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September 20, 2017

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Debate increases over necessity of English language in Thailand

Lately there has been increasing debate about the status of the English language in Thai society.

Many arguments are made for and against the relevance of English and its usefulness. Arguments made by Thai politicians take us back and forth about the role of English and distract us from the realities of this new century. The nationalistic faction believes that imposing the English language on Thai people is against their culture, heritage and unique identity. This same group also argues that Thailand was never colonized, so why bother to learn English. For them, English is the language of the British colonies. It has no place in Thai society. Some others with a myopic vision believe that Thais should not be made to feel insecure and inferior because of all the hype about the importance of learning English.

It is a historical fact that in the 17th century the British did not go around the world to impose their language; they went to trade. Later, they forcibly occupied many countries in Africa and Asia. And of course they occupied North America as well. In their more than 300 years of history in Africa and Asia, they conquered many countries. This was followed by the creation of their own system of education, transport, communication and governance. The British did not necessarily force people in the colonies to embrace English. In many cases, the rulers of princely states and elites in the colonies willingly adopted English to have better relations with their new rulers. The spread of English in the colonies did not drastically change the native cultures and identities. In India, Malaysia and Hong Kong the English language became an alternate means of communication. It was always used along with several local languages and dialects.

In Europe the British did not impose their rule on neighboring countries. Scandinavian countries were never colonized but they learned to do business with Britain. They willingly adopted English as a second language so that they could have better economic ties with Britain.

The days of colonization are now history. Every country that was part of the British Empire is now free. The whole landscape has changed with the rapid expansion of communication technologies, transportation and financial markets. Colonization has been replaced by the much more powerful forces of globalization. The English language is no longer a cultural imposition; it is the language of the Internet. It has become the language of the global markets.

In this context, a common language can be a powerful tool to succeed in globalized economies. So the old argument that language is integral to a cultural identity does not necessarily lead to separating it from other facets of culture. Language is just one part of a culture.

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