|Recently, The Bangkok Post published an article entitled Why English Matters to Thailand. English is the second most widely used language in the world after Chinese. However, it far outranks Chinese as an international language. Moreover, the ability to communicate in English is essential for just about anyone seeking to succeed in countless fields from business to academia. English is the official language of 53 countries and is spoken as a first language by approximately 400 million people with another billion people using in regularly. As English is the main language of the internet with 52% of the world’s most viewed websites in English, you would think the Thai people-who have one of the world’s highest internet usage levels-would score well. However, the Thai score results have fallen to the Very Low Proficiency group in the rankings of non-native English-speaking countries with a ranking of 74th out of 100 countries. Moreover, this downward English skill has continued for the past three years.
Conventional language instruction in Thailand centers mainly on teaching grammar and vocabulary which requires rote memorization. The system itself demotivates many learners and has left most Thai students and workers unable to effectively converse in English. Therefore, educators have focused on conversational English as a better way to build confidence. The author studied both French and Thai in a classroom with native-speaking teachers while having had a tutor for Japanese. Experience proved several elements of language instruction - start young in a classroom in a setting in front of your friends and schoolyard enemies. One should be in a setting to speak the language when you leave the classroom. Lastly, tutors are in no way near as effective learning approach because no one sees how stupid you appear if you do not study other than the tutor. A number of sophisticated applications using artificial intelligence to create a conversational learning environment have been created such as ELSA Speak shown below. Nonetheless, an application would be even more forgiving than a tutor.
Therefore, when The Elephant Story and The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation began to underwrite English language instruction programs in three schools in the remote Moo Baan Chang (elephant village) in Ban Ta Klang, Surin, Thailand some five years ago, we were most fortunate to connect with the inspirational leader of Learning Link, Kru Oh, Khun Pacharee Jaengvong, who is a force of nature. The concept was to bring native-speaking English teachers into the primary and secondary schools to improve English comprehension so the students could broaden their lives and go on to attend university. Our concept has been that improving the lives of the 1,000 or so people in the village would also improve the level of care for the 300 or so elephants that live there. Kru Oh is shown on the right directing a performance by the primary children and rest assured she is in control despite the appearance of mayhem.
Over the ensuing five years, we have had a host of native-speaking English teachers from numerous English-speaking countries who accept life in a remote village on the Cambodian border where elephants are everywhere, the challenges significant, but the emotional awards are huge. Shown below is our newest teacher, Emily De Noia from Hampshire, England. If you look carefully, you might notice that the young lad leaning so he can be recognized is in the mob above. He is easily remembered by those of us who have seen him over the years as an active participant and bit of a ham.
We have also considered the children’s safety by underwriting a school bus to transport the remote children safely to their classes.
To date, the conclusions that we have reached are as follows: The youngest children progress rapidly with the 6 to 11 year-old primary school students scoring 38.06 on their O-net national English proficiency test score. That is an improvement from 32 in year one, a score that lifted them from dead last in the province the previous year, and well ahead of the older students in the 12 to 18 year-old category. Further, the local English teachers admit that their English has improved dramatically. Moreover, students in Thai metropolitan areas score significantly higher than those in rural areas. However, certain of our older students have now started competing in national level English competitions and though none has yet progressed beyond the first round, it would have been unthinkable for these villagers to have qualified prior to this project.
To put all of this in context, the inhabitants of Ban Ta Klang are Kui people, a separate ethnic group with their own unwritten language which is unknown to anyone other than them. Further, many of the kid’s grandparents are barely able to communicate in Thai having never attended Thai school, growing up in the days when it was considered “optional” and a distraction to elephant-keeping traditions. Therefore, the experiment is working for which we are most grateful to our leader, Kru Oh.
Kru Oh also sought out a diversity of English teachers. Shown below are Nigel Bayne of Perth, Australia and Michelle Ross of Saskatchawn, Canada with the local English teachers.
English Teacher, Michelle Ross, and Blake Dinkin, the owner and founder of Black Ivory coffee, are shown below spreading Christmas cheer to the students. The students earn spending money by assisting in the preparation of Blake’s Black Ivory coffee which is on offer from The Elephant Story. To all of you out there Merry Christmas!