Thailand Embarks on Program to Ensure Citizens Speak English

BANGKOK — With just one hour of English classes per week in primary schools, it’s no surprise that most Thais have little to no ability to speak the language. The government wants to change that.

The Ministry of Education has embarked on a program to ensure that all primary schoolchildren are able to speak enough English to handle everyday situations within 10 years.

Deputy Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin unveiled a plan this week that calls for drastic changes to the English language curriculum in schools, including more classes, new textbooks and an intensive training program for top teachers who will become “master trainers” for other teachers.

A ministry official confirmed to The Associated Press the details of the plan, published in Thai media. The official cannot be identified under government rules. Teerakiat was not immediately available for comment.

“We picked 350 teachers who are considered to be the cream of the crop for English boot camp training,” said the official.

From there, the best 28 teachers will be chosen as master trainers and will be spread out around the country to 18 English-teaching facilities where school administrators and educators in the nearby area can receive training from the centers.

The millions of tourists who visit Thailand each year usually face little difficulty in communicating because they mostly interact with hotel staff, salespeople in malls and markets, and other tourism-related staff who would have learned the language on the job. Some Thais who work for foreign companies also pick up English over the years. But the vast majority of Thais, especially in government offices, have virtually no English language skills.

Among 16 Asian countries surveyed, Thailand is ranked 14th in English abilities and 62nd out of 70 countries worldwide, according to the Education First Language Institute’s 2015 English Proficiency Index.

This poses problems for Thailand as it seeks to achieve greater integration with the ASEAN Community, which was launched earlier this year and aims to increase business, social, cultural and employment opportunities among Southeast Asian countries.

Thai officials worry that Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar, which have better English language education, will have an edge when it comes to international business.

Under Teerakiat’s program, Thailand’s 18 training centers would be able to train 13,500 teachers. Eight of those centers would be set up by the end of 2016, and the remaining are slated to start next year.

The new standard for English teaching and learning will be based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Language, an international standard for language ability. The scale starts at A1 proficiency for beginners and ends at C2 for those who have mastered the language. Many Thai students have not even reached the A1 level, according to Teerakiat.