Insights and Analysis

Creating Books that Preserve Cultures and Improve Literacy

September 6, 2017

By Kyle Barker

Along a rutted, dirt road, high in the mountains of Northern Thailand near the border with Myanmar, a clearing in the thick jungle forest provides stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Hidden in the thick carpet of trees below is the remote village of Khun Tae. An expansion of the electrical grid and widening cellular coverage in the region have brought new opportunities to this once-secluded village of the S’gaw Karen people, but it has also created new societal pressures.

Karen village in Thailand

A remote S’gaw village in Northern Thailand. S’gaw Karen are part of Thailand’s largest minority ethnic group, the Karen, they are still grappling with how to maintain their cultural identity while facing increasing pressure to integrate their economic, political, and social norms with national institutions. Photo/Nipaporn Arthit, Foundation for Applied Linguists

Even though the S’gaw Karen are part of Thailand’s largest minority ethnic group, the Karen, they are still grappling with how to maintain their cultural identity while facing increasing pressure to integrate their economic, political, and social norms with national institutions. Their rich and unique identity, which includes a strong oral tradition that weaves together songs, legends, myths, and poetry to communicate their cultural heritage, will cease to exist if future generations are not able to carry it forward.

One way the people of Khun Tae have taken up this challenge is to become strong advocates for their children to be taught in their mother-tongue language of S’gaw Karen, which is spoken by more than 200,000 people within Thailand. Not only will this help preserve the language but, according to a UNESCO study on mother-tongue education, when students become literate in their mother-tongue first, the transition to learning a majority language happens more easily, and their literacy rates and overall academic outcomes increase.

Yet, even as the community of Khun Tae advocates for this effective form of education, it’s a challenge to bring it to practice, as few books exist in this traditionally oral language. Books provided to the local public schools are written in the majority language of Standard Thai and very few children’s storybooks exist because there are insufficient economic forces to persuade publishers to produce books in the language.

A volunteers reads one of the new Let’s Read! books that has been translated into S’gaw Karen language. Photo/Nipaporn Arthit, Foundation for Applied Linguists

This is a situation that many of the thousands of minority-language communities across developing Asia face. It is also a situation that plays to the strengths of digital projects: connecting communities across physical distances to leverage their collective knowledge and resources. The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read! digital platform is designed to do exactly this by providing the means to efficiently and effectively create, convert, or adapt open-access books into any number of languages, quickly increasing the number of relevant, high-quality children’s storybooks available to a language community.

In Northern Thailand, 24 S’gaw Karen volunteers, including farmers and teachers, started using the Let’s Read! digital platform by translating 30 books from Standard Thai into the three scripts of the S’gaw Karen language. The children’s storybooks are now available for anyone in the community, teachers or families, to access for free through the web, Android reader app, or to be printed for non-digital use.

The community response so far has been very positive. Many of the S’gaw Karen who live in the mountains in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hongson are thrilled to read their own language via the Let’s Read! app since most books they could find are in standard Thai. They want to use the Let’s Read! app to maintain their language and culture and pass their traditions on to their children.

S’gaw Karen school children use the Let’s Read! digital platform to access storybooks in their mother-tongue language. Photo/Nipaporn Arthit, Foundation for Applied Linguists

The power of the Let’s Read! platform goes beyond a single language community by enabling the creation of books across borders and cultures. This summer, the initiative has spread to communities in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Nepal, who are using the platform to create and share libraries in their local languages. Opening access to mother tongue books in this way across Asia is part of a larger learning strategy that leads children to success in literacy broadly and engages them in stories that resonate with them. Children in Nepal can now read—in their mother-tongue—stories about inspiring girls that were created by a young writer in Cambodia during a Let’s Read! eBook Hackathon in Phnom Penh. And, children in Indonesia can read beautifully created stories, in their mother-tongue, that were originally written by Pratham Books, an India-based publisher.

As the village of Khun Tae, and other communities like it, continues to advocate for resources that will help their children succeed in a changing world, they will be able to help provide many of these resources themselves through the Let’s Read! platform. And with any luck, a budding writer will emerge from the Khun Tae community, creating stories to share with and inspire children throughout Asia.

Kyle Barker is assistant director for Books for Asia and manages the Let’s Read! initiative. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand
Related programs: Books for Asia
Related topics: Let's Read


  1. Wonderful – can the tool be used to convert English books to Lao?

  2. I am so glad KaRens in Thailand are advocating the teaching of KaRen mother tongue. I missed out on this opportunity growing up. It wasn’t till my mid 60s that t started my KaRen primer. Better late than NEVER. I am doing much better than my siblings, I think. Thank you very much for your efforts ASIA FOUNDATION

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