AEC in 2015? That speels trouble
There are only a couple of years left before an entire nation needs to gain proficiency in English and if the garbled wording assaulting the senses of pedants at every turn is anything to go by, there's work to be done ... although there are a few positive signs
I am dedicating this column to the Watthana police because the men in skin-tight brown rescued me this week.
From what? A gang of post-pubescent teens on bikes as big as their pimples? A Pratunam market clothes vendor insisting that her three-sizes-too-small ''I Heart Bangkok'' T-shirt fits me fine?
Nothing of the sort.
Have you noticed the general malaise that's swept Bangkok over the last two weeks? I'm not kidding. The locals are down with a flu thanks to the ''change in weather'', while many of my expat friends are down with a general malaise that has swept the capital.
''I don't know, but I'm just lacking in energy,'' I have heard three times on three separate occasions this week. I am aware that three people cannot represent an expat population of 100,000 but hey, if Fox News can survey 20 people after the third debate and claim Romney to be president, why can't I do the same?
I'm feeling a little lacking in energy myself. I suspect it was brought on by coming down off the euphoria of not having a drink for nearly three months, something I wrote about with jittery fingers last week.
And when I get in a malaise, I see things. Not dead people. Spelling mistakes. Everywhere.
I wonder if you are aware that Thailand is in the grip of a terrible fear, owing to an impending date on the calendar that rocks the locals to the very core.
The whole world is gearing up for December, when, according to the ancient Mayan, or Aztec, or Klingon calendar - one of the three - the world is going to end.
I just called out to one of my assistants to Google that information and it turns out it is the final month of the ancient Mayan calendar. What - so we all die just because the Mayans got lazy when they reached the 21st century?
And since when did modern society start following the Mayans? The Gregorian calendar which we really use started on Feb 24, 1582, or exactly 400 years to the week before Olivia Newton-John topped the charts with Physical. This song fact has nothing to do with anything; the point is that the Mayan way of telling time was well and truly out of fashion before we started counting, let alone grooving to aerobic dance hits.
(And if the Mayans are right, then I wonder why I'm spending my valuable time tapping out a Brunch column when I could be running naked along the beaches of Chon Buri clutching multi-coloured scarves streaming behind me, as one does when the world is going to end, doesn't one?)
While the entire world shudders at our mid-December demise, the Thais couldn't care less. They have another date about which they are way, way more worried, and the big difference is - it's real.
That date is Jan 1, 2015, when their world as they know it is REALLY going to end.
That is the day when 10 nations around Southeast Asia are going to form the Asean Economic Community, or AEC. It's a little bit like the European Community without the euro crisis and great swathes of eurotrash communities.
English is to be the language of commerce and communication. Suddenly Thailand needs to be fluent in English. And she has two years and two months to get there.
I am sure there are Thais hoping that the Mayan prophecy comes true, thus ensuring the country doesn't succumb to its ultimate fate - because world calamity is more desirous than being bilingual.
There are many Thais genuinely concerned about this, as evidenced by the heavy workload I have had for the last year as government agencies and private enterprise realise they now have to get serious about English.
English has never been an absolute must in Thailand. This is a country which prides itself on never being colonised by a foreign power (the years 1942-1945 when Japan ruled the roost are overlooked; a European foreign power, dear reader!).
Things are different now. In 2015, AEC citizens will be able to freely work and move about the 10 countries. Entire villages of Filipino nurses and teachers are packing their belongings as we speak. They'll be able to live and work here alongside the Thais.
A recent survey ranked Thailand ninth out of the 10 Asean nations in English proficiency, just beating Laos. So how well prepared is Thailand?
If the official road signs on the way to Korat are anything to go by - abysmal.
This week I had a speaking engagement in Nakhon Ratchasima, a date which coincided with my driver contracting the flu (see?) at the last minute. I had to drive the 560km round trip myself, and was surprised to see just how many official English road signs on my way up - the official ones, not the hastily made ones for stalls selling fruit and roasted field mice - are misspelled.
At Saraburi, I passed a sign for a U-TRUN, for example, and that upset me. The WANG NOI HOSPITOL off-ramp just deepened my conviction that perhaps the Mayan prophecy may be a blessing for Thailand's superhighways.
Then there was the PHIMAI HISTORICAT PARK. A ''historicat''? Puss in Boots, perhaps, but Phimai?
There was a CHARP CURVE at one corner and then and this one that really nearly brought me to tears, being in a state of malaise:
Let me stop right here and say that such mistakes are not limited to Thais. Back home we Australians are hopeless spellers too.
We use apostrophes like we use condoms; when we remember to, but more often than not we don't, resulting in terrible mistakes.
I had an uncle whose sole purpose in life, when he wasn't practising law, was to root out errant apostrophes.
''COME ON AUSSIE'S!'' was one sign in the sports media that prompted my uncle to write one of his many letters to the local newspaper where I worked: ''Aussie's what?'' he asked; the letter was printed and I had to hide for a week lest somebody know I was related.
I thought he was being pedantic, but be careful what you think about, dear reader. Who would have thought I would grow up to be a pedant as well? Here I am, lamenting the fact my otherwise enjoyable, if rushed, journey into the Thai countryside last Tuesday would result in a deepening of my malaise, and a realisation Thailand will never be ready for the onslaught of the AEC.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
Imagine how I felt when I got to the very last intersection of the journey, at Phra Khanong, when I casually glanced to the side of the road and saw this sign:
The precision! The accuracy! There is hope for Thailand yet.
Thank you, Watthana police, for rescuing me from my malaise.
As Asean approaches, we need to festoon Bangkok with such signs. Sure, the wording is a little tautologous - what else can I spit besides saliva and phlegm? - and I'm not sure why it's all in quotes, but it's a start, dear reader. A start.
Of course, Thailand will be prepared for Asean. The Thai spirit is strong and, when focused on a single goal, always rises to the occasion.
In fact if Thailand puts her mind to it there is nothing that can stop this country in its quest to be fluent in English.
Unless, of course, those pesky Mayans were right. Wouldn't that ruin everything?
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