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Japan vs. Thailand: Who wins the English battle?

Having just completed half a year’s residency as a visiting professor at a Thai university, on top of my nearly 30 years in Japan, I’ve come to some conclusions regarding relative English proficiency skills in both countries. 


On the surface, the two countries would seem to be starting on the same line: both languages are structurally, interpersonally, and psychologically quite distant from English, they are both Asian societies with non-Western frames of reference and approaches to interaction, both with English serving neither as an official language nor as a colonial relic. And they’re off…


Thailand takes an early lead. But can it be maintained?


The average reader of this blog is likely to immediately start championing Thailand’s more upfront English skills. And that’s largely because while the reader may live in say, Toyama or Kumamoto in Japan, when he/she visits Thailand he/she is more likely to visit Bangkok, Chiang Mai/Pai, Phuket, (God forbid) Pattaya, or another international beachy resort (Hua Hin, Krabi, Koh Samui). Such a person will also almost certainly interact 99% of the time with people who make their livings solely from the foreign tourist industry (even in Tokyo/Kyoto most tourist services/fields still slant heavily towards the huge domestic market). The other time those of us in Japan meet Thais is among visiting English-proficient students or researchers who, by virtue of their international student/researcher status, are not really representative of the Thai student populace.


This can skewer perceptions. For example, that run-of-the-mill Thai boat tout may sound pretty ‘fluent’ pitching the special discount on today’s island tour in English but add anything in English off the topic of his boat tour and you can expect confusion and/or silence. Same goes with the ubiquitous massage ladies. They may be able to say ‘sit down’, ‘turn over’, or ‘you handsome man’ but talk about your visa status or life as an expat won’t go too far.


Another factor might also skewer perceptions. Japanese society takes the undisputed Olympic gold medal in the category of ‘Being reticent and guarded until you know the person and the situation very well.’ Often misinterpreted as shyness, this interpersonal feature makes it look as if the Japanese are stumbling or verbally awkward when in fact they are merely being cautious (which extends even to mother tongue discourse habits).


Turning into the far corner – Thailand maintains its advantage


On a university campus, or in any place in which the Thai ‘elite’ congregate, their English speaking skills (excepting, possibly, pronunciation) exceeds most of their Japanese counterparts. While staying at Thammasat University, about 45 minutes north of Bangkok, I regularly noted an ease and confidence with which most Thai teaching staff, students, and office staff could engage in English. One reason for this is the public expectation that if you are highly-educated, a professional, or an academic in Thailand then it goes without saying that you have English speech proficiency.


However, among educated/professional Japanese this can be very much hit-or-miss. Because of the prominent translation industry and notions of specialization in Japan, there will usually be an English-speaker/translator in the group/workplace, making English fluency less necessary among society’s go-getters. 


Mid-race analysis


Why does Thailand hold the lead at mid-race? Three factors emerge:

1. Japan is weighed down by its profound service industry. Here, I mean service in terms of translating and dubbing almost everything from outside Japan into Japanese – a (very profitable) service. Either academic/professional textbooks are translated into Japanese or sophisticated indigenous research is produced (medicine being a very poignant example), which often remains limited to the domestic sphere. Not so in Thailand, and even more so with movies and other forms of entertainment. Why do so many Thai people know and use phrases like ‘Hang on a sec!’ in English, even if/when they have never lived outside Thailand? Because they watch TV and movies in the original English, Thai translations being nowhere near as readily found as Japanese are in Japan. This creates a strong familiarity with everyday speech forms and interactions among Thai that sound much more forced and mechanical among Japanese.


2.  I don’t want to regurgitate the tired old ‘Japan is an island country’ motif but wish to reinterpret here it in a more compelling way: When the average Japanese thinks of using English in speech they tend to think of the U.S./English and then the other Anglophone core countries. But Thailand, they know that English is the means by which they will most likely communicate with their contiguous neighbours, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam (ok, not contiguous but…), Cambodia, and, far from least, China (Laos is excluded here as the Thai and Laotian languages are very similar). This mentality brings English right to the front door of the Thai consciousness — it is not so distant as ‘America’ is from Asia, and, more importantly, Thai people can feel as if they are on an equal footing, English-wise, when addressing their neighbours – relieving them of a significant psychological burden regarding the language. The Japanese, conversely, tend to feel cowered in the belief that English = America (although this is, thankfully, changing) and that they are immediately disadvantaged.


3. In Thailand you can simply make more money or advance in society more easily if you are proficient in English. In Japan, the relationship between English proficiency and ‘living a better life’ is much more tenuous. This is a major motivating factor for learners in all developing countries. In the tourist industry, this is a matter of life or death in many popular Thai locales, where domestic travelers are often nearly absent.


Moving into the latter half of the race: Japan advances slightly


Where Japan starts to cut the lead is in terms of people in smaller towns who are not in the tourism or international academic communities (such as one of the servers at the nearest Mr. Donut shop to my home) who can converse in English quite well because they spent a year abroad or underwent some special training out of love of English. Almost anyone in Japan can have such an experience if they so choose. Conversely, in Thailand, English fluency is largely the province of the elite and the tourism industry but not at all in the everyday working classes. In Japan however, more ‘daily folk’ in out-of-the-way locales will have some hobby English skills and/or, based on their compulsory education, will tend to be much better at reading and writing the language than the people you might encounter, say, in the wilds of Isaan.


As we enter the backstretch Japan starts its kick…


I’ve served on review and editorial boards for several journals over the past decade, as well as in-house editor/advisor on academic papers in both countries and I can state without reservation that Japanese writers tend to be much more careful and accurate in their English writing than do Thai writers. On average, the Japanese are meticulous about avoiding errors and also give greater consideration to organization and rhetorical flow. The Thai writers, on the other hand, tend to write in English much as they speak it, with a certain cavalier ease of comfort but with less regard for accuracy, inclusion of necessary detail, and ‘appropriate’ opening and closing strategies. These qualities too reflect features inherent in mother tongue discourses, but here it is coupled with the well-known Japanese penchant for correct, and accurate, detail. 


In both countries, Google-sensei makes too frequent an appearance in the initial form of academic essays, but in Japan I would say that there is a greater emphasis on, and care taken in, modifying the translated adjustments for the sake of the reader. In Thailand there is more of a ‘whatever… you know’ approach to English, which allows for quick, convenient daily expressions but starts to falter when greater formality or accuracy is required.


And so, at the finish line…


Thailand edges out a surging Japan. The critical factor here is, I believe, the psychology. English simply seems like less of a burden to the average Thai while it weighs most Japanese down in the back stretch. The weightiness that Japanese bring to all endeavors (and usually results in excellence and productivity) impacts too negatively in the case of English.


In both countries I have observed numerous inter-departmental English clinical case reports/presentations (standard fare in the medical fields). On almost all occasions the Thai presenters’ English was more formally ‘broken’, they made more lexical/structural errors, and yet it came off as being more communicative, more naturally ‘fluent’ than those I had observed in Japan.


So what does this mean for the average English teacher in Japan? Mainly, it means tearing down the psychological barriers that make English seem so othered and distant, so cumbersome. We should stop associating English with native-speakers from the West and present it more as THE lingua franca between non-anglophone countries. Raw, untranslated English, whether TV shows, YouTube, research etc. can be used regularly as materials – especially as homework – with the goal being to enjoy or to stimulate, NOT to translate. Again, non-Anglophone sources can be used. Moreover, ‘Cultural differences’ content should NOT be so ubiquitous in English classrooms, as they promote distance, burden learners with often unnecessary baggage, emphasize potential dangers and hardships, and tend to reinforce a false English-as-white American perspective.


The Japanese do not have to learn to speak English like native speakers. If both Thai and Japanese English speakers can learn from each others’ strengths, use their common English struggles as motivation, and use each other as role models as opposed to fighting that near-impossible battle to become ‘native-like’, more realistic and productive outcomes will most certainly be forthcoming.


Mike Guest’s second novel, ‘The Aggrieved Parties’, can be found and bought here.

Mike Guest’s literary blog, ‘Honeyed Badger Feet’, can be found here.
















Mike Guest

3 Responses to Japan vs. Thailand: Who wins the English battle?

  1. Interesting analysis. I have extended family who live in areas in Thailand that are off the tourist track. Use of English doesn’t exist, not even being able to figure out simple words written down in English. However, instead of panicking when confronted with English or a foreigner, the reaction seems to be more avoidance or refusal to respond. While I have more limited experience with the academic fields in Thailand, I think you are probably spot on with your analysis.

  2. This was a very interesting read!
    Thanks, Mike.

  3. That’s definitely my experience Margaret. In Pathum Thani, where I stayed, the university grounds and immediate area were full of competent English speakers but go off the grounds more than a few hundred meters and even the most basic English literacy (i.e., reading an English map) disappears.

    Alan, thanks for the positive comment.

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