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'Democratising' English learning
Publication Date : 22-02-2013
A recent news item that went largely unnoticed best reflects the situation of English-language education Thailand. The story was about the scores of parents or relatives camped overnight near a well-known school in an attempt to register their children for a special English-learning course. It looked like the kind of scene you now see at the launch of a new iPhone, or avid fans clamouring to get concert tickets.
The only difference was that the people involved didn't necessarily have their own interests at heart. They went through the inconvenience and discomfort for youngsters who were lucky enough to have adults spend a night on the pavement for their sake.
If you had interviewed those "campers", you would have likely seen that the Asean Economic Community, which will be inaugurated in two years, featured in almost every answer.
Thailand has been on high alert about learning English because everybody knows it will be an essential part of educational, professional, business and even social success on a regional scale.
Whether this sudden awareness has come too late remains to be seen, but that crowded pavement might demonstrate that Thais are still far from the right path where English-language study is concerned.
English ability in Thailand remains limited to privileged groups. There were good reasons why this was so in the past. English was best learned in the best schools, or in mother-tongue countries.
Today it's different, but a lot of people, even the powers-that-be, still do not realise this. Information technology, the increasing availability of digital devices (and their decreasing prices) are making foreign languages more accessible than ever before.
A youngster well-versed in online searches can get free learning content as good as that provided in expensive courses. If children don't know how to access these sources, surely their parents will be able to.
The biggest obstacle to overcome is not children's discipline. One can argue that online learning will fail because factors that can "drive" learners, like peer pressure and competition, are not just there.
The truth is, in learning a language, discipline might not be as important as simple exposure or accessibility. Languages should be learned the way a child learns to speak his own mother tongue. It must come naturally, embedded in the many parts of everyday life. With most children crazy about digital gadgets, there are plenty of ways to neatly incorporate English into routines, making the language a major part of digital activities.
Another problem to overcome is the mentality of adults. Parents will remain anxious unless their kids are in a class with the best teachers.
Schools and teachers will be reluctant to tell youngsters that the best English-language study options aren't at school but on YouTube. The government and politicians are more difficult to understand. On one hand they're handing out computer tablets for free. On the other, no one is teaching children to exploit these devices for maximum advantage in learning languages. No one is telling Thais that, when gaps still exist in society, utilising these gadgets more smartly can narrow some of the disparity.
Somehow it's ironic that one thing that can be easily "democratised" -learning languages - has become a symbol of inequality. On Children's Day one of the most touching letters to the prime minister came from an underprivileged child who complained that extra, expensive tutorials were further limiting the chances of poorer kids. Both the premier and society are obliged to guide that child and all poor families to online education.
Which brings us to another key point. If self-learning can't be immediately institutionalised, since most workplaces still require college or university "transcripts" in the recruiting process, society must become more supportive in regards to how people learn their skills. Adults have to take the lead, but not by camping on the sidewalk in order to get their children into a popular course. It's time our whole society woke up and realised that learning - of languages or anything else - is no longer confined to the classroom.