new employment opportunities but for working Thais, their standard of English is not good
enough. This is reflected in English First’s (EF) Global Proficiency Index, the world’s largest
ranking of countries by English skills, placing Thailand in 62nd place out of 70. In Asia, Thailand
ranks in 14th place (EF, 2016). This integration of regional economies will see a potential freeflow
of qualified labour from countries all boasting better English skills than Thailand, so how
can Thailand boost its proficiency at English to enable it to remain competitive in this integrated
employment market? This paper examines how academic writing in English and a focus on
pronunciation starting in early years English programs can improve Thai citizens’ overall
English language proficiency, improving its performance in higher education and enabling them
to be competitive in the ASEAN employment market.
Even before the onset of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Thailand
had mooted itself as being the most desired destination for higher education in Southeast Asia,
via it bringing its education system on par with international standards. However, according to
Sakkarin Niyomsilpa, a demographic expert at Mahidol University (Bangkok Post, 2011),
Thailand's key weakness was its limited ability at languages, especially English. He stated that
Filipino labourers had a better command of English than Thais, giving them a much
higher chance of getting hired for work in other countries.
Mr. Sakkarin went on to suggest that Thailand is also conceding economic opportunities to Vietnam as the Vietnamese command of English is also better. For instance, fast forward to 2015 and EF’s Global Proficiency Index sees a gulf between Vietnam in 29th place and Thailand in 62nd. Furthermore, out of the 10 ASEAN nations, there is only one country behind Thailand, Cambodia, which has a far less developed educational infrastructure. To further compound this, research published in the Harvard Business Review directly correlates a population’s English skills to the economic performance of the
country, as gross national income (GNI) and gross domestic product (GDP) indicators go up
(McCormick, 2013). For these reasons, there is enough incentive for Thailand to attempt to at
least gain parity with its neighbours.
So from where do Thailand’s problems with learning English derive? Research shows
that there are two key areas which need to be addressed in order to bring Thai English Language
Learners (ELLs) on par with their ASEAN neighbours: the learning and effective teaching of
pronunciation starting in early years education and the integration of academic writing into
The Problem of Pronunciation
In terms of the different aspects of English language teaching in Thailand, pronunciation
is arguably the most neglected (Lin, Fan & Chen, 1994). Phonology is one aspect of the English
language which presents challenges not only to learners but also teachers, especially regarding
the incorporation of phonological instruction in lessons. Different nationalities meet varying
degrees of difficulty due to encountering sounds in English which are not part of the sound
inventory of their first language (L1) - this is no different for Thai ELLs whose L1 phonological
system has certain features which cause interference and consequent difficulty with English
To this end, teachers should have an awareness of these differences and be able to
not only suggest appropriate classroom methods for phonological instruction but should also
serve to accurately model the sounds of the English language for their learners (Brinton, n.d.).
It is understandable then for Thai ELLs to encounter difficulties with English
pronunciation and research shows that phonological transfer presents problems for Thai ELLs,
which includes stress and intonation. Having no distinctive value in the L1, Thais consequently
give little attention to stress in English and are generally tentative about using English intonation
patterns (Richards, 1969, p.9). These findings are supported by a later study conducted among
Thai participants, which demonstrates that word stress placement was somewhat unsatisfactory,
with overall results confirming low competence in English pronunciation (Khamkien, 2010, p.6).
Similarly, Lu (2002) further insists that incomprehensible non-standard pronunciation
and intonation also contributes to psychological nervousness in Thai speakers and that phonetic
symbols should be taught as part of a wider range of remedial measures (p.2). The benefits of
teaching phonetic symbols are that they can correct accented pronunciation and intonation and
help minimize interference from the L1 (p.3). However, to be most effective, phonetic symbols
should be integrated as early as kindergarten because if bad habits form, they are much harder to
In order to utilize the phonemic chart effectively, teachers need to have a proficient knowledge and command of their use, with the recommendation that both pre-service and in-service training is undergone (p.3, 4). Subsequently, teacher training should then involve activities designed to resolve problems in three areas of pronunciation: sounds, stress and rhythm, and intonation.
Thai teachers then, should be required to undergo further training in facilitating
communicative activities to enhance pronunciation and that the Ministry of Education should encourage teachers to make themselves continually aware of current methods in English language teaching globally, attending short courses, conferences, and international seminars (p.8). A successful example of this was the training of Thai teachers in areas of pronunciation and language learning strategies (Varasarin,
2007, p.12). Once trained, the teachers demonstrated significant improvement themselves and
then used the same techniques to teach groups of students, whereby similar improvements were
observed. This focus on pronunciation training also enabled students to increase their overall
intelligibility in English, which at its essence, included the teaching of phonetic symbols and the
addition of suprasegmental (stress and intonation) aspects of language (p.186).
The Importance of Academic Writing
Having looked at the significant role that a focus on pronunciation plays in the English
language development of Thais, this paper now looks at the importance of early exposure to
academic language and practice with academic writing.
Research carried out on a foundation studies program in Malaysia (Giridharan, 2012) discovered that learners’ lack of academic writing ability in English negatively affected their overall academic performance. To remedy this, it found that ‘feeding in’ academic language during the language learning
process can prepare learners for the step up to tertiary level education and beyond. There is a
dearth of studies relating to the development of ELLs academic writing skills in the Southeast
Asian region but what there is, confirms inadequacies of university ELLs abilities in English
academic writing (Olivas & Li, 2006). In Malaysia, a lack of exposure to academic language in
secondary school has lead to students experiencing difficulties when expected to write papers at
tertiary level. There is a general perception among students that academic writing is
overwhelming, mainly due to ELLs’ percieved lack of grammatical and vocabulary aptitude.
In Thailand, studies during an effort to improve levels of academic writing
competence at Mae Fah Luang University in Chaing Rai, found that the implementation of
Problem Based Learning (PBL) into an existing writing course reaped benefits, especially as this
is also proven to aid critical thinking. The aim of implementing PBL was to develop students’
practical skills and academic language usage. Some of the reformulated objectives of the course
included the development of research projects, collaborative learning, peer assessment, abstract
and editing skills and the development of communication and oral presentation skills. Although
successful, it was highlighted that the teacher needs to be particularly proactive throughout the
learning process and should have additional strategies for learners who get left behind (Coffin,
With English as the lingua franca of ASEAN, there is now a greater need for English communicative competency in order that Thais can participate competitively in these emerging markets. It also presented evidence that a prolonged focus on pronunciation and attention to academic writing prior to higher education can play a key role in enabling Thai ELLs to become not only more confident and fluent at communicating in English, but also to aid them in progressing at higher levels of education. To achieve thsi, teacher training is the key but dealing with these issues will surely not only assist Thailand in attaining its anticipated position of being the most desired destination for higher education in Southeast Asia, but also to enable it its ability to successfully compete in the ASEAN trade arena.
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