When the former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra visited Bhutan in 2008, he marveled at how well-spoken the average Bhutanese was in the English language. He had good reason to be impressed because back in Thailand as we all know, the Thai language is all one hears.
As a result of the Thai PM’s visit, today Bhutanese teachers are being invited to teach English in Thailand, and talks are already underway of Thai students visiting Bhutan to immerse themselves in the English language.
The conundrum then is the more than obvious shortcomings we can see in our own command of the language. Never mind high school students, even college graduates struggle to string together a coherent sentence while being interviewed on television. Worse still are the self-defeating job application letters that most potential employers receive from our fresh graduates.
The latest talking point is the woeful English result in the annual exam for grade 12 students. The average score was just 49.29%. Is this our reward after 13 years of education in English?
Before we go pointing fingers however, it should be understood that our results are not ‘normalized’ to account for variations in difficulty of the paper. Normalizing is usually done against the average scores of the past 30 years. In our system therefore, sometimes the results in a subject can be through the roof, and at other times hit rock bottom, as it did this year for English.
That said, it is still obvious that our command of the language is poor. Those who watch BBS know what we are talking about. But those in the Education sector, who deal directly with students, know this in a much deeper way.
Our lack of English proficiency has been blamed on many factors from teacher competency to inappropriate emphasis on only parts of the syllabus, poor reading habits and/or lack of reading opportunities.
However, another significant factor could be our less-than-enthusiastic adoption of English as our real medium of communication in the school.
Walk into any classroom, from Class PP to Class XII and you will find teachers teaching in English but after the bell rings and the students rush out to play, everyone switches back to the language they are most comfortable with, which most of the time, is not English. When they return to the classroom, the English speaking environment, they rarely open their mouths again. So where is the practice?
Strangely enough, even English teachers can be found speaking more comfortably in another language.
If, for the average person at least, language proficiency can be considered a ‘zero sum game’ where mastery in one language will be at the cost of every other, then it follows that English teachers at least, should be speaking and even thinking in English.
And it seems, so should the students.