Why Are Thailand’s English-Language Skills The Lowest in South East Asia? Blame The Education System

Thai student sleeping – copyright Love Krittaya, Public Domain


Since I moved to Thailand a decade ago, I’ve read report after report stating Thailand has the lowest standard of English skills in south east Asia and, in years, little improvement has been seen. As a former teacher, that fact didn’t surprise me at all. Even after 12-15 years of learning English, few Thais can hold a conversation in English on anything more than a basic level and some can’t even do that.

In the last few years, as countries like Vietnam and Laos now have English skills surpassing Thailand’s, it’s become obvious Thailand’s education system is to blame. But why?

Thailand’s Education is a Rote System – In Thai schools, students are taught to copy what the teacher writes on the board and memorize it. When learning English, grammar and vocabulary is written on the board. Students copy and memorize. There’s no discussion, no questioning the teacher and no thinking for themselves. It’s no wonder Thailand’s English skills are the lowest in south east Asia.

Critical Thinking Skills Are Not Taught – In Thailand, critical thinking skills are not taught. Students are rarely expected to think for themselves, so don’t question anything the teacher teaches. When Thai students have to use critical thinking skills to figure out complex English language structure, with the lack of these skills, they cannot.

As having critical thinking skills also teaches self-confidence, this is also an important reason why most Thai students don’t have self-confidence when it comes to speaking English – also vital in learning a language correctly.

Thai Education Concentrates on Grammar – Throughout most of the years Thai students learn English, classes are normally concentrated on learning English grammar. This means most Thai students are good at English grammar but, when it comes to speaking, they’ve had little practice so cannot. In fact, holding a conversation using more than the most basic vocabulary is impossible for them.

Thai Teachers Are Poorly Trained – As much as most Thai teachers work hard to teach their students, few have the skills to teach English correctly. They’ve come up through the same poor high school system, been educated at inadequate universities and taken teacher development courses that are, compared to western standards, useless.

Most Thai English teachers also speak English poorly so, when teaching their own students, they pass on the same grammatical and vocabulary skills they were taught in school.

Native English Teachers Are Unqualified – Due to the low salaries most Thai schools pay, few fully qualified native English teachers teach in Thailand. This means, Thailand is mostly left with native English speakers who a) may have a university degree but not in Education, b) may not have a university degree at all, or c) in some cases, are individuals who are using fake university degree certificates to get teaching jobs.

Thai students learning English are the ones who suffer, as most are being taught by native English speakers who are not qualified to teach English. The Thai Ministry of Education¬†is¬†slowly making changes and demanding higher qualifications from native English speaking teachers. However, unless the salaries on offer increase, and the certification courses the Thai Ministry requires native English teachers to take are useful, it’s unlikely Thailand can attract the caliber of teachers it needs.

Thai Ministry of Education – Even though well-meaning, the Thai Ministry of Education’s constant curriculum changes, teaching regulations and certification requirements are not attracting better teachers. If anything, they’re chasing off the best ones they have.

Until the Thai Ministry of Education can come up with standards for English teachers that are similar to western standards, and pay higher salaries, they stand little chance of getting better teachers, both Thai and native English speakers, for Thai students.

As Thailand’s standard of English skills continues to fall compared to other south east Asian countries, this impacts the country’s ability to grow its economy and also its stability. Without a higher level of English language skills, most Thai employees cannot compete with the same employees in Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore and this will continue to hold the country back.

For further reading:

What’s the average salary for an English teacher in Bangkok?

The types of teaching jobs you can do in Thailand

Go to our ‘Teaching in Thailand‘ section for hundreds more articles and tips about teaching EFL in Thailand.