Insights and Analysis

To Realize SDGs, Thailand’s Minority Communities Need More Mother Tongue Books

September 6, 2016

By Lukas Winfield

Northern Thailand, a region famous for its natural beauty, hill tribe communities, and trekking routes through lush jungle terrain, is home to a diversity of languages and cultures comprising approximately 59 unique ethnolinguistic groups. Standard Thai is currently the country’s only official language and the primary language of instruction in public schools; however, most of the country’s 31 million minority language speakers do not speak Standard Thai at home.

S’gaw Karen communities in Thailand use a variety of languages and scripts, making literacy projects in these under resourced areas especially challenging.

S’gaw Karen communities in Thailand use a variety of languages and scripts, making literacy projects in these under resourced areas especially challenging. Photo/Lukas Winfield

On a recent summer afternoon in the northern city of Chiang Mai, my colleagues and I met with representatives from four local Karen NGOs to learn more about their mother tongue language, S’gaw Karen, which is spoken by more than 200,000 people within Thailand. We were there to lay the groundwork for a new project called My Community Reader, which aims to increase access to children’s books in minority languages. Our conversations quickly exposed us to some of the many long-running challenges of working with minority languages in the country.

For example, the absence of a standard written form of S’gaw Karen poses a major hurdle, which leads people to use a combination of three common scripts derived from Mon (the script used for Burmese), Roman, and Thai characters. The choice of script depends on a variety of factors, including educational background, religious beliefs, and family history, all deeply personal and potentially divisive elements. This makes it difficult to collaborate and share educational materials between organizations and communities.

The Inter Mountains Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT) has begun experimenting with publishing books with four sets of text: Mon-based S’gaw Karen, Roman-based S’gaw Karen, Thai, and English. So far, the books have been popular, but IMPECT’s resources for printing such books are severely limited. The Foundation for Applied Linguistics produces books originating from local folk tales, songs, and histories, but also struggles with printing costs. The My Community Reader project, with support from the Information Society Innovation Fund, helps expand the reach of these groups by building a mobile-first suite of tools that will enable underserved communities to create and distribute their own children’s books via translations of existing texts. In the pilot project, S’gaw Karen communities will be able to build a library in their own language – using their preferred script – by translating books from English and Thai on their smartphones, which are becoming increasingly prevalent even among the lower-income communities of the North.

However, the complexity of S’gaw Karen scripts exemplifies just one of the challenges to providing quality, inclusive education to children of minority languages. While the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for inclusive education, a UNESCO report estimates that 40 percent of the world’s student population attends school in a language that students do not understand. Barriers to incorporating mother tongue languages into school instruction include: a deficiency of teachers who speak minority languages; a lack of teacher knowledge and pedagogy essential to transitioning students from learning in their mother tongue to a national language; governmental distrust of multilingualism for fear it could decrease national unity and stability; and insufficient reading material in minority languages.

Increased access to mother tongue books is essential for building the foundation of literacy and cognitive skills. These skills are transferable to learning in the national language as well as international languages like English. Overcoming this initial language barrier empowers children to engage in their studies and opens up opportunities for employment and avenues for civic participation. When students of minority languages lack access to books in their mother tongue, they struggle to understand content, and their academic development is hampered. Existing detrimental factors common in many ethnolinguistic communities (including under-funded schools, limited teaching and learning materials, frequently rotating teachers, and financial insecurity at home) further decrease learning outcomes.

A S’gaw Karen student runs his classmates through a pronunciation drill. Photo/Lukas Winfield

A S’gaw Karen student runs his classmates through a pronunciation drill. Photo/Lukas Winfield

While the challenges are still vast, Thailand has slowly moved toward embracing its rich diverse linguistic make-up rather than viewing it as a detriment to national development. In the 2000s, minority linguistic groups made significant gains in receiving recognition from the government. In 2006, then Minister of Education Chaturon Chaisaneg praised the development of new bilingual schools for Pwo Karen hill tribes in Northern Thailand and encouraged additional schools to follow suit. To date, there have been expansions of mother tongue education into government schools: Isan in the Northeast, Pattani-Malay in the Deep South, and S’gaw Karen in the North. In 2010, Thailand adopted its first National Language Policy, which promotes bilingual and multilingual education in schools featuring local mother tongues along with Standard Thai.

Unfortunately, recent political tensions have slowed implementation of the National Language Policy, and it remains to be seen what the current government’s approach will be regarding access for the millions of Thais who speak minority languages.

In the meantime, S’gaw students in northern Thailand are already seeing the benefits of learning in their mother tongue. According to local teachers, students in schools that instruct in S’gaw Karen and promote reading and writing in the language score higher than their peers in traditional monolingual schools that utilize only Standard Thai. The hope with My Community Reader is that, with more S’gaw Karen children’s books at their fingertips, the quality of their education will rise, and along with it, their access to opportunities.

Lukas Winfield is a junior associate for The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia Program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Thailand
Related programs: Books for Asia, Technology & Development
Related topics: Inequality, Literacy, Sustainable Development Goals

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting–it’s not just a question of the pros and cons of L1 instruction/literacy for students and their families (which is still widely debated despite much evidence suggesting that it is largely beneficial), but also a question of the political implications of mother tongue instruction/literacy. Great post!

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