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Bad language

By Lim Li Min
17 January 2006 14:29
A girl speaks to her English class. Education Ministry figures show that the average English score for university-bound students is 40 out of 100.
After years of lip service about improving English instruction, the government says it’s finally getting serious about the problem. But has it really done its homework?

Valerie McKenzie is a star in this country. But unlike many local favorites, this lively Australian with big, blonde hair is no songstress or soap opera siren. She has a TV show that, every day at 8am, is viewed religiously by a great number of Thai students who share a common goal: to improve their English.

The Channel 11 show, called Morning Talk and produced in a Bangkok studio, is watched by 2.1 million viewers from Nong Khai to Nakhon Si Thammarat. Its content, like most newsy talk shows, is comprised of interviews and segments on business, technology, travel and pop culture.

Some of the guests are surprisingly big names. Today’s interviewee is Ambassador Friedrich Hamburger, head of the European Commission’s delegation in Thailand. In clearly enunciated English, he and McKenzie discuss how trade between the European Union and Southeast Asia can benefit both regions.

Back in a classroom, McKenzie’s image is up on TV screens, with kids furiously taking down as much of the conversation as possible. The anchor knows that, just a few minutes after she has closed the show, they will reenact the interview. With spoken English in Thailand at disappointingly low levels, the task ends up being a formidable challenge for the students who undertake it.

The teacher will then take over, going over vocabulary and pronunciation. These details, government officials know, must be mastered if this generation of future workers is to be more competitive internationally.

“Listening and speaking are the two most difficult things for Thai students to master,” says McKenzie, who has resided in the country for 14 years.

Her evidence: the flood of 14,000 emails a week she receives from desperate students. The numbers, and their urgency, reflect a knotty problem in the country’s educational system. Despite years of instruction, starting from the first year of primary school, many Thais cannot speak or understand simple English.

The average test score for university-bound students is 40 out of a possible 100, according to the Education Ministry (MOE). And Thailand is faring worse than other countries in the region. In last year’s Teaching of English as a Foreign Language tests, the country came in behind Laos and scored only one point higher than Cambodia. The resulting losses in trade could be in the billions of baht.

After nearly two decades of declining standards, government officials, teachers, parents and experts on English teaching are finally getting together to try to reverse the trend. Last week, the Senate hosted a meeting with the ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs to discuss MOE’s 10-year plan for English instruction, which boasts a substantial budget of 5.3 billion baht.

The problems officials are up against are compound. They start with a lack of fluency among local English teachers, and the grammar-based curriculum. There is overcrowding in classrooms, and a paucity of resources. The ministry’s conclusion: local teachers need to be retrained, the curriculum must be more communicative, class sizes must be cut, and resource centers expanded.

In order to pull this off, the government plans to set up a centralized body that will be responsible for policy, textbooks, teacher training and exams. It will also promote e-resources and self-instruction, and give students and teachers the opportunity to study abroad.

The ministry’s 10-year budget includes these immediate and short-term targets: revamped textbooks for 10,000 schools; 20,000 teachers sent on training courses; online courses in 200 subjects, including English; and developing the skills of 1,250 top students.

The Foreign Ministry is looking into setting up a one-stop visa center for English teachers and expediting visas for students on exchange programs. To facilitate these measures, it hopes to sign memoranda of understanding with the governments of such English-speaking countries as Australia, Britain and the United States, and is calling for help from English-language experts from these countries.

Nobody is pretending all this will be easy.

Thailand has 36,000 schools, including 90 international schools and 136 English-program schools where the language of instruction is English at least in part. There are 176 English Resource and Instruction Centers, where teachers are trained. But the bulk of the schools are government institutions with little access to the kind of resources enjoyed by private schools.

“It’s mission impossible to provide qualified teachers to our schools,” says Siriporn Boonyananta, the deputy secretary-general of the Office of the National Education Council.

The average class size is 50, while about half of the country’s teachers score below average in English, according to data released by the MOE. Half the scholarships offered by the Swedish government each year are not filled, due to the poor English skills of Thai students, says Roschong Nimsakul, director of the International Language Academy in Chiang Mai (ILAC).

In rural areas, many instructors are unable to speak rudimentary English. Yet so desperate are pupils to learn English that many schools in rural and urban areas have clubbed together to employ farang teachers, paying them out of their own pockets. These are often foreigners with little or no qualifications who are here on tourist visas.

Experts who attended the Senate’s meeting with the ministries remain mostly unimpressed by the talk of improvement.

“The MOE has done a lot, but whether they can get on the right track is the point. They are too slow, and they have only just started to listen to the experts now,” says ILAC’s Roschong, who says the emphasis should be on local teacher training, not the recruitment of foreign instructors. Educators in the conference spent much of the time discussing foreign teacher recruitment and qualifications.

Chinnapat Bhumirat, deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Basic Education Commission, says that while the talks were nothing novel, the new significance placed on multimedia education could eventually help rural students. It could also alleviate the problem of class overcrowding and provide a rare opportunity for students to be exposed to authentic English voices and situations.

All agree on one thing: there must more accountability for the targets that are set. The experts point to the MOE’s goal of increasing its quota of highly proficient teachers from 7.5 percent to 14 percent, an objective set three years ago, with no quantifiable results so far.

But for Morning Talk’s McKenzie, the most important factor is student motivation. “Lessons have to be fun,” she says.

Part of the program’s English-language teaching component is “E-Tour for Teens,” in which presenters visit schools around the country. Students must give tours of their school in English and prepare a TV script based on the tourist attractions of their provinces. A second session features TV-based learning, followed by quizzes led by the presenters.

Some language-training programs are more intensive. At Chiang Mai’s International Language Academy, an institution that has won awards from His Majesty the King, nurses training to go abroad receive a four-month total immersion course in English.

Roschong calls it a “boot camp.” A typical day starts with breakfast, with the students conversing in English with their teachers and facilitators. The curriculum has a strong emphasis on communication, and student-to-teacher ratios are kept small.

A full day of language learning is broken up by videos and instruction on the cultures of the countries the nurses will visit. This is important, says Roschong, because her students frequently stick to their own ethnic groups when abroad. “Language itself is a culture. The best way to learn it is to be in that culture. But it’s not easy with 12 million students,” says Wiboon Shamsheun, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, Religion, Arts and Culture. – Additional reporting by Serm Patcharanu



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