With the Asean Economic Community (AEC) era due to arrive next year, there is the important issue of learning AEC languages. If English is the working language and lingua franca of the AEC, why learn AEC languages?
Actually, decades before there was any discussion of the AEC, Mahidol University in Thailand was pioneering the study of the languages of Southeast Asia. Under the leadership of Dr Khunying Suriya Rattanakul, Mahidol in 1974 established the Centre for Language and Culture for Southeast Asian Studies.
In 1981, Mahidol established the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia. More recently, Dr Suwilai Premsrirat has carried this work forward, also with an emphasis on the preservation of Thailand’s own diverse languages (numbering over 70).
Despite such efforts, historically Thais have been primarily interested in studying and learning “big” Western languages such as English and French. Later, interest developed in learning the “big” languages of East Asia, first Japanese and then Chinese. There has been little interest in studying “small” languages such as Khmer, Lao, Burmese, and Vietnamese.
This question is often asked: what is the international language of business? While English, followed by Chinese and Spanish, are the most commonly used international language, the real answer to this question is not English, but the language of your customer. If a Thai company such as Charoen Pokphand is active in Vietnam, then it needs staff who are proficient in Vietnamese.
Since a common major language – Bahasa, which literally means language – is used in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, then there are actually only eight key AEC languages to learn. Bahasa Indonesia, the major language of Indonesia, is similar to the Bahasa Malaysia, which is used in Malaysia and Brunei.
In terms of market, the most important AEC languages are Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malaysia, and Vietnamese. The combined total population of these three countries is roughly 376 million, a huge potential market for Thai goods and services.
Fortunately both Vietnamese and Bahasa are relatively easy languages for Thais to learn. Both languages are Romanised, so there is no need to learn a new writing system. Like Thai, Lao, and Burmese, Vietnamese is tonal.
Thus, it is relatively easy for Thais to pick up Vietnamese pronunciation. Bahasa is relatively easy to learn, because it is phonetic and easy to pronounce. Also, many English cognate words have come into Bahasa such as corrupsi (corruption), transmigraci (transmigration), and komunis (communist).
Next in importance after Indonesian and Vietnamese are the languages of neighbouring countries, namely Khmer and Burmese. Numerous abstract words in both these languages have origins in Sanskrit and Pali.
For a Thai with high motivation, within six months living in Cambodia they should develop some basic proficiency in Khmer.
There are common patterns in shifting from Thai to Khmer for various abstract cognate words. Examples are santhipap (peace in Thai), which is santipeap in Khmer. Sakayapap (potential in Thai) is sakayapeap in Khmer.
Many Thais have told me it is unnecessary for them to “waste” time studying Lao since Thai and Lao are mutually intelligible and many Lao watch Thai television. While this is true, Thais who become proficient in Lao will be even more effective in developing relations with the Lao people.
Given the similarity in the languages, a highly motivated Thai should be able to develop proficiency in standard Lao within a month or two, while Isan speakers can pick up Lao even faster.
Since many intellectuals and business people in countries such as the Philippines are proficient in English, the learning of Filipino (Tagalog) should have the lowest priority.
There are many strategies and approaches to learning other languages such as those of AEC nations. Actually, Thailand was found to rank No.1 in the world in emphasising the traditional grammar/translation way of teaching other languages, which is often rather ineffective.
One of the most effective pedagogical methods for teaching languages is what is called the natural method. Learners are initially taught as though they were three-year-olds. The US Peace Corps often used this method in training volunteers with great effectiveness.
Initial emphasis is on speaking and listening, and writing is only introduced later after students develop basic proficiency in speaking and listening. Students are taught to think in the target language from the very beginning.
While Ho Chi Minh was hiding from the French colonial police in northeast Thailand, he made a serious effort to learn Thai to facilitate his developing cordial relations with Thais. His rule was to learn 10 new Thai words every day. Using this approach, after a year an individual should have a working vocabulary of well over 3,000 words, enough for basic proficiency.
Three other methods are having a language informant who is an educated native speaker of the target language to provide you the language you need in your special situation; using software such as Rosetta Stone (available for Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Filipino); and drawing on popular culture such as films, karaoke, music, proverbs, and ads in the target language.
The European Union currently has a strong interest in learning more about how multi-lingualism contributes to creativity. Also there seems to be clear evidence that the learning of other languages by older people enhances their memory and brain resiliency. Thus, there are many reasons to support the learning of AEC languages.
Given the impending AEC era, it is my dream that educated Thais will develop proficiency in one Western language such as English and one non-Western language, with a high priority given to an AEC language such as Vietnamese or Indonesian.
Gerald W. Fry
Distinguished International Professor
Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development College of Education and Development University of Minnesota