Learning English for Thai People: A Path to a Better Life
Before expats come over to teach in Thailand, many assume that Thai peoples’ main motivation for learning English is personal interest or as an extracurricular activity. This idea tends to be founded from our own personal experience as most of us learned French or Spanish for those same reasons throughout our primary and secondary schooling. We studied other languages either because of a desire to travel or to enhance our university applications. However, this assumption of Thai peoples’ motivations for studying English is slightly misguided. While some Thai people do learn English because they plan to travel or for fun, the majority of Thais study English, or pressure their children to do so, in order to improve their material wellbeing or social standing.
English language skills are in great demand in Thailand. One widely recognized reason for this is that they are essential to supporting the country’s burgeoning tourism industry. Last year, Thailand had more than 26 million visitors arriving by plane—an increase of over 200% in the past decade. However, an often overlooked and arguably more important reason that English language skills are in such high demand in Thailand is to support the country’s massive export manufacturing industries.
Thailand competes with many of its regional neighbors to be a top destination for foreign direct investment (FDI). Thai government officials do everything in their power to attract the attention of multinational corporations like General Electric, General Motors, Unilever, and Microsoft to convince them to open a factory or regional headquarters here in Thailand instead of somewhere like Vietnam, Malaysia, or China. While Thailand’s beaches, mountains and the friendliness of the Thai people make a persuasive argument, promoting strong English language skills of the local workforce is the final frontier. As a result, this is something that the Thai government fixates heavily on. Every two to three weeks there’s an article in the local media lamenting that Thailand is falling behind its neighbors in standardized tests of English language capability. With the exception of the agriculture industry, English language skills are in extremely high demand. Unfortunately, throughout the tourism, manufacturing, and education sectors, Thailand is falling behind its regional neighbors in this regard.
There is another important reason that learning the English language is currently in such high demand in Thailand. On December 31st, 2015, the countries of Southeast Asia will enter into a new phase of regional integration known as ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Thailand is a member of this union which began an unprecedented era of international cooperation between nations. ASEAN established a regional trading bloc that will lower the barriers to the movement of people, goods, and services across Southeast Asia. Being that there is no common language amongst the countries in the region, communication between nations is done almost entirely in English. As a result, English has been declared the official language of the ASEAN community. Therefore, not only are English language skills in demand in the private sector, but in the Thai government sector as well.
How big of a difference does learning English make to the typical Thai worker or government employee? It really is remarkable. If you take two Thai workers, who are in all ways equal (education, age, experience, performance), but only one has strong English language capability, he or she can earn anywhere from 2-3 times the salary compared to their non-English speaking counterpart. This is why from the national government level all the way down to the individual family, massive financial investments are made in English language education. It is important to not only Thailand’s development as a nation, but also for the development of the individual Thai person and their earning potential.
Thailand is still a developing country. The average salary of a Thai person is roughly USD 5,000, compared to USD 40,000 for someone living in the United States. In fact, the economic and class structure in Thailand looks nothing like that in the United States. Thailand’s middle class is very small compared to the United States and is a relatively new socioeconomic group. A few generations ago, there was no middle class in Thailand. Bangkok is the only area of Thailand where the middle class is prominent and it makes up 50% of the city’s population. This figure accounts for the majority of middle class individuals in Thailand. Outside of Bangkok, the middle class shrinks to a very small percentage. For example, in one of the most populated regions of Thailand, the Northeast, the middle class makes up less than 10% of the population. The vast majority of Thais in areas like these are poor farmers.
Because the middle class is a relatively new social group, the class system in Thailand still largely resembles pre-modern times and is built upon unequal relations between the traditional elites (land holders) and peasants. While we are a long way from those ancient times, this pre-modern class and social structure still exists in many ways, and it represents a huge barrier to upward mobility.
A majority of Thais are born poor, they live poor, and they die poor. Their children end up going to underfunded schools with apathetic teachers and often drop out before they reach graduation. Sound familiar? You could say the same thing about many inner-city communities in the Western world. The main difference is that those communities represent nearly 75% of the population in Thailand. To this day, there is still very little upward mobility for Thais born into a lower class family. Chances are, if you are born poor, your offspring will be poor, and they will in turn raise family trapped in this vicious cycle of poverty that repeats itself generation after generation. There is a way to break this cycle of poverty. This is where English language comes in.
If you can speak English, you can move up in Thai society. You can move out of poverty and provide a better life for yourself and your children. English language skills are an important springboard to the middle class and a way to leave poverty behind. Young Thai kids who you encounter in the classroom might not appreciate this, but their families, their communities and the Thai government certainly do. As a result, Thailand hires more than 10,000 native English-speaking teachers each year. Despite this, the current supply of native English speaking teachers still doesn’t meet the overall demand.
Because of all of this, native English speaking teachers play a very important role in this country. They hold the potential to help a child born to a family of rice farmers to have a fair shot at providing a better life for their children. In my years of training and preparing thousands of native English teachers in Thailand, I think most Westerners coming over to Thailand don’t fully grasp the extent of good they can do. For most of us it seems strange that some language we grew up speaking and taking for granted could be so important to the future of Thailand. But that is the reality. As native English-speaking teachers, we possess an important skill. While I don’t mean to come off as ethnocentric, English language skills truly can be one of the most important skills that Thai people will learn in their years of schooling. I liken the role of teachers as somewhat akin to joining the Peace Corps, a wonderful program with a long history of helping people. In the Peace Corps, volunteers typically go into areas to build homes, wells, schools, and infrastructure to help communities grow. As ESL teachers in Thailand, we have the ability to impart a special skill that will enable hundreds and maybe thousands of young Thai people to improve their lives. They can use these skills to one day improve their homes, their communities, and reinvest in future generations. I imagine that many teachers didn’t foresee the potential impact they could make when they first decided to teach English in Thailand. And on top of it all, you get paid for it!
Michael Volpe is the Managing Director of XploreAsia. He has an extensive educational background in international business and political science, along with nearly 10 years of teaching experience at the university level in Thailand and the United States. He is a Fulbright-Hays Scholar with a PhD in International Public Policy from George Mason University.