I grew up in a home where three languages were spoken – my native tongue, along with Dutch and English.
I remember absorbing English quickly through the sound and “feel” of the language at home. This kind of close engagement at an early age is known to be the most effective way of learning a language. But it is precisely this close everyday contact with English that is sorely lacking in Thailand – and especially in rural areas.
Growing up, my daily contact with English came through a variety of sources – my mother, books, magazines and comics, BBC radio, American TV channels like Discovery, US and UK pop music and Hollywood movies (with Dutch subtitles!). Outside the home, I spoke English with family relations and foreign tourists. This was not a native-English-speaking environment, but it was enough for me to gain proficiency in English and the wider access to the world that it allows.
Last night I was having trouble sleeping, so I took up John Grisham’s novel “The Rooster Bar”. Reading the story provoked pity, then frowns, then laughter. But it was also a sad reminder that I belong to a tiny minority (of one?) in my village and the surrounding area, being able to pass through a “language gateway” to personal development and knowledge that remains closed to everyone else.
One way to open that gateway in towns and villages nationwide would be to make English part of the background of everyday life. This would help children absorb the “sound and feel” of the language, in the same way that I did. As a practical suggestion, the information transmitted every day in Thai over village loudspeakers could be followed by a brief transmission in English.
Recent international rankings of English proficiency show Thailand is falling further behind its regional neighbours. Without greater proficiency in English, we cannot make the leap to the 4.0 digital economy vital to our future prosperity.
The daily broadcasts may be part of the solution!