English proficiency in Thailand still a ways to go

English proficiency in Thailand still a ways to go

Past assessments of English proficiency within Thailand have been disappointing. English First (EF), a private company that collects data based on results from English proficiency tests, found that Thailand ranked 53 out of 80 countries globally and 15 out of 20 Asian countries examined. These scores actually reflect an improvement over prior years with Thailand now outscoring some of its neighbours, namely Cambodia and Laos. Myanmar's dedication to English proficiency is so low that it does not even have an EF presence. However, Thailand is still outranked by regional countries like China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

The importance of English as a lingua franca is, of course, important to tourism which now makes up about 12% of the Thai economy. In 2017, 35.28 million tourists visited Thailand and that number is expected to rise to 37.55 million in 2018. The continued increases over the past few years can primarily be attributed to visitors from mainland China on budget tours who are linguistically cloistered. Yet, higher-end Chinese tourists, travelling outside packages, are rapidly increasing and relying on English as is the case for a wide socio-economic span of European tourists. Proficiency in English affects other areas of the Thai economy also, especially in the technology industry where advances in research, development, and innovation, as well as maintenance, is often contingent on utilisation of knowledge written in sophisticated or academic English.

English proficiency is a labour skill and its deficiency in Thailand has been seen as a disincentive for locating multinational corporations in the country. It is also an obstacle against Asean integration and of any chance that Thailand can dominate the Asean economic community. Local academic inquires and studies by organisations like the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme have generated consistent conclusions about the lack of resources for English preparation at the secondary and tertiary levels in the Thai educational system. Existing programmes are underfunded, neglected, overcrowded, and taught by poorly trained, unmotivated teachers possessing low levels of English proficiency.

Unfortunately, academic research, until now, has focused only on the speculation of English proficiency of the future Thai workforce and has ignored analysis of the existing one.

It appears that the top private companies in Thailand are making significant advances for English preparedness within their respective workforces. A one-year long study, released in the July issue of the Open Journal of Business and Management, surveyed human resource personnel at the top 100 private companies in Thailand. Respondents were selected across various business sectors and ranks.

The results show that top companies overwhelmingly (88%) acknowledge the importance of English for Thailand's integration into Asean's economic community and that at least 65% believe their workforce possesses an adequate level of English proficiency. Another 65% think that their companies are allocating adequate resources for English preparedness. In fact, the top-ranked companies in Thailand may be providing more per capita (by employee) investment in English than any other sector of Thai society, though specifics are limited due to proprietary protection.

The majority of respondents stated that Thais found learning English was not difficult. However, they also shared that Thais did not like learning English and that some were resentful of having to learn a second language to obtain employment within their own country. Assessing levels of difficulty of the four basic English language skills were as follows: Speaking (hardest), followed by Listening, Writing and Reading.

The overwhelming majority of the companies surveyed were located in the greater Bangkok area and while the findings are encouraging, it should be noted that greater proficiency in English is still concentrated in limited areas in Bangkok (primarily along a strip from the BTS stations of Siam to Phrom Phong) and portions of tourist locations like Phuket and Pattaya, with the overwhelming majority of the population not directed towards English preparedness and unaware that English is the working language of Asean.

Alexander Franco, PhD, is the Director of the Centre for International Business and Educational Research, Yangon, Myanmar. Scott Roach, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer at Stamford International University, Bangkok.

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