[lg policy] Thailand's new language policy helps enhance cultural democracy
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Mon Nov 18 15:44:33 UTC 2013
Thailand's new language policy helps enhance cultural democracy
November 18, 2013 1:00 am
The Asia-Pacific region is known for its linguistic diversity, thanks to
the different tongues used in countries such as Papua New Guinea,
Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and East
Timor. However, Thailand has not been included in this list given its near
universal use of standard Thai nationwide.
Mahidol University professor and researcher Suwilai Premsrirat said:
"Thailand thinks of itself as being essentially monolingual."
Yet, if one were to ask someone at the Education Ministry about the number
of languages spoken in Thailand, the answer would probably be 10.
Obviously, the person asked must be thinking of the different versions of
Thai spoken in the four regions, several Chinese dialects as well as the
ethnic languages in the North and West, such as Hmong and Karen.
In reality though, Thailand is far more linguistically diverse than
commonly thought. In the 1990s, Mahidol University, with support from the
Culture Ministry, undertook a language-mapping project showing where
approximately 70 different languages were spoken in Thailand. The map,
which can be found at www.ethnologue.com/map/TH_n, shows 69 different
languages being spoken in Thailand, not including Chinese dialects such as
Teochiew, Hokkien, Hainanese, to name a few.
At present, up to 15 ethnic languages, including as Bisu, Mpi, Saek, Kasong
and Chong, are believed to be endangered, while tongues spoken in border
areas such as Mon, Pattani Malay and Khmer Sung (northern Khmer) are also
being forgotten. Even strong regional dialects such as those spoken in the
North, South and Northeast are fast becoming "Thai-ised".
Thailand, which is at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, has had a rich
history of interaction between diverse cultures and languages. For
instance, inscriptions from the 8th century found in Chantaburi were
written in Sanskrit and Khmer and at the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, all
royal documents were routinely translated into four languages.
During the visionary King Chulalongkorn's reign, Thailand - then Siam -
moved from a temple-based Buddhist education system to a modern, secular
one. The centralised structure resulting from that reform gave birth to a
more standardised Thai. This was also part of a move to unify and modernise
Though the status of Thai as the national language is assumed in practice -
particularly in the government, education and the mass media - an explicit
policy supporting this is minimal. State Convention 9, promulgated on June
24, 1940, declared Thai as the national language. However, neither the 1997
nor the 2007 Constitution mention a national language.
On February 7, 2010, then-PM Abhisit Vejjajiva
the implementation of a new national-language policy drafted by the Royal
Institute of Thailand, which has also been approved by the incumbent Prime
This new policy reiterates the status of Thai as the national language,
declaring that every citizen should be fluent in it so as to enhance
national unity and communication. The policy also calls for increased focus
on English and Chinese, as well as the languages of neighbouring countries.
More significantly, though, the policy also declares Thailand's diverse
ethnic languages as "national treasures" and supports the right of getting
ethnic tongues integrated into the school curriculum, thus bringing
Thailand into compliance with several important United Nations human-rights
declarations. The new policy states: "It is the policy of the government to
promote bilingual or multilingual education for the youth of ethnic groups
whose mother tongue is different from the national language [Thai], as well
as those from other countries who enter Thailand seeking employment."
This new policy is also reflective of the essence of cultural democracy.
Thailand, with its low fertility rate, will need to accommodate workers and
their children from the region and ensure that they are able to retain
their mother tongue as well as learn Thai.
Unesco has been advocating the teaching of mother tongues in early primary
education since 1953. There is much empirical evidence from across the
globe indicating that when children start school in their mother tongue, as
the language of instruction and initial literacy, they tend to like school
more and perform better. Based on this, they can later make a successful
transition into the standard language of the country such as Thai and then
into an international language such as English.
Also, orthographies (studies of alphabets) for languages with no script can
be developed into Thai, which will help facilitate an easier transition
from the mother tongue to Thai.
An implementation plan is being developed by a committee, chaired by Deputy
Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana, comprising representatives from the
Royal Institute as well as key ministries.
Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang
seems committed to make this new policy a reality and has taken concrete
steps to facilitate its implementation.
In addition to the new national language policy, there are other
encouraging moves toward greater cultural democracy in Thailand. Mahidol
University, for instance, has set up a Research Institute for Languages and
Cultures of Asia, with Suwilai doing extensive research on the preservation
of cultural and linguistic diversity.
Also in 2012, the College of Local Development at Khon Kaen University
received a grant of about 500,000 euros (Bt21 million) from the European
Union to promote the use and preservation of the Isaan language.
Clearly a more culturally democratic Thailand will be better prepared to
meet the diverse cultural and linguistic challenges during the era of theAsean
Community, once it kicks off in 2015.
_ Prof Gerald W Fry, from the University of Minnesota's College of
Education and Human Development, can be contacted at gwf at umn.edu.
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