The month of December is usually one of reflection and planning, and this is exactly what is on the menu after the annual EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) released its rankings late last month. In case you're wondering, EF EPI ranks countries (where English is not the primary language) on English proficiency, based on results of Education First Standardised English tests.
How did Thailand perform on the list of 113 countries included this year? Well, it's certainly nothing to write home about, if not a bit embarrassing to come in almost bottom in 101st position -- deemed "very low proficiency".
At the top of the list were countries like Netherlands, Singapore, Denmark, and Norway which consistently perform well and all had an average test score above 600 (out of possible 647).
Thailand, by contrast, had an average score of just 416, with only major cities such as Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai having a slightly higher score.
What's even more worrying is that if we look at the country's performance on the EF EPI over the years, English proficiency is decreasing.
In 2018, the country ranked 64th on the list, which put it in the "low proficiency category". The following year, the country's ranking dropped to 74, and further down to 89th in 2020, 100th in 2021, and 97th in 2022.
Even if we ignore the regional outlier Singapore, the EF EPI results show the kingdom has the lowest English-language proficiency in Asean. Both the Philippines and Malaysia are in the top 30 and Vietnam and Indonesia between 55-80, while Myanmar and Cambodia are ranked 90th and 98th (Laos and Brunei excluded). If not on the global scale, we should at least expect the country to be competitive regionally.
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has since told the Education Ministry to come up with measures to improve the situation.
English proficiency is essential for the country to compete, whether in terms of marketing skills, giving Thai youth access to the best education, or attracting tourists.
No measures have been revealed on how the ministry will work to improve English proficiency, but Move Forward party-list MP Parit Wacharasindhu has proposed some ideas, including a redesign of the English curriculum, adopting teaching methods which emphasise communication over grammar, and upgrading the standard of English teachers.
He also wants a redistribution of funding to schools in the provinces, promoting English use after school, and exchange programmes for teachers to learn English in English-speaking countries.
The government must study the models of countries that rank high on the EP EFI list and find out where Thailand is lagging. Yet trying to replicate their ideas and expecting the same results might not be the best strategy.
Beyond quality and access to education, we also need to consider the cultural attitude towards learning English. After all, how can we expect scores to improve if there's not a willingness to learn among the population?
Locally, English proficiency is often perceived as a measure of intelligence or social status which creates a culture of hesitation and fear of making mistakes.
Such an ingrained stereotype stifles learning and prevents people from fully embracing the beauty of language, especially since it requires practice and experimentation.
To overcome this, a change in mindset and attitudes where mistakes are accepted and not looked down on is critical, and it must start at the grassroots level.
Everyone must come on board, from policymakers and educators to parents and peers. Also important is creating an environment of English immersion outside the classroom such as through exposure to English media or opportunities to speak in English instead of Thai.
Improving the country's English proficiency is a long-term commitment, but one that cannot be avoided.
Let's hope that policymakers embrace a holistic approach towards improving proficiency that goes beyond just academics and focuses on slowly changing the cultural attitude towards learning the language.
This might be hard but until it happens, we may just have to get used to low rankings no matter how well other initiatives are executed.