English plan at risk before it even begins
The Education Ministry's plan to initiate a new English language test to lift the quality of teaching and learning and weed out unqualified backpackers leaves many of our readers and myself yawning and wondering.
The rationale behind the idea seems to be wrong from the beginning. For the ministry, under-performing Thai students and unqualified foreign teachers are key problems that need to be tackled. It will therefore introduce a new guideline, called CEFR-T, adapted from the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) into the Thai context.
The method will gauge students' level of competency, aiming to improve their skills within five years. Foreigners, especially backpackers, seeking easy work will be screened out if they fail the test.
Surasak Glahan is deputy oped pages editor, Bangkok Post.
It is unclear how the ministry thinks a new assessment method can help improve student learning as it does not mention any new plan to address the root causes of the problem. Several studies, such as research by the Canadian Centre for Science and Education in 2013, point out that unqualified Thai teachers, poorly-motivated students, overly large classes, and rare opportunities for student exposure to English outside of class time contribute to our English language education failure.
Farang teachers who do not hold education degrees are not the main contributor to the reason why our English skills, especially pronunciation, are far behind our Asian neighbours and most of the world.
Like the average Thai, I studied English in Thai public schools where I was never really tempted to attend most classes. The textbooks for primary school students were titled "English is fun". It was, however, not much fun at that age. Typical classes in school were not stimulating, they were irrelevant to my interests and daily life and involved the memorisation of vocabulary and grammatical structures. It was complex and boring.
When I was in college and chose English as a major, my second language skills started to improve. But I still struggled to better my pronunciation. My best language coaches (in addition to some of my lectures) were in fact backpackers! I grew up during a time when the internet was a luxury and exposure to global learning was through socialisation with these backpackers.
I ended up finding out that mingling with them helped improve my English, even though the majority of those backpackers did not hold degrees. Then my efforts to improve my English switched to a work setting. Opting to work in an international environment, I was forced to better my English or face dim career prospects.
My English is not flawless, but it's much better than it was 20 years ago. I am not sure if I should thank the Thai education system or my own efforts to seek alternatives to English learning.
Of course, I have to thank those backpackers. So I doubt the ministry's new method (which is yet to be developed) can help improve students' learning without substantive action to improve the skills of our Thai teachers and make classrooms more engaging.
The ministry said there would be 10 levels of English competency. It will take five years to help students meet the new criteria. This sounds like a grand plan for the ministry. But it invites more tutorial schools offering tailor-made classes to help students pass the criteria, rather than stimulating them to improve their skills.
The ministry, however, deserves praise for making an effort to improve English learning such as providing courses for Thai teachers. But much needs to be done to improve it and a simple cure is to make English learning more fun and relevant to students, putting them at the centre of the class.
Our own culture also has something to do with the failure. We need to change the learning environment in which students are encouraged to speak English and express their opinions, allowing them to produce mistakes and challenging their teachers.
English pronunciation is the most difficult part for many Thais and the best cure is exposure to English-speaking environments. Screening for qualified foreign teachers is a good thing. But English speakers, native or non-native, can stimulate students in speaking and listening classes, even if they don't hold a teaching degree.
More importantly, why do we need to invest in a Thai test for English, which is at risk of being designed by those who have kept our education lagging, when there are several internationally certified tests?
Deputy Op-ed Editor
Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed pages editor, Bangkok Post.