Friday, October 31, 2008

When I was a student, about to attend upper primary school, my father told me in advance not to ask him anything about English and Maths for he couldn’t give any explanation. I remembered that well and prepared myself every minute to face the situation. Unfortunately, as the first child of the family, I did not have any older siblings to ask or consult.

In the old days, most Thai people were first introduced to the English language when they were in grade 5. My parents’ knowledge was merely fourth-grade level so such warnings were completely true.

Later on, my first English class began as expected. The young-lady Thai teacher of English started the lesson by politely commanding her students in Thai to “read the sentences on page 1, please”. All pupils but me chanted loudly, “This is a book. This is a chair. This is a desk. This is a door.” I was totally amazed and wondered how they did that!

Time passed. Gradually and eventually, my instinct for survival, endless curiosity and intensive English exposure accumulated and taught me to adapt and adopt the input provided. I got through six years of student life in school and four years in a teacher’s college. I vigorously managed to learn and master the language with great confidence and self-esteem. However, I later realized that my theoretical competence in English was a different matter than my practical performance. In fact, what I had learned and mastered might have been more fruitful and meaningful to me if communicative language teaching had been introduced and applied at the time.

In the Thai educational system, English has been considered one of the core school subjects, along with Thai Language, Science, Maths and Social Studies. Students have to study very hard so that they can pass the university entrance exam that includes an English paper, created specially to use with contestants nationwide. Teachers work extremely hard to present and drill their students with as much of English as they can – mainly grammatical structures, vocabulary, reading comprehension and previous exam paper exercises. As a result, students are unavoidably over-loaded. Pressed with unreasonable demands, many suffer emotional depression. This all contributes to chronic learning styles for most smart students. They are unlikely to enjoy learning but to compete seriously and bitterly. Such constraints will be released later. A few minutes after the examination, every chunk of English will be gone (with the wind) for good, except for a few students who willingly further their tertiary studies in the relevant field.

The so-called competition has nothing to do with any language skills except reading and choosing the correct answers. Once the total scores are announced and are high enough as designated, the testees are allowed to attend their first choice faculty; otherwise the second or third choice for substitution. They will be spending a semester or two studying basic English at university as a compulsory course.

Not surprisingly, most graduates involved in various professions usually complain about their practical English competence, especially in everyday face-to-face communication skills – listening and speaking. They admit to insufficient concentration, confusing learning styles and lack of full attention while being exposed to the subject at an early stage. Had they been in a learner-centred environment as the curriculum indicated, they would have been more successful and fruitful in their chosen careers than ever.

The National Curriculum was reformed in 1999 and every school subject was planned to involve learners through classroom activity. That helps promote a learner-centred atmosphere throughout the country. English has been formally indicated as a foreign language (EFL) in the new Foreign Language Subject Group. For two years, some state secondary schools both in the capital city and upcountry have tried out “English Program” in the first grade for the first time. Almost every subject is instructed in English. Teachers are native speakers and some are Thai who are fluent in English. These programs are being extended year by year towards the highest level and spread to more institutes. Hopefully, teaching English in Thailand can be viewed as a more dynamic process, producing more effective learners in the near future.