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ASEAN Economic Community and Developing English Proficiency

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ASEAN or Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded in 1967, currently consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Since its establishment, ASEAN countries have gradually and continually strengthened their economic integration, from the ASEAN Preferential Trading Arrangement (PTA) in 1977 to the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and now they further move to a deeper liberalization level to create the ASEAN Economic Community or AEC by 2015. The liberalization targets under AEC include not only the free movement of goods but also the free mobility of factors of production among member countries.

AEC and English proficiency in Thailand
So what’s all this hype about the AEC? You encounter it everywhere—on the radio, on television, in the newspaper. AEC is coming, Prepare for the AEC, Are You ready for the AEC? It’s almost as exciting as the rumor about an alien invasion. So is AEC an alien invasion? Well, sort of. But not the big-headed- green- creature- with- a- flying- saucer kind of thing. AEC stands for ASEAN Economic Community. We compare it to an alien invasion because it will bring about new opportunities and threats. If you’re living in Thailand, this establishment will have an impact on you.

AEC is the regional economic integration with the goal to form a single market base. It consists of the ASEAN members and it is to be launched in 2015. When the barriers between countries are opened, the flow of goods, people, services, and capital will lead to the increase in regional competition. There needs to be a common language for AEC members to use for communication. It so happens to be English; no big surprise there. The English language requirement is a concern for many Thai people because Thailand is still lagging behind in this area. Several researches have shown that Thailand’s English language proficiency is at what they called, “a very low proficiency level”. Other ASEAN members like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam all surpass our score. The coming of the AEC and English proficiency in Thailand may be interpreted as either an opportunity for Thais to develop their English skills or a challenge to threaten the country .

Thais should not fret when the alien blasts its destructive-English-gamma-ray. We can start studying English today to better ourselves for 2015. Thai people (especially the ones living in Bangkok) are already immersed in the English language environment. Take a look at the advertisement billboards, the ATM machines, the shops in Siam area, and the sky train station—many of them use both the Thai and English language.

English skills shouldn’t be limited to only large corporations and hotels; traffic cops and vendors should learn it as well. By learning English, we do not mean just learning a few phrases. Learning English requires the learner to be able to speak it in an understandable manner with correct grammar and pronunciation. When more foreigners come to Thailand, there will be more need for English usage. The Ministry of Education had already launched the English Speaking Year 2012 campaign which involves teachers conducting various activities in schools to let students practice speaking English. This is a good start. More student exchange programs and scholarships should be funded as well.

Language schools are other options that can help Thai students improve their English skills. Schools such as The Knowledge at Lake Rajada has a morning and evening courses, making it convenient for students to choose the time that they want to come study. Every schools in Thailand should provide an English course as part of their module. Companies, hospitals, tourism centers, hotels, and police stations need to administer English-training workshop to help build up their employees’ language skills.

Literature Reviews:
Theoretical Framework and the Determinants of English Language Ability
This section reviews and discusses earlier works on factors determining English language proficiency. The interest on the determinants of English language capacity belongs to a broader field of the economics of language, which has developed since the late 1970s (Posel and Casale, 2010). Research undertaken by economists into the acquisition of language skills has to date focused on the case of immigrants. This focus is due to immigrants’ apparent greater sensitivity to the issues concerned. In Thailand, once the AEC takes effect, the issue of English language proficiency will turn into a sensitive issue for Thai labor. It could determine workers’ chances of retaining a present job or getting a new job. Therefore, this study employs the approach used in the research on immigrants’ language acquisition and applies it to analyze the determinants of English language ability of Thai workers.

Language capacity can be analyzed using the human capital framework. According to human capital theory, language skills can be considered as human capital because they can satisfy the three requirements for human capital, that it is productive, costly to produce, and embodied in the person (Chiswick, 2008). Firstly, a person’s proficiency in English language is productive in the liberalized labor market. Those who speak/read English would find it easier to obtain a job and would generally be more productive on the job, consequently increase their earnings. These benefits should provide economic and social incentives for Thai workers to improve their English language. Secondly, the acquisition of language skills is not without costs. Workers may have to spend a considerable amount of their own time and money for language training schools, books, etc., to become proficient in English language. And lastly, language skills are embodied in the person. Unlike owning physical capital, such as a piano, it can be transferred to other persons; but like learning to play a piano, language skills cannot be separated from the person.

This study employs the model of language acquisition to study the determinants of English language capacity. This model was first introduced by Chiswick and subsequently developed in a series of studies done by Chiswick and Miller (1995, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2007) and Chiswick (2008). A number of studies relating to this issue are also undertaken based on this model. According to the model of language acquisition, there are four conceptualized variables that could affect the level of English language ability of workers. They are exposure, efficiency, economic incentives, and wealth.

Firstly, the level of English language proficiency of individuals largely depends on the extent of their exposure to that language. Thus, the more often workers are exposed to English language, the better language skills they will have. For that reason, opportunities to hear, speak, read, and study language are important for language learning. According to a series of work done by Chiswick and Miller (2000, and 2002), they find some factors that can represent persons’ exposure to language, i.e. education level, countries’ historical background.

Secondly, efficiency refers to the ability to convert exposure into language learning (Chiswick, 2008). Some individuals find it easier to learn a language than others and this may be an important factor in language acquisition (Burdria and Swedberg, 2010). Age Is a good proxy for efficiency in acquiring language skills. Younger people have a higher ability of learning languages. However, age is not a relevant variable for this study. Education is considered another efficiency variable. Those with more schooling are more proficient in learning language because they are more efficient learners (Chiswick, 2008).

Thirdly, the economic incentives for improving language proficiency depend on the expected increase in wages and the expected duration of employment. Burdria and Swedberg (2010) analyze the determinants of Spanish language proficiency for male and female immigrants in Spain and they find that planning to stay in Spain more permanently is positively associated with language learning, although just for men.

Lastly, it is to consider the supply side of the market for investment in language acquisition. Greater wealth encourages investment in language skills and hence enhances language proficiency. According to Chiswick and Miller (2000), they use education attainment as a proxy for wealth in their study on the determinants of destination language proficiency of immigrants in Canada. The finding shows a strong support of wealth factor on immigrants’ proficiency.

Data and Methodology
Language proficiency has increasingly become important as it is one of the key accessing factors into any labor market under the trade and investment liberalization. Since vocational students will become a major newcomer in the Thai labor market after their graduation, with an AEC agreement, their language proficiency is thus required for, at least, a good communication in English at work. To approach the accurate policy of skill improvement for Thai labor, this study focuses on exploring vocational students’ English proficiency which could be useful information for policymakers to provide appropriate and proactive policies.

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