OPINION: Why international kids who grew up in Thailand don’t speak Thai

Students of Ruamrudee International School with their puppets for a show on Thailand’s national poem Ramakien

“I would like the Rock at Heart with chopped kuai on the side,” I politely said to the waitress at Swensen’s. Little did I know, I had just asked her to add chopped penises to my ice cream instead of bananas.

OPINION – This embarrassing event is something that my friends will never let me forget, but it is also something that got me thinking about how our generation and younger generations don’t think it is that important to understand the language and culture of the country they live in.

As a young Thai-Indian citizen who has spent almost twenty years of her life in the Land of Smiles, it is tragic to learn that “Mai Khao Chai” and “Phut Thai Mai Pen” are the primary sentences I use on a day-to-day basis. This is also a common phenomenon shared among many of my peers, who were also educated in international schools across Thailand.

According to a former Thai professor of mine, the reason for such negligence of the culture and language traces back to a lack of relevant Thai history and language lessons in international schools, causing “a lot of students to not realize the importance of knowing the language and culture”.

It’s true, and it is also true that one can not fully understand the importance of something unless they are made aware of its existence. International schools drive us to form our own independent opinions, however, when the only subjects that are discussed in classrooms revolve around western cultures, there is very little opportunity for students to get accustomed to Thai culture and form opinions on it.

Lack of Thainess in school

The primary language taught in international schools is English and the primary culture promoted is foreign. From history classes to economy classes to even geography, great importance is placed on western civilizations and how they were formed.

Kids in international schools learn about the history of the East India Trading Company, Queen Elizabeth, the discovery of America but nothing about Thailand. Some of my peers are able to narrate the entire history of Genghis Khan, but know nothing about the Ayutthaya era or why we celebrate Songkran.

“Even in our Asian studies history session we are taught in depth lessons about countries like China, but nothing about the country we live in,” said Natasha, a former student from Ruamrudee International School

“I know more about places like America and Europe than my own country’s history. Having to find out information from foreign websites, not knowing how to answer people’s questions about Thailand because I genuinely do not know… I feel ashamed about it,” she added.

But why is Thai culture not enforced within the curriculum of international schools?

Nicky Tanskul, alumni of Ruamrudee International School, believes international schools aim to achieve the same standards of education offered abroad.

“When we are in an international school, the objective of the school is to teach kids Western ideas… the main focus is to give the same standard that students can get if, say, they live in the States. Therefore, teaching Thai is not much of a focus since that is not the goal of international schools, which results in international students not knowing much about Thailand,” Nicky said.

Before 1992, International Schools in Thailand mainly catered to foreigners and children of expatriates. The Ministry of Education, defines an international school as an “institution providing an international curriculum… where a foreign language is used as the medium of teaching.” According to the law, Thai citizens were not permitted to enroll in these schools.

However, in 1992, a group of parents, alongside the United Nations, urged the Ministry of Education to change the law to let Thai citizens get the same international education as their foreign counterparts.

Since the curriculum started as something that was catered strictly towards international education, which is why so many Thai parents were drawn to the concept and chose to enroll their children in international schools, it is almost inevitable that these institutions would want to stay true to their primary focus.

A former Thai teacher at Ruamrudee International School agrees and believes the institutions “want to please parents… to focus the learning more internationally.” Therefore, the institutions stray away from implementing Thai culture within the curriculum and focus primarily on foreign education.

In 2015, Thai language and culture are still not subjects really enforced within the curriculum at international schools. According to Thai law, students with a Thai passport must enroll in Thai classes, however, it is not a requirement for those who do not hold a Thai passport. As a result, these students, who usually speak another language at home, are driven to neglect the Thai language and culture completely.

While Thai language classes are provided, they are not treated as equally important as the core subjects and electives. It is a known fact between students from international schools across the country that Thai classes are easier to pass than the others. Students are able to get away with little or no effort and still receive a decent grade.

When the institution itself gives an A to students who get by with “speaking Thai nid noi,”  and does not encourage students to study harder, how can we expect the students to think the language is important?


Social bubble of the English-speaking kids

When a school splits students into those who have the choice to partake in what they choose and those who are forced to take a subject, a divide forms between cultures.

Many students at international schools are Thai citizens, who are forced to take Thai classes because of the law, while their foreign peers are allowed to take courses they are interested in such as theater or French. The labels of “Thai” and “non-Thai” affects how students form their social circles: Thais befriend Thais, and foreigners befriend foreigners

The fact that students with foreign passports, who often speak another language at home, don’t have to learn Thai, means language barriers within schools discourage English-speaking students from stepping out of their “Western world.”

“A majority of our students are Thai nationals who will naturally gravitate towards speaking the language they are most comfortable with. What this results in, however, is the international students becoming isolated,” said a graduate of Ruamrudee International School, who requested  not to be named.

“They [international students] have this urge to reach out and become part of the western world they have been learning about since childhood, and that causes them to live in a western dome within an eastern country,” she said.

It is human nature to gravitate towards places you find comfortable. The non-Thai speakers tend to communicate with fellow non-Thai speakers even outside of school, leaving them completely unengaged in the Thai community.


Reality hits

Getting by with only speaking English comes to an end when we transition from college to the workplace.

Some international students who wish to further their career in Thailand find it hard to adapt as they are not able to converse with their coworkers or relate to the business. I have friends who said they were unable to get jobs or perform their roles as an intern adequately because of the cultural and language barrier.

“This comes back to bite us when we want to pursue a career in Bangkok after completing our degrees abroad, but never learnt to speak Thai,” Natasha said.

Natasha added her group of friends also face difficulties as interns.

“My friend interned at an embassy this summer and she was in charge of translating Thai news articles into english… she literally could only translate what the headlines said, she did not know any context, background or history of the articles [about Thailand]. She couldn’t elaborate to her bosses when they wanted Thai insight”

Final thoughts

When trying to solve a calculus problem, we first need to know how to solve basic equations. Similarly, we must be able to understand the difference between ko kai and kho khai before trying to write a Thai paper on the Ramakien.

The world is constantly changing and evolving, and nations that are melting pots such as Thailand are being taken over by western cultures through pop culture and media. Therefore, the need to learn the Thai language and partake in Thai culture loses its importance because people are focusing their efforts on more westernized principles, and are able to get away with just knowing the basics.

Many students who have grown up in international schools are surrounded by people who speak English and their primary activities revolve around western influences. But by adapting to this phenomenon, we as a society are diminishing the culture that has been preserved in this country for so many years. However, one may also argue that it is time to move on to the next stage of evolution and to adapt to the world that is constantly changing around us. After all it is survival of the fittest, and those who are able to move on with the requirements of the society are the ones who will succeed.

Almanya Narula is an editorial intern at Coconuts Bangkok in summer of 2015.

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