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English, a sign of a colonized country for Thailand's minister of education

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Oct 21, 2010

BANGKOK (eTN) - Despite the crucial importance of tourism to Thailand's economy and the successful efforts made by the country to lure international visitors, foreigners touring the kingdom often wonder about the difficulties to be understood in English, even when these are basic words such as restaurant or hospital.

In Bangkok or major tourism centers, someone will always be around with some English knowledge to help. But in smaller cities, villages, or areas less-frequented by tourists, mime skills might then be required! "I recently told my staff that their level of English is today worst than ten years ago, when I came for the first time to work in Thailand," said confidentially a hotel executive working for an international luxury chain.

It is no secret that a deficient education system and a certain shyness from Thai people to speak another language are responsible for poor English skills. Another friend of mine, a well-educated young woman working in marketing, told me once that she sometimes regretted that Thailand had not been a colony "as it would have helped us to learn and speak properly English," she explained half joking.

It is, of course, pure coincidence, but her joke is, in fact, taken very seriously by Thailand Minister of Education Chinnaworn Boonyakiat. In its Tuesday edition, Thailand's English-written daily Bangkok Post reported that the minister vetoed the adoption of English as Thailand's "official second language."

The reason to reject the proposal from a committee looking at improving education sounds rather pathetic: "Taking English as its second official language might lead to misunderstandings that Thailand had been colonized in the past," according to the ministry. The minister indicated that countries in the region who have English as their second language were, in fact, all viewed as former colonies.

"I fully disagree with this interpretation. We all need to speak English to be better integrated in our current world. Making English our second national language was a great opportunity," said Kridsana Suksakorn, a 20-year old student from Kasetsart University, who is fluent in English. "The argument of Thailand being looked as a colonized country sounds rather odd. Nobody thinks like this anymore today!"

The ministry has, however, promised to reinforce the use of English and improve methods of teaching. "A major problem comes from the fact that many local teachers already do not speak well English from [the] beginning. They should be the ones being retrained first," added Mr. Suksakorn. English-native speakers will be recruited to teach to senior secondary school students according to the minister's statement.

It is true that English proficiency for population living in Malaysia, Singapore, or the Philippines are legacies from colonial or protectorate times. But in a globalized world, being fluent in English turns very much into a major asset to be understood in most economic, social, and cultural circles. And nobody in those countries thinks to reject English due to its "colonial" origin. It sounds rather like an idea emerged from another century: maybe from the colonial ones?

English, a sign of a colonized country for Thailand's minister of education
Or is it not "welcome to the past" for Thailand Minister of Education? / Photo by L. Citrinot

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