Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Oct 23 13:29:21 UTC 2006


There are no educationally sound programmes to provide ethnic minorities
with the language skills they need to achieve academic success, writes

Although well provided for financially, 31 of the Thai students who were
selected for the One District One Scholarship (Odos) programme dropped out
and returned home after only a few months, citing the extraordinary stress
involved in learning in a language they did not understand. The Odos
involves sending selected Thai secondary school graduates to study at
universities abroad. One student, after spending a year-and-a-half
learning Italian, discovered that his language skills could not help him
understand his professors. He plaintively expressed what many of the
others had experienced: "My notebook remained empty after every class. I
cried in my room every day." To its credit, the Ministry of Education is
now taking steps to better prepare Odos students for learning in the
language of their host countries.

But the Odos students' experience highlights the importance of language
competence for successful learning. The language problems experienced by
the 31 young Thai students far from home mirror those of many ethnic
minority children in this country who do not speak the official school
language when they begin primary school. Their response is frequently the
same - they drop out. Like the Odos students, ethnic minority learners in
Thailand need help in mastering the language of instruction.
Unfortunately, no educationally sound programmes have been established to
provide this group of learners with the language skills they need to
achieve academic success in Thailand's formal education system.

In June of this year, a UN General Assembly working group drafted a
"Declaration of Indigenous Peoples' Rights" that includes the following
provision: "States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take
effective measures in order for indigenous individuals, particularly
children to have access, when possible, to an education in their own
culture and provided in their own language" (Article 15.3). Even more
compelling, since it has already been endorsed by the General Conference
of the International Labour Organisation, is its 1989 Convention 169
concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. This
convention requires that "children belonging to the peoples concerned
shall, wherever practicable, be taught to read and write in their own
indigenous language or in the language most commonly used by the group to
which they belong" and that "adequate measures shall be taken to ensure
that these peoples have the opportunity to gain fluency in the national
language or in one of the official languages of the country". (Article 28)

In spite of past and present international awareness about the need for
language-appropriate education, a number of governments continue to
support and sustain education systems that require ethic minority learners
to achieve national curriculum goals in a language they do not understand.
Professor Bernard Spolsky, a noted expert in language policy and planning,
argues against such language-exclusive programs: "There can be no
justification for assuming that children will pick up the school language
on their own, and no justification for not developing some program that
will make it possible for children to learn the standard language and to
continue to be educated all the time this is going on."

Begin in mother tongue

Effective bilingual education programmes begin in the learners' mother
tongue - the language most familiar to them. It helps them build fluency
and confidence in using the official school language, and encourages them
to continue using both languages for life-long learning. Applied to the
Thailand situation, a strong bilingual education programme would, for
example, help Kuy children in the Northeast of Thailand learn to read and
write in the language they already know, using reading materials that
affirm their own cultural knowledge and experience. This component turns
out to be especially effective because of something reading researchers
discovered long ago: we only need to learn to read once. Such a process is
already at work - successfully - in Omkoi District of Chiang Mai, for
example, in a pilot project co-sponsored by the Ministry of Education,
Unesco, and SIL International, and in other similar programmes in
countries such as Cambodia, China, and Papua New Guinea.

Thus, after establishing a strong foundation in mother tongue oral and
literate skills, the bilingual education programme should provide a good
"bridge" to the national language and culture, slowly building up
learners' listening, speaking, reading and writing abilities in the
national language so they can learn the required academic subjects
successfully. This kind of bilingual education programme can also improve
the quality of education in general. Children who understand what is
happening in a classroom actively and happily participate in learning,
want to come to school, and less often drop out. Parents and other
community members, also able to participate in the life of the school
because they understand its language, take a greater interest in the
education of their children. And materials in the mother tongue, often
developed by local teachers, parents, and students, can be of lower cost
and are more relevant to the daily lives of their users than centrally
supplied materials.

One of the most common arguments against mother tongue-based bilingual
education is that using minority languages in formal education contributes
to divisiveness and disunity. Opponents making this argument usually
promote the idea of "one language, one nation." More often than not, the
opposite is true. The list of countries in which one language is spoken by
over 90 percent of the people reads like a litany of tragic civil
conflicts: Cambodia, Korea, Rwanda, Burundi, Yugoslavia, Uganda, Somalia,
to name a few. On the other hand, one can identify multilingual nations
that have not descended into civil strife and divisiveness, especially
when their governments recognise multilingualism as a national resource
and encourage the participation of all (or most) of their citizens in
national development.

Countries with successful multilingual histories include Switzerland, the
United States, Cameroon, and Papua New Guinea. In other words, recognition
of, and support to, minority languages and cultures by the national
government can lead to greater respect for, and loyalty to, that
government - rather than to divisiveness and disunity.

Myths exposed

Other arguments against bilingual education are often based on "myths"
about children's ability to learn language. Here are a few common ones
heard in Thailand.

Myth 1: Children already know the national language when they begin Grade
1. This is a variation of the argument that Northern Thai (Kammuang),
Northeastern Thai (Isaan or Lao), and Southern Thai (Paktay) are dialects
of Central Thai. Although a persuasive linguistic case can be made that
these are actually separate languages rather than merely dialects of the
same language, the fact that all are members of the same Tai-Kadai
language family does facilitate their speakers' acquisition of Central

However, this is not the case for the nearly 15 percent of the people
living in Thailand who speak languages that are quite different from
Central Thai: Pattani Malay, Northern Khmer, Kuy, Sgaw Karen, Mon, Akha,
Hmong and Lahu to name a few. Learners from these languages require sound
second-language learning strategies to gain fluency and confidence in the
official school language, in much the same way that Odos students need
supportive language learning programmes for their education abroad.

Myth 2:Young children learn languages quickly and easily. This argument
asserts that special bilingual educational programmes are unnecessary
because small children are innately equipped to learn new languages
without assistance. However, research clearly demonstrates that adults and
adolescents outperform young children in language learning. The older
learners have already gained literacy and fluency in their first language
and use that knowledge and experience to help them acquire the new
language. Only in pronunciation do young children outperform older ones in
language learning.

Myth 3: The more time minority language children spend using the national
language. the better they learn it. This belief is also contradicted by
many research studies into second language acquisition in other parts of
the world which show that the minority students who do best in the
national language are those who spent the most time learning in their
mother tongue.

Slightly below the surface of this "myth" is an attitude that says, "So
don't waste the children's time learning a minority language that is of
little value to them. They would spend their time better learning Thai."
However, this attitude ignores the accumulating evidence that many of the
small, marginalised minority language communities possess special and
important knowledge; for example, with respect to the medicinal properties
of plants found in their forests and farms or ways of living in
sustainable ecological relationship to their environment. This knowledge
is contained in and passed on through the language they speak.

Some estimates of language mortality among the world's nearly 7,000
languages go as high as 90 percent by mid-century. The linguistic and
cultural diversity of our world may well hold as much value and worth as
our biological diversity. Strong mother-tongue-based bilingual education
programmes serve the dual purpose of greatly enhancing the minority
learners' ability to learn successfully in the national language and also
developing and maintaining their ability in, and appreciation of, their
ethnic language.

Languages themselves are rarely the objects of discrimination. Rather,
laws, policies, and practices that exclude the use of certain languages in
education often reflect attitudes toward - and authorise discrimination
against - the speakers of those languages. People, especially children,
bear the burden of this kind of educational prejudice.

Thailand - by definition a "free land" - needs education programmes that
allow all its people the liberty to use their languages, their cultures,
their histories and their experiences while also enabling them to acquire
the national language and therefore become more integrated and valued
citizens of this richly diverse country.

Sheldon Shaeffer is Director of Unesco Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau
for Education.



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