of course there wasn’t, because few websites received enough hits to make it worthwhile for advertisers.
But for a project of this scale, the potential audience reach is vast. Since the CDs are given away practically for the asking, you’re looking at tens of millions of eyeballs.
Imagine you’re the president of a big company and you want to project an image as a socially responsible corporate citizen of Thailand.
I think you would look very favorably on sponsoring a project to produce English self-teaching materials and disseminate them to the farthest corners of the country.
And since your sponsorship is embedded in the product itself, you don’t worry that the CDs get pirated.
Anyone can burn them and make copies for their friends, the more the better.
Your product placement will still be there, blue-screened into the backdrop of the VCD, right behind the narrator, and it will be mentioned by name in the audio CD as part of the lesson itself.
You can even make a goodwill gesture by donating obsolete computers with CDROM drives to rural schools, so that they can learn from the interactive lessons that have your corporate logo in the background.
All you pay is a one-time fee for each placement on each CD. In one fell swoop, you manage to grab your share of eyeballs and generate lasting goodwill for your products.
That is the business model. The details may vary but I think the thrust is valid. Any profits could be ploughed back into the project or shared among the participants.
The next question is what should be on those CDROMs and CDs.
As I said, I am a teacher of English only by avocation not profession, so I would defer to the real professionals.
I would, of course, like to see a focus on the bread and butter to provide a solid foundation for the self-learners.
My emphasis would be on the ability first to understand what one absorbs through reading and listening, then to convey what one means, through written and spoken English.
This requires a sufficiently large vocabulary to cover the various possibilities. It also requires a command of the basics of grammar so that the student can put coherent sentences together and make sense of the sentences he or she encounters.
A proper accent would be nice, although not essential. As long as your pronunciation is not too far off the mark and can be understood, you are in good shape.
You will notice that I don’t expect students to use perfect English.
Many Thai students are afraid to communicate in English because they are afraid that they will fall short of perfection.
I believe we should use the right tool for the right job.
Each person is different. Not everyone will need to speak perfect English.
If you are a shopkeeper and just need to converse with your foreign customers, a bare-bones vocabulary and the most rudimentary grasp of grammar might serve your needs splendidly. But if you have to write English copy for a living, then you have to set your sights a bit higher.
And everyone’s ability is different.
Those who don’t pick up the language at an early age will find it difficult to speak perfect English.
They may have the syntax down pat, but something always gives them away. It may be an accent on the wrong syllable or the use of unusual phrasing or any number of things.
For them, being able to use English as a tool to gather and convey information is enough.
I have attended countless seminars where panelists spoke with such a heavy accent that it was difficult to make out what they were saying.
But it was the ideas they presented that counted, and when expressed in writing these ideas would be much easier to understand.
What I’m saying is that it is not so much the packaging, but what’s inside. It’s not so much how beautifully you speak English, but the clarity with which you express your ideas in English.
If I had to rank the skills in order of importance, I would probably give the highest priority to reading, because most of human knowledge is available in English on the Internet and in printed materials.
Then comes writing, so that if you have a question to ask the author of, say, an article on the Web, you can make yourself understood.
Listening is important particularly for those who lack access to reading materials, because they can tune into shortwave radio stations and watch the likes of CNN and HBO.
Then comes speaking, which is important mainly for those who deal with foreigners on a regular basis. But as the recent scout jamboree showed, it can make the difference between shy smiles and deep conversations.
Ideally, these skills should be developed at the same time, so that they can build on one another.
A consortium of English professors and professionals could create the materials based on a peer review process where mistakes are pointed out to one another in a friendly manner and corrected.
By pooling your expertise, you could collectively become a centralized authority on the teaching of English in Thailand.
Through constant peer review, you would remain fresh and vital, ensuring that the materials are always of the highest standard.
In practice, of course, there will be some snags along the way.
But as long as we keep our sights on producing free, high quality teaching materials geared towards self-learning, a product that corporations would be proud to be associated with, I think there is still hope for the future of English instruction in Thailand.
I don’t know if all this makes sense, so I’d be happy to take questions and comments from the floor.