2. Languages in Thailand
2.1 The linguistic situation in Thailand
Thailand is a linguistically complex country and consequently this linguistic background should be taken into consideration as we examine the role of the English language in the nation. In this section a brief overview of the history of languages in Thailand shall be presented, after which the current linguistic situation will be discussed.
Thai was declared the national language of Thailand in 1940 (Kosonen & Person 2014: 202-203). At the time, only the Thai language was to be spoken and written by the citizens of the country, as other languages were seen as a threat to national identity. The attitude towards minority languages improved slightly in the 1980s and continued to do so in the 1990s (ibid).
In the 1999 National Education Act, “local wisdom and culture” were encouraged to be incorporated into the curriculum. At this point, interest in English, Japanese and Chinese increased for business and trade purposes (ibid).
Many regard Thailand to be a monolingual country and officially it is such. Standard Thai, which is based on Central Thai (spoken in Bangkok, the country’s capital) is the only official
5 and national language of the country (Kosonen & Person 2014: 204). The language is spoken all over the country and high proficiency in the language is necessary for all white-collar jobs or to be able to complete higher education successfully (ibid). However, Standard Thai is estimated to be the first language of only 40 percent of Thailand’s population (ibid).
Immediately after Standard Thai come three regional varieties: Northeastern Thai, which is spoken by 29.1% of the population as a first language, Northern Thai with 11.6% of the country’s population speaking it as their mother tongue, and Southern Thai spoken by 8.7%
of the population (Kosonen & Person 2014: 206). These languages are sometimes considered mere dialects of Standard Thai, but they are in fact languages of their own and are not mutually intelligible with the standard variety. After these regional languages come Northern Khmer at 2.7% with over 1 million speakers, Min Nan Chinese at 2.1% with over 1 million speakers and Pattani Malay at 1.9% with 1 million speakers (ibid). The remaining 4.8% of the population speaks other minority languages as their first language. Over 70 different languages are spoken in the country (ibid).
Many of these languages are not incorporated into the educational system and thus many children are forced to start school in a language they do not know (Standard Thai). This clearly makes their learning more difficult, as they do not understand the language of instruction. Standard Thai is a language of prestige in the country, but English is also considered a prestigious language, though its use is limited mainly to the educated elite (Kosonen & Person 2014: 204). In Thailand’s language hierarchy, English comes behind Standard Thai, but ahead of the minority languages spoken in the country.
6 Unlike the neighboring countries, Thailand was never colonized. The country has a strong national identity and patriotism is still maintained. Standard Thai is the language of prestige in the nation and thus English has never been considered as important and it has not been needed, as it was never enforced on the country. The strong nationalism of the kingdom has kept Standard Thai at the top of the language hierarchy and this has kept the learning of other languages as seemingly unimportant and unnecessary. This could be one reason that could account for the low level of proficiency in the English language in the country.
This study focuses on Northern Thailand specifically. Therefore, the linguistic situation of Northern Thailand will be examined next. For almost 88% of the people of Northern Thailand, the Northern variety, Kammuang, is the language used at home (Kosonen &
Person, 2014: 212). Central Thai is used by only 3% of the Northerners at home and around 10% use both varieties (ibid). In the Northern region of Thailand, proficiency in Standard Thai is somewhat limited among the working class. However, in this study, the participants should have quite high proficiency in Standard Thai as they have received more education than most. The participants of this study are in high school and have completed over 10 years of school.
There have been no studies conducted on the difficulties that the people who speak Northern Thai as their first language would have in learning or acquiring Standard Thai (Kosonen &
Person, 2014: 212). The differences in these languages could provide challenges in learning Standard Thai, and will be discussed in the following section.
7 2.2 An overview of the Thai language
The Thai language differs significantly from English. In this section, a brief overview of the language will be provided. This will be a description of the “ideal” Standard Thai, as it is the sole official language of Thailand. However, as with all languages, there is much variation even within Standard Thai (Smalley 1994: 39). Thai belongs to the Tai-Kadai language group, whereas English belongs to the Indo-European language group (Lewis & al, 2015).
Thai has been influenced by Pali and Sanskrit, which are ancient South Asian languages (Hoare, 2004: 225-226). Thai has its own writing system, which differs greatly from the roman one (ibid). The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants (ibid). Some of these share the same basic sounds and some are rarely or never used (ibid). Over 30 vowel sounds appear in the Thai language, when adding together all the long and short vowels as well as diphthongs (ibid). In addition, Thai is a tonal language, which means that the sound pattern of a word is a part of the word’s meaning (ibid). There are five different tones in Thai:
middle, rising, falling, high, and low.
The syntax and grammar of Thai differ considerably from English. In Thai, nouns and verbs are not conjugated. The form of the words stays the same, whatever the tense, person or number (Hoare 2004: 226). Short prefixes can be used to indicate simple past or future tenses (ibid). This difference may cause difficulties for Thai-speakers when learning English, as the concept of, for example, conjugating verbs does not exist in their own language.
8 Differences between consonant sounds also add to the dissimilarity between English and Thai. There is a total of nine consonant sounds in English which do not appear in Standard Thai (Kanokpermpoon, 2007). Furthermore, there are consonant sounds that appear in both languages, but are used in different syllabic positions, which might cause some English words to be difficult for Thai speakers to pronounce (ibid). In addition, the consonants /l/ and /r/ can be used interchangeably in Thai, which in turn may result in challenges in using these sounds correctly in English (ibid). These phonetic differences in the languages may result in difficulties for Thai speakers when speaking English, as it might take time to learn sounds they are not accustomed to using. However, what should be taken into consideration is that the other languages spoken in Thailand might have different phonetic systems and might be more like English than Standard Thai.
When taking into consideration that this study focuses on Northern Thailand, it is vital that we also examine the language of the North: Northern Thai or Kammuang. Just as it is elsewhere in the country, Standard Thai is the official language, and the language of education, but in the North Kammuang is what many of the locals would use among themselves (Smalley, 1994: 71). Standard Thai and Northern Thai are not mutually intelligible.
Kammuang differs from Standard Thai in various aspects. For example, while Standard Thai has five distinct tones, Kammuang has six (Smalley, 1994: 74). Moreover, there are phonetic differences between the languages (ibid). Although grammatical differences between
9 Standard and Northern Thai do exist, grammatically the two languages are quite similar, especially if compared to a language such as English (ibid). Thus, the challenges that the speakers of either Standard or Northern Thai would have with English are most likely relatively similar in nature.
2.3 The role of English in Thailand
In addition to the multiple languages spoken by Thai citizens as their mother tongue, the English language also plays a major part. In this section, the role of English in different contexts will be discussed. First, we shall examine the role of English in ASEAN. Secondly, discussion on the role of English in the Thai media will be discussed. Thirdly, the teaching of English in Thailand will be observed. Lastly, the role of tourism in the country will be examined.
2.3.1 English in ASEAN
Despite the strong position of Standard Thai and Thailand’s nationalism, the need for English proficiency has arisen, especially in the past few years. There has been much pressure on the Thai government to improve the English language competence of the Thai people. One of the main reasons for this has been the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) 2015. ASEAN is the Association of South East Asian Nations. AEC is a single market system and since 2015 people from the ASEAN countries have been able to move around and work in any other ASEAN country. English has been chosen as the association’s lingua franca and since the ASEAN Charter of 2009 it has been the sole official language of the association (Kirkpatrick, 2012: 331). However, the use of English as the community’s lingua franca had practically
10 been the case for the first forty years that ASEAN had existed (Kirkpatrick, 2010: 8-9) and thus there has been no practical difference in the linguistic situation of the association since the Charter of 2009.
The latest development in the ASEAN community is the economic community of 2015, which brings together 10 nations from this Southeast Asian region to work in economic cooperation. The member states of ASEAN are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. When examining these countries from the perspective of the use of the English language, five of these countries would be categorized as outer circle countries (Kachru, 2006: 1)1. English is one of the official languages in four of these countries: Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 2016). In addition to these four, Myanmar would be considered an outer circle country, due to its colonial history with Great Britain.
Thus, English plays a strong role in many of these ASEAN countries. In comparison to Thailand, most of them are also stronger in their English language proficiency. Thailand could be at a disadvantage due to its collective lack of knowledge in English. Due to this, there has been “hype” in Thailand to improve the level of English in the country and several educational reforms have been discussed in light of AEC 2015 (Education key to AEC
1 English varieties can be grouped into three categories: Inner-Circle, Outer-Circle and Expanding-Circle varieties. The first set includes countries such as the Unites States or Great Britain. The Outer-Circle varieties include varieties from countries that have a long history with English, mainly because of colonization, and the language has an official status in the country. Examples include India, Nigeria and Singapore. In Expanding-Circle countries English is used mainly for international purposes and the language has not gone through nativization (Kahcru, 2006).
11 success, 2012). Currently, English is almost exclusively the only foreign language taught, and the minority languages of the country are only included in some small educational programs that are not funded by the government (Draper, 2012: 23).
2.3.2 English in the media
In the past few years, there has been much discussion on the level of English in Thailand and many articles have been written on the topic in the national newspaper, the Bangkok Post.
One of the main reasons for this recent interest in the language has been AEC 2015 and this topic has emerged in numerous articles.
The topic was already discussed in January 2012. The Bangkok Post published articles related to the English language skills and use in the country. 2012 was an “English-speaking year” in Thailand and students were encouraged to speak English every Monday (Marukatat, 2012).
On these English-speaking days students were supposed to use English in school. The teachers would teach subjects in Thai, but otherwise students were encouraged to communicate in English. No further regulations were given for how or how much English was supposed to be taught or used (Boonyai, 2012). This was three years before the launch of AEC 2015 and the Education Ministry was attempting to improve English skills in the country before the new single market system was launched.
In February 2012, the Bangkok Post published another article related to this topic (“Testing time for students a pain in the class”, 2012). The article displayed statistics on the English
12 skills of Thai students from the previous year (2011). The article presented the results from the General Aptitude Test (GAT), which is a standardized test required as part of the admission into Thai universities (Thailandeducation.info, 2016). Oral and written skills in English as well as knowledge of vocabulary and structure are tested in the exam (ibid). In 2011, 126,760 students were examined and their average GAT score in English was 28.43 out of 100 (“Testing time for students a pain in the class”, 2012). The highest score was 92.5 and the lowest was 1.25 (ibid). Thus, the average score for English was 28.43%, which is not even close to a standard passing grade of 50%. The scores were generally low in other subjects as well (ibid). These results indicate a low level of English proficiency among the general population of Thais.
The topics of education and AEC 2015 were discussed in the Bangkok Post in April 2012 as well (“Education key to AEC success”, 2012). The article discussed the concern ministers had as AEC 2015 approached, but most of the Thai citizens had not even heard of the economic community. Educational reforms were seen as the key for improvement. According to the article, the general view in Thailand is very nationalistic and this needs to change in order to improve proficiency in English (ibid).
Articles on the topic of English in Thailand continued to be published the following year as well. Thailand’s Minister of Education urged for the English teachers around the country to help with inventing new and innovative teaching methods in order for the students’ English communication skills to improve (“Chaturon urges English teaching reform”, 2013). The
13 Nation, another national English-language newspaper, also discussed the topic of improving the level of English in the kingdom (“Improving English skills is vital: Surin”, 2013).
The year before the launch of AEC 2015, the need for improvement in English language proficiency was again discussed in the Bangkok Post. The need for proficiency in the language was considered vital for the country’s future economy, as the other ASEAN countries are at a clear advantage due to their English language competence (“Thais face skills 'challenges'”, 2014).
The role of the English language in the media has also increased in that English names and code-mixing have become more common (Snodin, 2014). This is the case even when the intended audience of the mass media are Thai. Thus, the role of English has increased in significance and code-mixing between English and Thai has become more common. Even between people who share a common language, the importance and use of English has grown significantly. For example, almost all the magazines used in Snodin’s (2014) study were named entirely in English, even though these magazines are targeted at a Thai audience and the content of the magazines is in Thai.
Among some citizens of Thailand, the use of English has spread. Glass (2009) studied how graduates from bachelor’s degree programs completed in English in Thai public universities wrote to Thais and other nationalities. It was discovered that most of the respondents use English frequently in writing with people outside of Thailand as well as with other Thais
14 (ibid). There were numerous reasons for using English among Thais (ibid). The results of this study show that English has become an intranational language to those residents of the country that have more fluency in the language.
As can be seen, the topic of English language proficiency and the lack of skills in the language have been topics of interest in newspapers in the country. AEC 2015 has been referred to multiple times. However, this concern seems to stem only from a marginal group of people in the country. It is mainly the ministers and Thais with higher levels of education that are concerned with English language competence and AEC 2015. The majority of the people seemed to not have heard of the project before it launched in 2015, as was mentioned in one the articles. Hence, the general view in the country does not reflect the views presented in the newspapers. Thus, if the proficiency in English is to be improved in the whole country, changes must be made so that all citizens become more aware of the importance of competence in the language.
In the light of the results of this study, there is knowledge of AEC 2015 and the importance of the English language is evident at the high school level as well. Therefore, the issue is perhaps not being aware of the importance of the language but rather something else. This will be discussed in more detail later on in sections 5.1.3 and 5.2.3.
15 2.3.3 English teaching in Thailand
When conducting a study related to the role of a language in a country, it is crucial to consider the teaching of the language. In the following section, some studies related to English language teaching in Thailand will be examined. The quality of teaching and the methods used are issues that have arisen in studies related to English teaching in Thailand.
Thailand’s 1999 National Educational Act sought to change and improve teaching, emphasizing learner-centered methods and varying methods of assessment, such as portfolios, as opposed to simply using regular tests (Foley, 2005: 225). The English curriculum has been divided into “four C’s”: culture, communication, connection and communities (ibid). There is a standard set for each of these categories that should be met by the students (ibid). Teachers are encouraged towards a learner-centered environment.
Prapaisit (2004) conducted a case study of three English teachers in Thailand. According to the results of the study, the teaching was very teacher-centered and non-communicative. The teachers also felt that their own proficiency in the language was low and they did not feel confident using the target language (ibid).
In a study conducted in the Western Thai province of Ratchaburi it was found that the attitude of sixth grade students towards learning the English language improved significantly when they were learning under a cooperative teaching method rather than under the traditional Thai communicative teaching method (Chayarathee & Waugh, 2006: 120). The traditional communicative method is a teacher-focused behaviorist style of teaching, which includes
16 repeating words and phrases after the teacher. In addition to this, students work individually by reading texts and answering questions. All communication is between the students and the teacher. The cooperative method is more interactive. In this teaching method, students work in groups to complete instructional activities. The results of Chayarathee and Waugh’s (2006) study could indicate that currently students are not very motivated to learn English and that their attitudes towards the language are not very positive due to the teaching methods used.
Prapaisit de Segovia (2009) conducted a study related to the implementation of the communicative methods emphasized in the National Education Act of 1999. Grades 5-6
Prapaisit de Segovia (2009) conducted a study related to the implementation of the communicative methods emphasized in the National Education Act of 1999. Grades 5-6