Motivating kids to learn English is vital for the country's future growth

opinion June 02, 2014 00:00

By Jyrki Loima,
Jutarat Vibulpho

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ALREADY 40 per cent of Thailand's annual income is derived directly or indirectly from tourism and services related to it. To be able to offer qualified and attractive services and experiences, it is essential for Thai people to be able to communicate fl

One cannot overemphasise the importance of English communication skills, since in the neighbouring countries people already converse in increasingly better English. To check out the situation, one just needs to travel and speak with them. In a recent international case study, a small academic team researched the motivation and learning engagement connections and levels of Thai 9th grade students in English language classrooms in public, private and demonstration schools in the capital city.
The most surprising findings in this case study were the motivation levels. Among the 9th graders, there was only moderate to low motivation to study English. Male and female students showed no difference in their motivation for English learning that would have been meaningful in terms of the research findings. Theoretically, motivation could be long-lasting – meaning internally born and sustainable, or short-term – driven mainly by external purposes like an immediate reward or a fear of punishment. In this study, almost all 9th graders seemed to have adopted short-term interests that aimed mainly to cope with the minimum demands set for the lesson in question. To show some examples, they seemed to be satisfied with being able to repeat what the teacher had just said instead of creating their own sentences. Moreover, regardless of the overwhelming majority of smart device applications provided in English, very few or none of the students showed interest in connecting these everyday tools to a foreign language learning context as such, but felt for example, a restaurant visit simulation to be ‘real’ for them when using simple languages skills like burger ordering.
To examine why the English learning motivation is so low, one needs to go for the overall future goals that the students have in mind and ask first, what is the role and input of student counsellors and teachers in telling them about career opportunities? How do Thai students see their places and occupations in the developing 21st century environment? Do they have a hint of the changes? Further, one should seriously ask whether people are any more interested in earning a living from tourism and trading. If they are not, there will be a massive gap to close between the current official expectations and senses of reality and options for future workers.
While civic education has been publicised recently to be of high importance for Thai society, one should add a few necessary 21st century skills to the context of civic education. Active citizens for future society would benefit from acquiring an international level of fluency in everyday communication. Fluent skills in English, one of the global languages of wider communication, open up new development opportunities for any career-planning in this country and globally as well. In addition, media literacy would be improved remarkably by sufficient and good reading and listening comprehension skills of the new generations. 
The Kingdom of Thailand will not benefit from remaining an isolated nation that does not speak English fluently enough, especially for the development of foreign markets, investors and tourist services. That is not likely to be the educational policy makers’ objective either. Education should always reach for the future and improve necessary skills for the new generations to gain and grow.
Another quite striking finding - this case study clearly showed no difference in learning motivation between basic education schools that had a so-called “good” reputation, and those with less positive public profiles. In other words, it did not matter from which school the motivation levels were measured, they remained modest and low in all cases. If motivation for English learning goes that low, how could people be expected to study Chinese or other foreign languages eagerly? Considering the coming integration of the ASEAN Community, Thais would not be able limit the learning of foreign languages to only English. The promotion of learning other languages spoken in the ASEAN Member countries is likely to be the next move in foreign language education in the region.
In a country where climate is so tempting for tens of millions of foreigners to come and stay, there are unique opportunities to plan other success stories as well, once English language motivation and learning combine in a productive way. Official expectations for tourists to visit Thailand are rising for this year, but they will not climb just by themselves. Referring to current skills, the more other ASEAN countries show readiness to serve their visitors in fluent English, the more tourists will be happy to go there where mutual understandings are easy. That is what they are willing to pay for – qualified service and convenience.
Jyrki Loima, visiting professor, Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University (November 2013-April 2014)
Jutarat Vibulphol, Division of Foreign Language Teaching, Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University.