In July, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Thailand as part of my senior project in computer science. As a Web developer at Reading Horizons for the last two years, I am very familiar with literacy and its importance. It took this international field trip, however, to help me understand why reading and writing in English is so valued by the rest of the world.
Our first stop was at North Chiang Mai University, a private, English-speaking campus for students from Thailand and China. We met with several students in the computer science and education programs, and I began to see why learning English was an important goal for them. In order to communicate with each other and with their professors, they need to have a common language, and, for reasons I now understand, that language is English. The Thai language uses five tones and Chinese uses four tones, making these languages very difficult for others to learn. English, however complex, does not rely on tones to change the meaning of words, making oral communication easier initially.
Reading and writing in English is much more challenging for these students, though, because English uses an alphabetic language with consonant and vowel sounds that are harder for non-English speakers to produce. Without explicit instruction in decoding and encoding English, many people in southeast Asia are unable to work in tourist-related industries or government, an essential skill, since there were over 32 million visitors to Thailand last year.
Computer science majors understand that the majority of Internet content and materials are in English. To fully access these resources and to collaborate with others, they will need to become proficient in reading and writing in English. Very successful tech companies often employ staff from around the world, and it is necessary for them to communicate using a common language.
Education majors, too, want to acquire and be able to teach their students basic English skills, particularly since many Thai students will eventually interact with tourists, and a significant number attend colleges around the world. One of the Thai students we met, Nick, had just finished his bachelor's degree in computer science and hopes to come to the U.S. for a master’s degree. With a 3.99 GPA and excellent English skills, his opportunities are far greater than other students with limited English.
The necessity for English was very apparent during two of our next stops: first, at a woodcarving village in northern Thailand, and then at an orphanage in Phuket, a major beach destination.
Our goal with the woodcarvers was to assist them in creating an English-language Web site for their village that would advertise their handicrafts and increase tourism. I honestly hadn’t realized how important English was outside of the U.S. before, but seeing the economic impact that could result from such a simple project really opened my eyes.
Providing children access to English and the opportunity to practice speaking with native English speakers was a focus of our next visit to an orphanage in Phuket. We were fortunate to spend time at the Phuket Has Been Good to Us charity. I learned that it is difficult for Thai schools and children's programs to obtain materials in English.
I was able to deliver a set of Reading Horizons Little Books on behalf of the non-profit RISE Institute for Literacy, which has donated English materials to many locations around the world. The Little Books are decodable text that will support students in learning the foundational skills necessary for decoding English. Staff and students were very excited to receive these resources.
I have always taken for granted the ability to read and write in English and didn’t realize the value of this skill to the rest of the world. Looking back, it seems ironic that I had to travel to a non-English-speaking country to fully appreciate the value of the English language.