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Bilingual Education in Melayu Thin Thai Language

                                      Gothom Arya*


            The mother tongue of more than one million Thai citizens in the southernmost provinces is not Thai but a local (thin) language. There is still no consensus on how to call that language (bhasa), so I would tentatively call it Melayu thin Thai. The bhasa is in fact a dialect of the widely spoken language of Malaysia and Indonesia and could claim to be one of the best preserved dialects of the language. As Thai authority has been all along practicing the policy of assimilation of minorities, Melayu thin Thai has not been part of our education system let alone a medium of instruction in school. As the overall threat to national integrity seems to subside, despite the surge of violence in the southernmost provinces partially due to that assimilation policy and the sentiment of being a simple insertion as a second class group, it's time to change the policy from assimilation to integration based on unity of nations (Samaanachan). For this policy to succeed, we have to create new education programs to enable our fellow citizens to achieve their educational goal without sacrificing their language and cultural heritage.

Fortunately, the Vice-Minister of education, Dr. Rung Kaewdang, already mentioned his intention to introduce bilingual education down South. However, we need to have a common understanding on the concept and seek full participation of the local people in order to succeed. Indeed, the introduction of bilingual education requires its acceptance at policy, bureaucratic and local levels as well as a careful planning.

 Bilingual education means using two languages of instruction. As generally understood by Bangkokian, it invokes the concept of international school where English and Thai are media of instruction, using however non-Thai curricula. At the other end the spectrum, the teaching in some particular subjects using, say, English as medium of instruction, does not really correspond to the concept of bilingual education. Here in particular, we are referring to education where Thai and another local language are used in the context of national curricula. The two languages could be introduced both at the beginning of primary school or at different times. However, according to UNESCO, the most effective approach is to use local language for the first few years of schooling, then introduce national language first verbally followed by literacy in national language, and later use instruction in that language.

We all agree that all citizens need to have good command of Thai language in order to effectively participate in and benefit from economic and social development. This does not mean that all children must learn Thai at the beginning of primary school as this approach is known to be less effective and may create a big educational handicap for children who have difficulty understanding Thai which is not their mother tongue.

The fact, fully supported by a large amount of research, is that children learn basic skills in reading and writing most effectively in their mother tongue. They also learn other subjects such as mathematics and social sciences most effectively in their mother tongue especially in early years of education. Later, the knowledge and skills earned in the mother tongue can then easily be transferred to learning national language as well as subject matters using national language.

In case of the southernmost provinces, the question is how to teach children to read and write in Melayu thin Thai. For the smooth transfer to learning Thai, the use of Thai script seems to be a good option. The learning of standard Malay using Yavee (or optionally Romi) script and of Thai language will be introduced at a later stage when children get already motivated in learning things they can relate to their own social context and environment. The use of Thai script, despite being better for learning may have an important drawback as it could be seen as another attempt to assimilation.

The use of local language has several advantages. In addition to improved educational achievement of children, the participation of parents in school affairs and in encouraging the learning becomes more likely, the content can better reflect local culture and knowledge, the local language is preserved and revitalized etc.

Elder persons in the southernmost provinces are considered by many other Thais as being non-loyal as they are reluctant to speak Thai. In fact, one should blame the failure of our education system in imparting poor knowledge of Thai language to those who speak Melayu thin Thai. If the teaching of English, in most Thai schools, fails to make Thai students confident of speaking that language, it is understandable that the teaching of Thai in poor schools down South would similarly fail. If Prince Songkla University, Pattani Campus fails, after several decades, to enroll more that 25 % of the students from the region (except in the College of Islamic Studies), it is related to the inability of local students to compete with students from other regions in their entrance exam. If local people from the districts where the mother tongue is Thai are in greater number employed in, say the civil service, it is because of their better command of Thai. If young Melayu thin Thai speakers, failing to find job in Thailand, turn out in great number (hundreds thousand) to work in Malaysia, it is because of language affinity and the failure to create jobs that value the knowledge of the two languages.

Many problems in the southernmost provinces can ease off if the issue of education is fully addressed including the bilingual education. But introducing bilingual education requires careful planning and preparation. I already mentioned the writing system. As the local language belongs to local people, they should be involved in developing curriculum and learning material. Moreover, teachers needed to be trained or additional local people need to be recruited and given special training to enable them to become teachers.

This is a long way to go. But with proper consultation, local acceptance and political will, we will together make headways to solving entrenched problems related to long neglect and misunderstanding of local culture. It will take time to stop daily violence, but together we can.  

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