English Language Education in Thailand: Where to go next?
The importance of English has undoubtedly been regarded as a key issue in the developmentof all aspects of its domain in Thailand. Its influential status has pressed the government to execute policies on foreign language education by establishing English as a compulsory subject for all primary schools in 1996. Moreover, in 2002, The National Education Curriculum combining English with IT,at the forefront of national intellectual development, was carried out(Wongsothorn, 2003, cited in Baker, 2012). The dramatic demandsfor English have even been greater owing to the birth of ASEAN community sincenot merely has English become a medium of communication amongst the community, butit has also been acknowledged as an official language (Kirkpatrick, 2010, citedin Buppanhasamai, 2012). This has put an anticipatoryemphasis on teaching English as a medium of communication in the country(Baker, 2012). The purpose of this academic essay is to describe the overall situationof English language education in Thailand, and discuss the extent to which the present situation illustrates the notion of communicative language teaching (CLT). The other central argument is to propose the implementation of the CLT basedon the premise of English as a Lingua Franca in dynamic practice if successful English language teaching and learning are needed in Thailand.
As we know, the present situation of English language teaching in Thailand has long been criticized as a dismal failure. The vast majority of Thai students, as the finished products of education, stillhave very poor command of English for actual communication in spite of having studied the language for more than 12-16 years. It is completely sad but truethat their studying English for such a long time is simply a total waste oftime since they cannot listen, speak, read, or write in a way that is intended.
This desperate situation, in myopinion, is directly due to the ineffectiveness of Thai educational system inthree main facets. Firstly, an over-reliance on multiple choice tests,especially those in the university admission which does not coincide with thetenets of education acts (1999) focusing on the importance of learning bydoing, practicing analytical thinking, and integrated activities. That is tosay, Thai students requirement compelled by the situation is all aboutexplicit grammar and reading instruction with techniques to get high scores. Their ultimate goal of studying English is for the sake of coping with numerous multiplechoice tests and exams. This phenomenon leads to the dominant role of tutoring schoolswhere Thai students flee to flock, hoping to be rescued by technical tutors whocan teach them how to tackle all kinds of difficult assessment tests.Ironically, despite extensive studying English for tests and exams inside andoutside classroom nationwide, both Thai students total scores of the nationalstandardized O-NET and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) providedby ETS are still remarkably mediocre (Darasawang, 2007, p.192; Sirimongkol, 2005; Saengboon,2002, p. 4; Wiriyachitra, 2001, p.4-7). This is a crucial reason why communicative competence in accordance with the communicative language teaching(CLT) in English classrooms is basically neglected. Secondly, the low English proficiencyof teachers is another problematic factor. A large number of Thai teachersneither speak English well enough nor have sufficient knowledge of teaching methodology. It was even found thatmany of them failed government tests and are unqualified to teach. (Saiyasombut, 2012; Tohoey, 2010).Last but not least, the outdated and rigid teaching method is a major cause which hinders the use of CLT in classroom. This means many Thai teachers stillopt to use the Grammar-Translation method since they are not required to havespecialized skills in conducting the class by using English as the mainclassroom language. The purpose of teachingis just to require students to memorize vocabulary and grammatical rules, readtexts by translation, and do various exercises with the use of the mothertongue (Brown 2001, p.18-19). As a result, it is a relatively vicious circle as such the overuse of the notorious method is supported unintentionally, yet remarkably compatible with the accentuation on the traditionaltesting year after year. From my perspective, the use of such method is anabsolute enemy of CLT itself because its classroom activities emphasizeenormously on the reading and writing skills as well as grammar at the sentencelevel with formal accuracy in context free. In short, CLT will never besatisfactorily applied in the actual classroom on account of the prevalence ofthese problematic factors. If the teaching orientation is not changed, it isvirtually impossible to improve students communicative competence respectively.
Admittedly, apart from executing a measure of changing assessment orientation towards communicative skills and improving the quality of the teachers, promoting the use of CLT is a hopeful resolution tothe grave situation of English language teaching in Thailand. Generally speaking, CLT is a flexible learner-centered approach which allows students to empower their own learning. As Richards and Rodgers (2001, p.172) indicatesthat CLT refer to a diverse set of principles that reflect a communicativeview of language and language learning and that can used to support a widevariety of classroom procedures This means the goal of classroom activities isbased on authentic and meaningful communication so that learners can learn English through using it by the communicative integration of four skills. Also, fluency is an essential component developed by a process of creative contextual construction through trial and error. The role of the teacher is as a facilitator,and the role of the learners is as negotiators of meaning so that they are ableto exchange communication in the target language. However, it could possibly beargued that it is utter uselessness to simply propose the notion of CLT blindly without considering all undesirable possibilities before we move on. This isbecause the advent of CLT is not new to Thai English teaching community.According to Saengboon (2002, p.5), the approach was introduced in early 1980sto many EFL countries including Thailand. Administrators in the Thai Ministryof Education at that time began to realize that the majority of Thai students were unable to communicate effectively in English so they were convinced that CLT principles would solve the long-standing problem of Thai students lowproficiency in English. Unfortunately, it was a doomed attempt since thirtyyears have passed but the situation is still the same: The majority of Thai students are still unable to communicate in English effectively.
Interestingly, many studies conducted after the implementation of CLT in Asian countries reveal knotty problems aspart of sociolinguistic reality even though CLT was promoted as one of the mosteffective teaching approaches. For instance, as suggested by Elliss study in Vietnam (1996 cited in Saengboon, 2002, p. 27), he argues that original CLTstenets are invalid or even irrelevant to Asian educational conditions that value collectivism while the original CLT has its Western value of individualism. He claims that The process-orientation of Western pedagogy thatemphasizes communicative competence conflicts with the product-orientation ofthe Vietnamese pedagogy that stresses rote memorization and teachers Anotherstudy (Burnaby and Sun, 1989 cited in Saengboon, 2002, p.28) concerning theeffectiveness of CLT in China found that most Chinese teachers do notparticularly favor the application of CLT but, on the other hand, satisfy withtheir current teaching methods that are based exclusively on grammaticalaccuracy because most of their students future work would be directly related to tasks such as reading technical materials or translating texts. There is noreal chance for them to use English in daily life. From these studies, we can see that the English teaching education in the two countries are quite similarto that of Thailand. As a result, with all things considered, it is undeniablethat context plays a vital role in determining an appropriate pedagogy for aparticular setting. Hence, the compromise between the orthodox CLT approach andthe local cultural norms is required in order to find a balance of effective teaching and learning. As Saengboon (2002, p. 37-38) states his particularized definition of CLT in Thai context that Communicative Language Teaching inThailand will have the goal of producing reasonably fluent communicative skillsappropriate to the local setting rather than according to native speakerstandard. Towards this goal, the teacher will retain conventional authority inthe classroom while conducting activities that encourage interactions amongstudents, teach grammar in meaningful contexts, utilize English materials authentic in the local setting, and make judicious use of Thai language in theEnglish Classroom. This is sociolinguistic reality towards ELT that we have totake into consideration if CLT is to be highlighted in Thailand.
Saengboons definition similarly corresponds to my belief that English language education in Thailand needs a new paradigm of CLT application in Thai context, but this time with a hybrid of the premise of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) instead of using the traditional English as a foreign language (EFL) paradigm which merely promotes the discourse of native-speakerness. The new teaching approach based on ELF is nota matter of accuracy in accordance with the norms of native speakers any morebut rather the norms of international intelligibility among people whose first languages are different with the emphasis on communicative competence. To elaborate, the conception, as suggested by McKay (2002, p. 18), is that Englishhas become a primarily lingua franca since it functions as a preferred means ofinternational communication for a wide varieties of purposes for both nativeand non-native speakers alike. Furthermore, the majority of spoken exchanges are between non-native speakers of English, with English as a Lingua Franca(ELF), rather than between native speakers and non-native speakers, with English as a Foreign Language (EFL). For this reason, the new row of Englishhas shifted the ownership of English from the so-called native speakers to thewhole world population (Seidlhofer, 2011; Walker, 2010; Jenkins, 2000, 2007). Specifically,it is rather evident that the dominant EFL paradigm in Thailand is incompatiblewith globally communicative needs which emphasize on intercultural communicative competence rather than just follow the conventional model ofcommunicative competence of the native speaker norms. (Alptekin, 2002; Canaleand Swain, 1980 cited in Saengboon, 2005, p. 39) Consequently, a paradigm shiftin understanding sociolinguistic aspects of English language teaching whichmoves away from the traditional English language teaching paradigm is verynecessary (Jenkins, 2000, 2007). In this case, English will fulfill its role asthe most powerful tool which associates Thailand with other ASEAN community andthe rest of the world culturally, intellectually, and economically. Thai usersof English will be considered as proficient multilingual speakers having theirown linguistic and communicative repertoires rather than deficient L2 speakers evaluated by the norms of native speakers. To achieve this goal, English Language Teaching in Thailand should have its own local pedagogic practices and evaluation in relation to the communicative situations which are relevant to language proficiency of Thai users of English as a lingua franca (Baker, 2012, p. 20-22).For example, Thai students may get exposure to varieties of English used bynative and non-native speakers extensively through competent teachers of different nationalities, or they should have an opportunity to study in a new English curriculum with the rich content of ASEAN community as well as other countriesusing English as a lingua franca around the world.
In conclusion, the English language education in Thailand is notorious for being outdated as well as impractical for many decades. The situation has not satisfactorily been improved due to theimplementation of the CLT approach without carefully adapting to Thais cultural and educational setting. As an English teacher, I have pointed out the overall situation and upheld the implementation of modified communicative language teaching (CLT) notion based on the paradigm shift from EFL to ELF. That is to say, the orientation of English language teaching pedagogy based on EFLparadigm needs to be re-examined and revised in order to raise Thai studentsawareness of the importance of international intelligibility and English identities among global users of English. All in all, a gradual and systematic shifting from the EFL paradigm to the ELF paradigm is needed to improve Englishlanguage teaching at different levels of education in Thailand.
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