Why English matters to Thailand
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Why English matters to Thailand

Proficiency in the language is essential to the local economy, so making it easier to learn is key.

ELSA Speak is an AI-powered app that can function as a personal coach for English learners, its developers say.
ELSA Speak is an AI-powered app that can function as a personal coach for English learners, its developers say.

English is the second most widely used language in the world after Chinese, but it far outranks the latter as an international language. Knowing how to communicate in English is essential for just about anyone seeking to succeed in countless fields from business to academia.

Research shows that English is the official language of 53 countries and is spoken as a first language by approximately 400 million people. Another 1 billion also use English on a regular basis. The British Council estimates that by 2020, 2 billion people in the world will be studying the English language, eliminating communication barriers between global citizens, making it easier for information to flow.

English is the language of diplomacy, science, aviation, computers and tourism. Knowing it increases your chances of getting a job in a multinational company at home or abroad, as it is internationally acknowledged as the dominant business language in the global workforce. Companies such as Samsung, Airbus, Nokia and Microsoft in Beijing have made English their official corporate language.

Learning English also gives you greater access to a wealth of entertainment and better cultural understanding. A report by Education First states that English is the main language of the internet, with 52% of the world's most viewed websites in English, giving individuals and businesses access to all sorts of information.

Ever since the economic crisis in the late 1990s, most Thai business organisations have gone through significant changes. New working structures and practices have been adopted in order to help them compete more effectively in the rapidly changing global market environment. Collaborations and mergers with outside entities have created further demand for restructuring.

Collaborations, mergers and alliances also bring new perspectives and influence the way English is used as a medium for communication. In Thailand, English is used as a foreign language but plays an important role in businesses that aspire to perform better in a global context, and for their employees who seek professional advancement.

The case for learning English in our globalised, connected world is becoming stronger, yet Thailand still trails its Southeast Asian peers such as Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia when it comes to learning and using English.


Thailand relies heavily on tourism as one of its primary sources of revenue, but low English proficiency has led to negative perceptions, as tourists prefer destinations where they can communicate more comfortably.

According to the latest EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), Thailand fell 10 spots in the global rankings of non-native English-speaking countries. It currently languishes in the Very Low Proficiency group with a ranking of 74th out of 100 countries. (In 2018, it was ranked 64th out of 88 countries.)

The ability to speak English is essential if the country's economy is to grow and our people are to learn, work and succeed in an ever more internationalised setting, interacting with people from around the region and the world.

However, conventional language instruction in Thailand focuses mainly on teaching grammar and vocabulary, which requires rote memorisation. It's a system that demotivates many learners and has left most Thai students and workers unable to effectively converse in English.

Educators have found that a focus on conversational English is a better way to build confidence and promote regular use of the language. New technologies are now emerging that can help make learning more fun and fulfilling.

One such example is ELSA Speak, a mobile application developed by a Silicon Valley startup that uses artificial intelligence to put a virtual language coach in the palm of the learner's hand. My company, SEAC, has entered into a strategic partnership with ELSA to bring this learning approach to Thailand.

With the world's largest database for non-native English speakers, ELSA Speak is the only app that can pinpoint pronunciation mistakes in every sound. It offers personalised learning plans based on an assessment developed by speech scientists, which each user takes to find his or her level.

Individualised courses are supported by interactive game-like experiences that encourages frequent practice and provide instantaneous and precise feedback with phonetic hints. As well, a Learning Dashboard can help corporate users track each employee's progress.

Finally, customised content allows users to learn lessons that are aligned with their business and personal objectives.

In short, technology may well be the catalyst that Thailand needs to improve English speaking proficiency, so that Thais can learn, work and reach their full potential in a more interconnected world.

Arinya Talerngsri is chief capability officer and managing director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup), Southeast Asia's lifelong learning centre. She can be reached by email at arinya_t@seasiacenter.com

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