At the school that I was teaching at in northern Korat, the majority of English teachers could read to an acceptable level, but the same could not be said about their speaking.
It was laborious and constrained, not at all sounding natural, with most words being pronounced with a strong accent, or just plain incorrect. And do not even mention listening!
Not surprisingly, the same could be said about the students. They could read English and do exercises from a book, but not much else. They implored me, and many others, to speak slowly, even though one could not speak slower. The bottom line is their abilities were not good enough. They could barely speak the language, let alone comprehend what others were said. And this was high school students, albeit Matthayom 1 and 2. The administration did not help matters any when they refused my request to use listening tapes.
Being a teacher in Korea previously, I always thought that Koreans had problems with conversational English; but Thai students’ abilities paled in comparison. And we’re talking about those in the English intensive program, supposedly the smartest. Something clearly needs to be done. The only saving grace is that the students weren’t necessarily the best. Why? Well, their mother and father gave the administration extra money. Students were not necessarily in the program based on talent, but the earning power of their parents. And if the pupils did not come to class or do their work? That’s because a foreigner cannot fail anyone! Based on what I’ve heard from others, the same goes on in their schools. It seems the whole public school system has this problem. There is something wrong when students who never show up to class or do the work still end up passing.
The Thai teachers at my school in Korat seemed more concerned in teaching the foreigners about Thai culture, rather than English. If one took on the mannerisms and beliefs of Thai culture, then one was loved, regardless of teaching ability; but if one questioned the system, then one was branded “a problem”. Learning about Thai culture is all well and good, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of teaching English.
In July, there was an article in this publication bemoaning about how many tour guides are not properly qualified to speak English, and that this was hurting the tourism industry. Things do not bode well for the future, considering the English speaking abilities of the majority of students. Thai people have no choice but to improve their English conversational abilities, considering that tourism is the engine that drives Thailand’s economy. Perhaps the situation is not so bad in the country as a whole as it is in the Northeast, or at least in the school where I taught. According to statistics, the above mentioned area contains a third of the population, yet only receives two per cent of all tourists annually. If the students here start speaking better English, then maybe this area can receive its fair share of the tourism pie in the future.
The whole public school system needs to be overhauled. But based on what I have seen, this is very unlikely to occur, given that it is a system beset by bureaucratic inefficiencies, where promotion is based on seniority, above all else.
Perhaps Thai people should take a cue from their brethren in Northeast Asia. The Koreans and Japanese have the same problems as here in their public school system, where the majority of English teachers are competent in grammar, but can barely speak the language. To rectify the problem, the above send their children to private English institutes, where the focus is on speaking. The results seem to bear some fruit.