BANGKOK – It would not come as a surprise to anybody that the latest English proficiency index showed that Thailand’s standing remained close to where it was a year ago.
Thailand was ranked 53rd out of 80 non-native English-speaking countries and territories in the EF English Proficiency Index 2017. This was a slight improvement from its 56th position out of 72 countries in 2016 and 62nd place out of 70 countries in 2015.
The survey conducted by Education First showed that Thailand scored 49.78, which is classified as having low proficiency. Last year Thailand scored 47.21.
Among the best-performing countries were the Netherlands (71.45), Sweden (70.40), Denmark (69.93), Norway (67.77), Singapore (66.03), Finland (65.83), Luxembourg (64.57), South Africa (63.37) and Germany (62.35).
The bottom scrapers were the likes of Laos, ranked bottom with a score of 37.56, behind Iraq (38.12), Libya (38.61), Cambodia (40.86) and Algeria (42.11). (See full list of ranked countries below)
Among Asian countries, Singapore was top, followed by Malaysia in 13th place, the Philippines 15th, India 27th, Hong Kong 29th, South Korea 30th, Vietnam 34th, China 36th, Japan 37th and Indonesia 39th.
The survey was based on test data from more than a million adults who took the EF Standard English Test last year.
Thailand has been improving at a snail’s pace while up and coming economies such as Vietnam have already overtaken the kingdom. Vietnam was ranked 34th, right behind Italy and France, both members of the Group of 20 industrialized nations (G20).
Even Indonesia, the only Asean country in the G20, stood in 39th position with a proficiency close to leading global economies Japan (37th) and China (36th).
So why is English so important? A look around the world could give the answer. Although technology has narrowed the language barrier, the ability to communicate has been the driving factor for economic prosperity.
From business deals to high-tech jobs and down to even menial jobs such as household help and driving, one can see what value English proficiency adds. Countries such as China, which until just a few years ago was not bothered about English proficiency, have started to push for greater proficiency as they take the lead role in globalization and free trade. The Philippines saw a boom in its business outsourcing sector simply because of its people’s English skills. Household maids and drivers are able to move around the world because they are able to converse with their employers easily.
English proficiency was something that our elders had anticipated decades ago. Even 50 years ago when Asean was formed, the language used was English, yet Thailand as one of the founding members of Asean has failed to implement policies to promote the language’s use.
Most Thais still end up with what they call “snake snake fish fish” English that is just enough to get by.
This is evident from surveys which showed that countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia and Thailand have major deficits and should first focus on increasing access to resources and improving teacher qualifications.
Singapore and Malaysia have already undertaken steps over the years to improve their English skills. Singapore’s place as the only Asian country among the top 10 nations may have been influenced by former premier Goh Chok Tong’s launch of the Speak Good English Movement in 2000. This campaign encourages Singaporeans to speak and write using Standard English rather than the local “Singlish”. In Malaysia, the state Professional Up-skilling of English Language Teachers project was launched in 2012 and has trained over 15,000 teachers.
Thailand was also among the lowest-ranked countries for the Program for International Student Assessment. The survey put Thailand in 54th position for mathematics, 57th for reading and 54th position for science out of 70 countries.
It is sad to see how badly Thailand has been faring in the global rankings, which clearly show that Thailand desperately needs to upgrade its education system. Alas, what the country has seen over the past nearly four years from this military government has been an emphasis on big-ticket projects that see money flowing out of the country but little if any money being spent to improve educational weaknesses — a structural problem which could make or break the country in the future.
By Umesh Pandey
Editor, Bangkok Post