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Maybe AEC should stand for Asean English Competence

English is not the most spoken primary language in the world; that would be Mandarin Chinese. But when you consider the number of countries where it is either an official language or one in regular use, every other language is a very distant second. More than half of the world's countries use English every day. Ten of those countries, including Thailand, form the Asean Economic Community (AEC), a community of 630 million that has adopted English as its common day-to-day language.

As well as a commitment to the use of English, the AEC represents a new way of doing business, which includes the free movement of skilled labour in an English-mediated environment. The ability to speak English well will be a major factor in ensuring the prosperity and standing of Thailand in Southeast Asia. Maybe AEC should really stand for Asean English Competence.

So, how well prepared is Thailand to face up to the challenge? Not very well at all, according to the English First English Proficiency Index of 2015 conducted by the Education First Language Institute. The index ranked the English abilities of Thai people at 14th out of 16 countries in Asia, and 62nd out of 70 countries worldwide. Overall, Thailand is categorised as a non-English speaking country with "very low" proficiency. That's not a very reassuring basis from which to compete for those promised AEC job opportunities.

However, not all is lost. If the first step towards change is awareness and the second step is acceptance, then there are signs that Thailand is squarely facing up to the problem.

The prime minister has stated that he considers the lack of ability to communicate in English a weak point and has urged Thais to pay more attention to improving their English. Thais' poor grasp of the English language has also generated concern among many groups, including policymakers, teachers, students and businesses.

The concern is well-founded if recent results from the national O-Net tests for Grade 12 students are anything to go by. English scored worst of the five subjects measured, with an average score of just 24.98%.

What does this mean from an employment perspective? The AEC envisions regional economic integration through the free movement of skilled labour in eight recognised professional fields: accountancy, engineering, surveying, architecture, nursing, medical services, dental services and tourism. Competition for jobs in these fields is going to get fiercer for those who are not well-prepared, especially in English language skills.

So, how can Thailand go about supporting national growth in English proficiency?

To start with, let's be clear that the government can't do it all alone. If you want to develop skills at a national level you need a multi-layered approach involving individuals, organisations, and local, provincial and national governments. Here are some ideas to get things going:

Everything depends on individuals being willing to learn. The goal for every educator and public official should be to get individuals, whether students or workers, to embrace the challenge of improving their competence in English, and to support them in their efforts to improve. Those in positions of public authority should also make this commitment to improve their own competence in English, as there is no more effective persuader than someone who walks the talk instead of just talking.

The national government will need to allocate sufficient resources, both financial as well as personnel, to create the infrastructure to support the growth in English excellence on a long-term basis.

All schools, especially those in poor rural areas, need to be properly equipped with English textbooks and teaching aids, and every school should have at least one teacher who is qualified as being proficient in English.

The curriculum should provide a framework within which all secondary school students have the opportunity to practise their English skills in daily activities. The emphasis should be on informal day-to-day conversational business English rather than formal English as taught from textbooks.

Businesses should ensure that English proficiency is included in job responsibilities, noted in yearly performance reviews and factored into salary increases and bonus payments.

Businesses should include at least one English-only agenda item at all meetings, and facilitate improvement activities such as talks and presentations in English. Where English competence in the workforce is high, then at least one English-only meeting each day should be considered.

Finally, are there other potential resources that Thailand can utilise? One fairly obvious one would be the vast talent pool that resides in the foreign retiree community in Thailand. There could be hundreds, if not thousands of foreign retirees who would be happy to teach some English to Thais, on a full-time, part-time or voluntary basis. But Thai law forbids retirees from engaging in work here. Surely an exception could be made for the teaching of English?

Teaching Thai children the rudiments of the English language is a good start, but if Thailand wants to climb up the English Proficiency Index it will need to invest the necessary time and resources to make some significant gains in national English competence.

Niall Sinclair is a KM consultant and the author of 'Stealth KM'. He can be reached at