[lg policy] Thailand: What is lost when a language dies?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 23 15:13:39 UTC 2010

What is lost when a language dies?

Each of the many ethnic tongues in use throughout the nation
represents the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of hundreds or
thousands of years of human experience

Soda Ritkongpho spoke with pride of his experience using the
traditional yao treatment of the So ethnic people to cure his
seriously ill wife. "My wife is still alive and well because we used
the yao ritual to cure her," he said. The So are an ethnic group
scattered around the upper Northeast and farther south in Kalasin
province. According to a 2006 study by Mahidol University, there are
about 70,000 So in the country.

Mr Soda, from Phopaisarn village in Sakon Nakhon, said his wife was
sent back from a local hospital as the staff there could do nothing to
cure her. Desperate and ready to try anything, Mr Soda tapped into the
local wisdom and performed the ritual. Immediately afterward, he said,
she was able to sit and now lives a normal life. Many of his
neighbours witnessed her recovery and say the incident has given them
more pride and faith in their culture. It has also made them more
determined to carry on with traditional practices and preserve their
form of verbal communication.

"We want our children to practise our culture and learn the So
language. We also want support from the government or else we fear it
[the language] will be dying soon," said Mr Soda. He added that the
media has a great influence on young people, which makes them turn
away from tradition.

Kirk R Person is director for external affairs of SIL International's
(formerly Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc) Mainland Southeast
Asia Group, a non-profit organisation committed to serving language
communities worldwide for sustainable language development. Mr Person
explained that if a language dies it means the loss of the accumulated
knowledge and wisdom of hundreds or thousands of years of human
experience. This includes indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants,
herbs and so on. He said that "exotic"grammars have given cognitive
scientists more insight into how our brains process language. "On a
social level, people who experience language death often have a crisis
of identity _ they no longer speak the language of their ancestors,
yet they are not fully accepted into the larger society," he said.

Mr Person has been in Thailand more than two decades, having first
come as a teacher in 1988. In 1995, he began linguistic research on
the Bisu ethnic group in Chiang Rai province. He spent 10 years
learning and studying the language and culture in two predominately
Bisu villages and another village in which there was a mixture of Bisu
and other northern people. One Bisu man told him: "My father's
generation wanted us to stop being Bisu and become Thai. We abandoned
our traditional clothing, adopted Buddhism and tried to become Thai.
But we found we could not really become Thai. So if we were neither
Bisu nor Thai, what would we be?"

According to SIL International, around the world there are 6,909
languages in existence, but many of them are in danger of dying. Mr
Person pointed to globalisation, the power of the mass media, economic
realities that favour larger population groups, migration to the
cities for work and intermarriage with people from other language
groups as the major reasons languages are dying. He said the real
measure of whether or not a language will survive is the attitude of
the speakers _ do they see their language as having value? He remarked
that some groups do not value their own language until it is too late.

"Others, such as the Chong in Trat province in eastern region of
Thailand, came to recognise the problem just in time to start up
language revitalisation programmes," he said. The Thailand Research
Fund also recognises the importance of smaller ethnic groups, and is
co-operating with Mahidol University to organise language
revitalisation programmes intended to give new life to about 15 of
Thailand's most severely endangered languages.

Many factors contribute to the demise of local languages and dialects.
Mr Person raised the example of one Bisu village that was affected by
the 1997 economic crisis. Bisu farmers started working much longer
hours to try to make money. "They started sending their kids to a
daycare centre in a village where the kids did not hear Bisu. Now some
of the parents are realising that their kids don't speak Bisu well,
and they don't speak the northern Thai dialect well either," he said.

However, Mr Person believes that the attitude of the government toward
minority languages has improved. "Many ranking officials and concerned
agencies have commented on the importance of cultural diversity," he
said. The Ministry of Education (MoE) recently hired 500 teachers'
assistants, most of them ordinary villagers, from ethnic minority
groups to help ethnic children in their early years at school.

"More significantly, the MoE has allowed multilingual education pilot
projects in about a dozen schools in the far North and deep South,"
said Mr Person. These schools are demonstrating how using indigenous
languages as well as Thai in school both preserves these unique
languages and cultures and also improves the children's overall
academic achievement. "Indeed, preliminary results show that kids in
these bilingual schools are doing better at the Thai language than
ethnic kids in ordinary 100% Thai-speaking schools," he said.

Mr Person is a member of the committee to draft the National Language
Policy at the Royal Institute of Thailand (see main story). He was
encouraged to find that the RIT, which is famous for establishing
standards for the Thai language, also recognises the value of minority
languages. The language policy, approved by Prime Minister Abhisit
Vejjajiva last February, states clearly that all the diverse languages
of Thailand are cultural treasures and should be preserved. The PM
commissioned the RIT to develop a strategic implementation plan for
the language policy with participation from top officials at relevant

"Notably, the secretary-general of the National Security Council
discussed the policy with the Royal Institute's committee. He
expressed support for the language policy and said he believes that
demonstrating genuine honour and respect for all the diverse peoples
of Thailand contributes to national harmony," he said.

The Royal Institute is also co-operating with Mahidol University and
several ethnic minority communities to create a Thai-based alphabet
for minority languages. "These alphabets can be used in the bilingual
school projects and endangered language revitalisation projects," said
Mr Person, adding that some of the groups have their own scripts _
some ancient alphabets, others using Roman (English) scripts _ which
also should be preserved.

Many educators believe that instruction in a student's mother tongue
is a key factor in keeping children in school. Mr Person said that
studies made by the World Bank have shown that 50% of school-age
children who drop out of school speak a different mother tongue than
what is spoken at school. The percentage in Thailand is uncertain, but
teachers in the bilingual programmes say that attendance is much
higher than in the mono-lingual schools, the children are more
enthusiastic and they actually learn much more.

Mahidol University launched a bilingual (Thai and the local Malay
dialect) pilot project for students in the South four years ago. The
Education Council has praised the project for improving the Thai
language skills of the students by 35%.

The lowest achievement scores are to be found in schools in the far
North, far South and along the Cambodian border _ in school districts
where most of the children are ethnic minorities. In 2007, for
example, the MoE found that 25-35% of the Grade 2 students in these
areas were basically illiterate, compared with only 1% of students in
Bangkok. Mr Person believes this is proof that "language matters".

What's more, he said, the Thai government needs to see that language
diversity is not a problem. Rather, it is an "untapped resource for
solving problems".

Mr Person explained why the general public should be concerned about
dying or declining languages.

"We are all brothers and sisters. If one group looses their language
and culture, the world as a whole is the poorer for it." He remarked
that many of the famous Western children's stories would have been
lost had not the Grimm brothers seen the importance of preserving

"Imagine childhood without Hansel and Gretel and Snow White,"he said.

Asked what can be done to persevere language diversity, Mr Person
pointed out that through government policy and the media the larger
society can show its appreciation for ethnic languages.

"This will help encourage ethnic people to value their own languages.
Bilingual education programmes should be expanded to all the groups
that need them. This will help the country as a whole as it will
improve the education, health, and happiness of the populace."


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