01.09.2016 - Education Sector

An alternative to conflict in Thailand through bilingual literacy and education

© Mahidol PMT Project

A bilingual literacy programme aimed at empowerment and reconciliation through education for the minority Patani-Malay community in Thailand has been awarded the 2016 UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize

The Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia of Mahidol University in Thailand has been awarded the prize for its programme ‘Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education Project. (PMT-MLE)’

Patani Malay is the mother tongue of a minority community of approximately one million people living in the south of Thailand. In 2004 growing fears of forced assimilation into mainstream Thai society led to violent incidents to preserve their identity. 

Suwilai Premsrirat, Professor of Linguistics at the institute and head of the project said: “This is a Muslim community in a mainly Buddhist country and they speak their own Malay dialect. The fact that most don’t speak Thai means they have done poorly in the Thai monolingual school system and have not always gone on to higher education. As a result, they face problems finding work which makes it easier for youth to be drawn into conflict.

“Now, they are not only able to learn in their own language, but can improve their Thai, at the same time aiding their integration.”

Bringing social and linguistic equality at the same time

She said the programme had reaped rewards with more girls than boys signing up and learners going on to become teachers themselves.

“One of our teachers had similar problems and remembers how good it felt when a teacher would use some of her own language to teach in. She went on to become proficient in Thai and has now returned and works as a kindergarten teacher in her own community.”

Ms Premsrirat said she was delighted with the win.

“Our team has been working together for 9 years and this feels like recognition for us and most importantly for the programme. It will become more visible to the eyes of the government and Bangkok authorities and this will help to remove any suspicions that might exist about the programme.”

The PMT-MLE programme uses the power of their mother tongue to counter chronic underachievement in school bringing social and linguistic equality at the same time.

“In addition to being proud of their native language, children have learnt to live with others who speak different languages. Thai and Malay people should be able to effectively communicate since we live in the same country”, said Mrs Tuanyoh Nisani, a pre-school teacher and veteran in the southern part of Thailand.

The project was incorporated into two years of kindergarten and six years of primary school with the first group of students completing their PMT-MLE grade in 2016. It was first introduced into pilot schools in each of four Southern Border provinces in 2006 and has since expanded to 15 additional schools.

Academics, parents, teachers and artists have all taken personal risks to continue supporting the Patani Malay people but the positive results are clear. A study has already shown that students of the project schools do better than students at monolingual schools with girls even outperforming boys in all subjects.

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