by Bandhit Samtalee, M.Ed
Former Deputy Dean
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences,  Yala Rajabhat University

The local dialects throughout Thailand are rich and beautiful. It is meaningful and precious to people who use the dialect and share a common language bond with their neighbors and friends. Many dialects and even different languages reflect the richness of Thai diversity. These dialects and languages should be celebrated. Unfortunately, all too often the dialects are made fun of and the different languages are ignored or worse, disparaged.  In my own case, I have seen my mother tongue, Jawi, ignored in the Thai education system despite research that shows that children who are introduced to reading in their mother tongue learn to read better and are better able to make the transition to reading at a young age in the national language.

A survey by OBEC (The Office of Basic Education Commission) on the language of the students, teachers and community from 21 offices located in 9 provinces along the Thai border in 2008 found that students have been using more than 30 different dialects in 940 schools, with the number of 3,72 schools or 25.26 percent of the students in other dialects in their daily lives. In some schools the students use the same dialect where in some schools the students use 4-5 different dialects. Many of these dialects of course are completely different language such as Hmong, Yao, Musar, Jawi, Burmese and Chinese.

Although children and youth along the border and in outlying areas have the opportunity to attend school, most of these children are more familiar with their local dialects/languages. It is the mode of communication in everyday life. More often than not there problems and difficulties in learning with these children who use their own dialect or language rather than the central Thai language.

A surveys conducted by the Ministry of Education in the past have showed that groups of children with low learning achievement compared with the national standard were the children who live along the border of Thailand and did not speak Thai language in daily life. Family education was not high and the main cohort of low achieving students were from poor families. These studies indicate a weakness in the whole Thailand educational system that has existed throughout the 20th century and continue today. By not providing a bilingual approach to early learning, Thailand is losing valuable human resources that it badly needs to be competitive with other ASEAN countries.

I attended a meeting with many persons from different kinds of institution chaired by Professor Dr. Suwilai Premsrirat from the Institute of Language and Culture at Mahidol University. And I was very glad to know that Dr Suwilai was going to run a pilot project called the Bilingual Project for the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand. Therefore, a few years later there was a pilot project on the implementation of the development of language teaching schools along the border of Thailand namely Yala, Pattanee, Naratiwat and Satul, one school in each province., This pilot project brought together learning the local language and Thai language to ensure that the child has the courage to enjoy learning more and to make the transition to first learning to read in his mother tongue and then transition to learning to read central Thai.

Bilingual programs can provide a teaching process that is sensitive to the child’s cultural and linguistic context. There is an opportunity in this approach to honor the child’s mother tongue and culture. In my own context of Yala, we speak Jawi at home and are proud of our Muslim heritage. It will mean a great deal if Thai policy experts recognize the value of honoring our culture and include our language and culture in our children’s public education curriculum.  I am sure the same can be said of the many hill tribe groups located in the north of our country.

Development programs for bilingual schools along the border of Thailand using Bilingual project is a good beginning. It is a different approach from the process used with children who use Thai central language in everyday communication and at home. I believe that children are not able to develop critical thinking skills if not using language that children are familiar at first. It is vitally important to start children learning to read and solve problems first in their mother tongue.