Sunday, January 8, 2012

Poor English skills could leave Thais out in cold


Thailand may find itself at a disadvantage because of inferior English skills when Southeast Asia becomes a single community, academics and an industrialist have warned.

The launch of the Asean Community in 2015 will see a free flow of professionals and skilled workers among the 10 member states of the grouping.

Once the community is formed, Thais will be able to look for jobs outside the country but they will have to brace themselves for challenges from regional competitors over positions in multinational and international organisations based in Thailand that require English as the working language.

This could pose a particular challenge for university students who will be first-time job seekers by that time.

"People from other Southeast Asian countries will compete with Thais for jobs. It's a fact," said Paron Israsena, who sits on several university councils including those of Chulalongkorn and Chiang Mai.

"If we want to be able to compete with other Southeast Asian countries, we have to start at universities now," said Mr Paron.

He pointed to English skills as an obvious weakness of Thai university graduates that needs to be urgently addressed.

"Most Thai students coming out of universities cannot communicate in English," said Mr Paron, who is also the president of the Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning.

The old way of teaching English, which starts with grammar, must be scrapped and replaced with an emphasis on listening and speaking skills so that students are encouraged to speak up, Mr Paron said.

He says the country needs to adopt a lifetime learning process and knowledge-based society vision to make it more competitive in the face of increasing regional competition.

"Competitiveness is the key success factor for Thailand in the Asean Community," he said.

The Education Ministry is apparently aware of the challenges to come when the Asean Community takes off. Its website _ _ reminds readers of the move towards one community.

The Association of University Presidents agreed on Dec 25 that they will adjust their semesters to be in line with the system used by other universities in the region.

By 2015, the first semester will run from September to December, instead of from June to October as is currently the case.

The second semester will run from January to May.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra last month urged the ministry to improve the tertiary curriculum to better prepare university students for competition in the job market in 2015.

More importantly, the ministry has set 2012 as the English Speaking Year. Its aim is to encourage students to converse in English every Monday.

Chinnapat Bhumirat, secretary-general of the Office of the Basic Education Commission, admitted that English skills were not a competitive advantage for Thais but hoped the country still had enough time to prepare itself for the eventual change.

"We have a problem with the English language. Countries such as Singapore and the Philippines hold an edge," Mr Chinnapat said at a forum on Thai education and the Asean Community held in September.

"We still have three years to go to produce qualified personnel."

At the same forum, however, Thavorn Chalassathien deputy secretary-general of the Federation of Thai Industries, called for a broader-based skills improvement.

He urged the government to boost skills for workers and technicians to help keep industries in Thailand and to compete with other countries that can offer cheaper labour costs as their advantage to lure investors away from the Kingdom.

"Don't think only about the [English] language. What we really need is skills development," he said.