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Learning languages of region is critical

Experts warn if Thais don't prepare their communication skills now, they'll struggle when the AEC takes off



Learn the languages of our neighbouring countries today or be losers tomorrow. This is not an overstatement given that the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is going to create one economic community for citizens from 10 countries.

Although some Thais living along the borders can use their neighbours' languages, this is not enough to brace for human and business flows in the region, which will bring changes to Thailand and build strong relationships with people from other Asean nations.

Educators whose task is to help students and other Thai people enhance their foreign language skills urged Thais to start learning their neighbours' languages along with improving their English now, otherwise they would probably find themselves late.

"If we don't learn how to communicate with people from our neighbouring countries in English and in their local languages, we will lose many opportunities when more investments flow into the region, for instance an opportunity to be employed in a good position in a company in Asean," said Sudakarn Patamadilok, assistant to the president for international affairs and director of Naresuan University (NU) Language Centre. The centre offers students, the university's staff, individuals and other agencies short courses in Lao, Khmer, Burmese, Bahasa Indonesian and Tagalog.

"When compared to Myanmar workers in the engineering and architecture fields, who can speak Burmese, Thai and English, Thai workers can speak only Thai, hence there are more possibilities for the Myanmar ones to be employed," she explained.

She said they did not consider learning neighbours' languages as an urgent matter until they were going to be affected. "They don't prefer preparation, but if they wait until the AEC comes into effect and they are affected by changes, it will be too late for them to learn the neighbours' languages because they will be unable to learn the languages overnight while people in our neighbouring countries can speak Thai already. It takes time and needs continuous practice."

Assoc Prof Nuntaga Thawut, vice president for foreign affairs at Chandrakasem Rajabhat University, said Thais can work and stay comfortably in Thailand now, hence they do not feel it necessary to learn other Asean languages for the future.

Chandrakasem offers short courses in Khmer, Burmese and Vietnamese to its students and individuals.

"Although, many people near the border of Cambodia can speak Khmer, we've found that lots of young people don't speak this language as they don't see its importance, whereas young people in the countries sharing the borders with Thailand, like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam can communicate in Thai. They watch Thai TV channels," said Phaichayon Janthaket, director of Prasatwittayakarn School in Surin that is near the border with Cambodia.

"This is a crisis as more people are expected to cross the border for jobs and businesses, but they won't understand each other enough, and this can lead to problems," he said.

The school teaches Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese to students, individuals and other agencies.

Usanee Watanapan, deputy director of the Bureau of Academic Affairs and Educational Standards at the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec), said not many students recognise the significance of learning the neighbours' languages, although many schools provided Burmese, Vietnamese, Khmer and Malay.

Eight of those schools in different regions also teach the neighbours' languages to interested people in the evening.

"Languages have immense power that can help you win the hearts of people from other countries, which is good for you to deal with them," Sudakarn said.

These educators are planning to reach out to more people. Nuntaga will provide free training to her students. Sudakarn said NU planned to offer more advanced courses and take some individuals and agencies to explore current situations or development in Myanmar. Phaichayon will send its teachers teaching Khmer to work near the border checkpoint to help people crossing the border with document translation and promote more activities for locals from both sides to do together to strengthen the relationship.

Usanee said Obec would try to convince more students to see the importance of learning foreign languages. Also, it would train 100 graduates in Burmese, Vietnamese, Khmer and Malay fields. They would have to study a Graduate Diploma Programme in Teaching Profession and study a short course in the country of the language they graduated in. "This is done in preparation for expansion of teaching the neighbouring languages at Obec schools."

She said a language learning app and software would be available for download by the end of this year. They would provide 900 often-used sentences in each of the 10 main languages of Asean countries, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese, so students and Thai people can learn the languages on their own through tablets and PCs.


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