Another day, another example of Thailand’s problems with English.
The EF English Proficiency Index, which measures the average level of English skills amongst adults, has ranked Thailand 55th on a list of 60 countries.
The Land of Smiles finds itself in the ignominious ‘Very Low Proficiency’ category, alongside such economic luminaries as Guatemala, Jordan and Morocco.
It is not necessary to look for very long as to why this might be so. There is a relentless wave of opinion pieces and articles in national newspapers trying to put a finger on why it is Thais have such problems acquiring English. These range from incompetency at the Ministry of Education to corruption in schools to poor teacher salaries.
All of these points have merit. But it is a shame that critics of Thailand’s education system won’t inject their views with a little pragmatism.
At the top of EF’s index is the ‘Very High Proficiency’ category. Accounted for are the usual suspects: Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Netherlands and Austria.
Beyond being liberal and wealthy, most of these countries have something else in common: regionally they speak minor languages (with the exception of Austria, which speaks German).
There are obvious reasons why small countries are more likely to be bi- or even multi-lingual. Speakers of Hungarian or Icelandic are acutely aware of professional and cultural isolation when the only language they speak is their own.
By contrast, native English speakers are overwhelmingly monoglot. They experience little to no pressure to learn another language because they already speak the world’s lingua franca.
Europe’s major languages, excluding English, are German and French with Spanish and Italian following closely behind. When it comes to speaking English, Germany appears in the ‘High Proficiency’ category. Spain falls under ‘Moderate Proficiency’ and both Italy and France appear in the category just above Thailand’s: ‘Low Proficiency’.
All four countries have populations large enough to supply most cinema releases with local language voiceovers. Indeed, a Spanish or French cinemagoer can spend a lifetime watching mainstream American movies dubbed by local actors. By contrast, Swedes and Finns watch everything in English with subtitles.
Who in Italy or France feels compelled to learn English when almost everything they’d like to read or watch is translated into their mother tongue?
There are more books translated into Spanish every year than have been translated into Arabic ever. The point is that regional superpowers can afford to take a dismissive view of learning other languages. This is changing slowly but historically has been the case.
My point, of course, is that Thailand, being the big fish in a Southeast Asian pond, feels little cultural pressure to improve its English.
A Cambodian girl who wants to read Cosmopolitan knows she needs to learn another language to do so, because – to my knowledge – Cosmo doesn’t yet publish a Khmer edition. A Thai woman need only pick up Thai Cosmo.
For those who hail from small nations with minor languages there is a sense of urgency from the very beginning when it comes to language acquisition.
Take Iberia. Superficially Spain and Portugal appear to have a lot in common but one is a regional superpower and the other is not. Despite the fact that Portugal is poorer on a per capita basis than Spain, the average Portuguese speaks at a higher level of English than his Spanish counterpart.
The only thing that explains this disparity is a sense by the Portuguese that to get ahead in the 21st century a command of English is essential.
People claim that Thailand will be ‘left behind’ in the coming years, but there is no evidence for this assumption. Its economy has grown considerably in recent decades, all the while with relatively low levels of English proficiency.
The French and the Italians speak barely more English than the Thais yet this hasn’t prevented them from being economic powerhouses.
For all the money they’ve spent Japan and South Korea aren’t wowing anyone with their English, yet the countries are regional titans. As for ASEAN changing the game, I won’t hold my breath. Thais will still hire Thais, whether or not they can speak English.
There is little doubt that Thailand has its problems. But instead of blaming poor English-language acquisition on systemic failure we should accept that Thailand, like Italy and France, probably sees foreign language acquisition as peripheral and even unnecessary.
The bottom line is that Thailand, unlike Laos or Myanmar, is a country with a vibrant economy that can offer its citizens a relatively promising life while remaining happily monoglot. And given the infrequency of meeting native English speakers who can converse in a second language, that is something we should all understand.
This article first appeared at Ajarn.com.