The importance of foreign language learning
As Asean moves towards one community at the end of this year, learning foreign languages will be important. Past and present Thai governments have fully realised this urgent need and have implemented many initiatives aimed to encourage Thai students and workers to improve their English communication skills as well as learning a third language so they can increase their value as members of a future quality workforce for the Southeast Asian economy.
Unlike the European Union, where English, French, German, Dutch and Italian are official working languages, English is Asean's only official language. Because Thailand was never colonised by a European power, the country lacks a Western language legacy and institutions. Learning foreign languages, then, will become even more crucial for Thailand, because it is an important and indispensable tool that bridges Southeast Asia's diverse cultures and provides a common platform for communication.
We all know that foreign language fluency lowers communication barriers, and that will make the Thai market and the workforce more attractive. As Thailand modernises, the demand for human capital and skill set requirements will change. Just as the growth of the technology market requires a labour force with more maths and science skills, the increase in international interactions through globalisation demands people with foreign language competency. When societies become more connected on the global scale, the need for shared communication grows more urgent. So, learning foreign languages is an important step for Thailand to move forward, to grow its regional position and expand its global footprint.
Foreign language learning also promotes critical thinking skills. Through the learning process, the students undergo the entire Bloom's Learning framework — they must remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate and synthesise information. The cognitive processes mandate that foreign language learning start with knowing and understanding grammar rules, vocabulary, different contexts and uses, and pronunciations. As students comprehend the basics, they start to apply learned concepts by analysing word choices and building sentence structures. Ultimately, students start to synthesise their thoughts and translate them coherently and cohesively in a new language.
As critical thinking is essential for success in higher education, it is a short leap to connect foreign language learning to greater academic competency and job performance. Because the foreign language learning process replicates the critical thinking process, it should be considered part of a core curriculum rather than an elective course.
The antiquated Thai model of foreign language learning, in which English is the only language taught in schools and lessons took the strict form of forced memorisation, is outdated. Copying words endlessly on paper or chalkboards is a thing of the past. Today's model is multilingual and dynamic learning. Vocabularies and grammar structures are learned through utilisation in conversations, songs and literature. Blackboards have been replaced by videos, audio and interactive chats.
For Thailand, language learning in today's world must advance above teaching simple vocabulary, punctuation and grammar rules. Teachers and students should look beyond the written test as a measure of success, because measuring mastery of a foreign language is much more complex. The proficiency necessary to function in daily life in a foreign country is a different type of proficiency than that of the business arena. Expressing empathy, appreciating humour and sharing context are high order language skills that are difficult to assess using standardised testing.
Unless the Thai public education leadership sets new visions and adopts new approaches toward establishing academic policies that strike a better scholastic balance, future Thai generations risk lagging behind their regional peers.
Prapai Kraisornkovit is the editor of Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post Life section Editor.