There is no denying that Thailand has become an increasingly bilingual environment, to a certain extent. Most signs and labels are written in both Thai and English, and public announcements, whether on the skytrain or at department stores, are made in both languages.
But the average English score of Thai students in the national university entrance exam or an average Thai's ability to communicate in English might say otherwise.
Most Thais are still not confident enough to use English, and chalk it up to an ineffective education system. Meanwhile, a great number of international, bilingual and English-programme schools have mushroomed over the past decade, and a lot of parents are now speaking English to their children.
There is definitely a shift in the language environment in Thailand. Parents now realise that it is not only the school's job to teach English to the students, but the parents also play an important role, particularly because a person's language acquisition skills are at the sharpest in the first years of life. Amid the myths surrounding bilingualism, such as the child will not be strong in either language, the child will speak slower than peers, or the child will mix up languages, bilingual parenting is surely on the rise.
Ondine Ullman, Head of Language Acquisition (Primary) at Bangkok Patana School, said in a recent session with the International Parenting Network (IPN) that the peak period for language acquisition actually starts when the mother is pregnant and carried on into the first year of life.
"The younger a child is, the more naturally they will be able to acquire a language. There's actually no limit _ you can still learn a new language when you are 60, but it's a conscious process and you have to think and connect. When you're little, it's a natural and organic process."
However, a lot of parents try to raise bilingual children in the wrong way. The biggest mistake, Ullman said, is to send a child to an English school and stop using Thai at home, thinking it will speed up his language acquisition.
"That's the exact opposite of what you should do. The second language will never get strong if the first language isn't strong. If the first language stops at a certain level, the second language can never go beyond that. The child will not be strong in either language," she explained.
She also warns that it is important to speak the language correctly to children, because they learn through imitation. If the model is incorrect, the child also speaks incorrectly. As a teacher, Ullman knows that it is hard to undo mistakes.
For parents whose English might not be strong but want to raise their children to speak English, the one-parent-one-language rule must be applied. This means the parent with stronger English should speak English to the child, while the other parent uses the native language. They must both stick to their own language to avoid causing confusion.
Since children learn through exposure, other options that Ullman suggested are to find someone to come in twice a week and play with the child in English, hire a nanny who speaks English, or go to an English-speaking playgroup or activity clubs. The process of acquiring a language should be natural, not forced. She explained that young children cannot be force-fed languages.
"If you sit there and force children to look at a flash card, they won't learn the word."
Thanks to thousands of English teaching apps for children on smartphones and tablets, many parents have handed their children these technological tools, hoping the children will absorb the language automatically from the apps. While Ullman admitted that TV and the internet can help boost a child's language skills, studies have shown that it's not as effective as learning it through the real world. For a person to acquire a language, there has to be physical presence.
Although it all sounds difficult, trying to raise a bilingual child might help him or her beyond the linguistic aspect, and be worth the effort in the end.
''When children are exposed to bilingualism from birth, the brain actually develops differently. It's been found that bilingual children can solve problems better, multitask better and balance activities better, because when they are switching languages, they are constantly multitasking. They are also found to be better cognitive thinkers,'' said Ullman, adding that some studies in the US have even shown that bilingual people who speak both languages throughout their lives can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years compared with those who speak just one language.
But does that mean you should sign your young one up at the nearest language school? It probably doesn't work like that. Pushing your child to learn a new language in a classroom against their will can turn out to do more harm than good. But if the child is up for it, make sure your expectations are realistic.
''My view is children need to be children. They need to play. Children learn better through play _ they don't learn at desks or from books,'' Ullman said. ''To master something, you have to use it and want it. If you send your child to a Chinese class 30 minutes a week, they won't be able to speak it fluently. Imagine you try to ride a bicycle and only practice 30 minutes a week _ can you cycle up a mountain? You're asking the impossible from your child. Maybe they will learn some words and slowly get into it, but they can't be fluent with once-a-week exposure.''
CASE STUDY 1
Parents: Both Thai
Languages spoken at home: Father speaks Thai and mother speaks English
Language at school: Thai
Jatuporn Tansirimas on his five-year-old son Bhoom: ''I started speaking to my son in English when he was about one year, because I wanted him to learn English in an easier and more practical way than I did as a student. Most people thought it was a good idea, but some people thought I was forcing my son to learn too soon. However, I did not teach my son something irrelevant to his life _ I just talked to him in English.
''Since my aim is for him to use English as a communication tool, I don't think it is necessary to send him to an international school. His English, admittedly, is not as good as international students, but I never expected it to be. However, he recently went to a camp with all English-speaking children, and he was able to socialise better than I expected. That, to me, is enough of a success.''
The challenge: ''Since I am not a native speaker, the most difficult thing is that his questions get more complicated as he grows up, and I have to do a lot of homework to make sure my answers make sense for a five-year-old, while being correct in terms of both content and language.''
Tips: ''I use pure English and don't speak two languages in one sentence. I also focus on correct pronunciation because I think once the child has remembered a wrong word, it is hard to undo it.''
CASE STUDY 2
Parents: Thai mother, British-Thai father
Languages spoken at home: Father speaks English and mother speaks Thai
Language at school: Thai
Papaporn Chaihanchanchai on her six-year-old daughter Cyan: ''I speak both languages to my child, but my husband will only speak to her in English. When she was more grown up, she automatically knew that she should talk to her father in English and to me in Thai.
''We don't send her to an international school partly because we are afraid that Cyan will act too farang. I still want her to have Thai manners as well. For bilingual schools, because we already speak to her in both languages, we think it's unnecessary. Also, I have heard that their curriculum is not well organised and settled yet.''
The challenge: ''The most challenging thing in raising her so far is to bring her up in a Western way while maintaining some good Thai manners.''
Tips: ''We have a rule to speak one language at a time. We both also help correct her English and Thai.''
CASE STUDY 3
Parents: Thai mother, German father
Languages spoken at home: Father speaks German, mother speaks Thai, and the couple communicates in English
Language at school: German
Kannikar Djie on her three-year-old son Gabriel: ''I've always spoken to him in Thai, and my husband speaks German. However, I noticed that he also understands English from hearing me and my husband talk, although he doesn't seem to speak it much. Gabriel now speaks Thai and German equally well.
''My son goes to a German-speaking school, and I learned that there are many children from families that don't understand German at all. Those children have to attend extra German classes to keep up with their friends. Some parents of older children have said to me that they can't help them with the homework, so they have to hire a tutor to help. But, in general, most of them speak good German after a few years in the school _ it's only the academic stuff that can be quite challenging for them.''
The challenge: ''Sometimes my son gets mixed up when forming a sentence. In German, an adjective is in front of a noun, and it's the opposite in Thai. I also notice that sometimes he adds a final 't' sound to a Thai word that ends with d or t, but that's quite common in some bilingual children.''
Tips: ''The one-parent-one-language rule does the trick.''