Despite ranking fourth highest regionally in the Human Development Index, Thailand has among ASEAN’s worst test scores in the English Proficiency Index – comfortably below the likes of Cambodia and Vietnam, and only outscoring Myanmar in 2020 as it ranked seven of eight countries, excluding Laos and Brunei.

Thailand’s average score on the index fell to be a “very low” ranking, with total performance languishing at 89 out of 100 countries surveyed – a drop of 15 places on the year prior, below the likes of Uzbekistan, and 20 of 24 Asian countries.


While concrete answers for these foreign language struggles are hard to come by, experts and education reformers speculate the kingdom’s struggles with English are due to cultural factors and structural issues in the education system as a whole. The consequences of this are clear, with problems in English proficiency, observers say, now impacting the ability of Thais to study abroad, work in tourism and participate in the global community.

Popular English teacher Kanatip Soonthornrak, commonly known, is known for his ability to make Thai people feel comfortable speaking the language. Originally from a village in Southern Thailand, Loukgolf was unable to speak English until he was 15 years old. Today, he has a highly popular Youtube show called Loukgolf’s English Room on which he invites Thai celebrities to practice speaking English, as well as one million followers on Twitter.


Loukgolf is not your average English teacher. Despite his calm demeanour, his passion for English language education is evident – even as he despaired over the state of it in Thailand.

Loukgolf emphasised that many Thai students were missing opportunities to study at elite universities around the world.

“There are lots of people who say something like, ‘I can’t go abroad because I need to take I.E.L.T.S [International English Language Test]. I just can’t pass it’. You keep hearing this kind of thing,” he told the Globe.

A hindrance to Thailand’s economic development as a whole, a 2018 study of Thai companies found that 88% emphasised the importance of English for Thailand’s integration into the ASEAN economic community.

“Thailand will not thrive if Thai people stop learning English. In order to thrive on an international level, we need to encourage more Thais to learn English,” Loukgolf said. “We’ll be able to take care of tourists, we’ll be able to talk to them, and we’ll be able to do more business with people.”


Loukgolf understands the difficulty of learning English in an environment in which, he said, students commonly mock one another for practicing the language. Many guests on Loukgolf’s English Room have said that they were bullied growing up due to their struggles with English speaking.

“People make fun of others all the time. It’s part of being human. We make fun of people. It’s sad but it’s true,” Loukgolf said. “When we hear something strange, something we don’t understand, we might try to have fun with it.”

In May last year, one English teacher who taught Thai students online went viral and her schools closed after a video emerged of her speaking English with a strong Thai accent – a reflection of the shaming many Thais encounter when learning.

“It’s your job as an English teacher to educate your students that it’s not okay to make fun of people who are trying to speak English properly and naturally,” Loukgolf said. “Just because something sounds different, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has widened Thailand’s educational inequality, with schools with lower funding having less access to e-learning than better funded ones due to a lack of video-conferencing software. For students whose only exposure to English is through a teacher, this will cause problems in their ability to study the language.

Loukgolf said that wealthy children who have access to quality English education will continue to receive opportunities that poor children do not.

“I think it’s sad but it’s true; only a bunch of fortunate kids in this country are learning English properly, and happily, and beautifully,” he said. “They’re going to have more opportunities, and that’s not good. All the Thai students out there should have this privilege.”

Loukgolf also emphasised the impact of the pandemic on Thailand’s dropping English language proficiency, as the country slipped down the rankings last year.  “I’d like to emphasise that this year, or maybe the next few years, will be all about surviving, not thriving. It’s very difficult to motivate people this year,” he said.


While not unique to the kingdom, Loukgolf highlighted a fixation with obedience and rote memorisation – in which teachers instruct and students listen – as a source of low language take-up among Thais. Loukgolf said schools and teachers need to make English enjoyable for students to learn, rather than narrowly focusing on grammar.

“Most Thai teachers will only speak Thai in class. And it’s all about grammar, reading, and writing. You’re hardly encouraged to express yourself in English, or even in Thai. You’re hardly encouraged to speak,” he said.

Kunthida Rungruengkiat, a member of Thailand’s progressive Move Forward Party, said that poor implementation of school materials in Thailand generally impacts students’ abilities to also learn second languages, such as English.

“First language instruction is also considered [low] in quality. If you are not strong in your first language, it becomes difficult to attain better results in the second language,” Kunthida said.

Like Loukgolf, Kunthida said the fear of being mocked by peers prevents Thai students from practicing spoken English. At the same time, Kunthida said students who show effort are often labelled to imply that they try too hard and think themselves superior.

Both Loukgolf and Kunthida pointed out part of the problem is that many Thais think of English as a method of identifying social class. Even Thai students who speak good English, Kunthida said, will sometimes adjust their accent to fit the accent of their teacher.

“In order to solve this problem, all of us, rich people, poor people, whatever people, have to just think of English as a tool to help us communicate,” Loukgolf said. “English is not to be seen as a form of superiority or inferiority.”