01 April 2013

Breaking down language barriers in the deep south

Story by Nattha Keenapan/Video by Jingjai N.

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post newspaper on April 1, 2013)

NARATHIWAT, Thailand - The science class for Grade 2 students at the Thairath Wittaya 10 School is a lot more than just science. When their teacher asks them questions in the Pattani-Malay language about the different parts of a plant, the students readily respond in Thai.

Throughout the entire period, their conversation flows naturally back and forth between the two languages, and there are no signs of confusion among any of the students.

All classes at this Narathiwat primary school are conducted bilingually. Pattani-Malay, the students’ mother tongue, is taught first beginning in kindergarten. The Thai language is then gradually introduced to them step-by-step in the higher grades.

“In most schools in the southern provinces, where everything is being taught in Thai, we found that students have a hard time adjusting to the curriculum because they are not familiar with Thai,” said Rangsun Wiboonuppathum, Chief of Education Section for UNICEF Thailand. “When children don’t understand what their teachers are saying, they hardly participate at all and school is not a fun place for them to be.”

Pilot project

Studies have shown that the academic performance of children in the far south is among the lowest in the country. According to an evaluation on the quality of education conducted by the Office of the Basic Education Commission in 2008, more than 25 per cent of Grade 3 children in southern border provinces could not read, while 42 per cent could not write.

Thairath Wittaya 10 School is among 16 pilot schools participating in the Mother Tongue-Based Billigual/Multilingual Education Programme for Pattani-Malay speaking children in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Satun.  The bilingual programme, supported by UNICEF and Mahidol University, was introduced in 2008 in an effort to improve students’ academic performance and preserve local language and culture in the far south, where the majority of the population are Muslim and speak Pattani-Malay.

 “Brain development is the most important thing for young children, especially in kindergarten,” said Rusdee Masor, a researcher at Mahidol University’s Research Institute for Language and Cultures of Asia. “Language should not be a barrier to children’s learning and development. Kindergarten teachers and the children must speak the same language. If they cannot understand each other, the children will not be stimulated to learn.”

Rusdee, who is also working on the bilingual programme, said research conducted in other countries by UNESCO and other organizations has shown that the use of students’ mother tongue in school can improve learning outcomes.

In 2006, Mahidol University carried out a survey among parents in the far south and found that 66 per cent of parents wanted their children to learn Pattani-Malay at schools through  the use of the Thai alphabet.

At the pilot schools Pattani-Malay is used as the main teaching language for kindergarten to Grade 1 students, while Thai and English are gradually introduced in later years. Teachers are also trained to use different types of learning materials and to employ systematic teaching methods.

To adapt the Thai alphabet for Pattani-Malay, 30 new Thai characters with dots and underlines were developed by linguistic experts. Researchers, teachers, parents and local communities have also been involved in making reading and writing easier for the children. 

I like coming to school

“I speak Pattani-Malay at home but I learn Thai, Pattani-Malay and English at school,” said Sufeyah Kahong, 9, a Grade 3 student at Baan Prachan School in Pattani Province, who spends her free time reading books. “I like coming to school because I learn a lot of new things.” 

Teachers said they have worked harder and are happier because the children are happier and do better in class. They have noticed that the children now come to school early, are absent less, are much more self-confident and enthusiastic in class. 

“We’ve seen many positive changes,” said Assanah Binsulong, a teacher at Thairath Wittayakom 10 School. “In the past, students couldn’t even read a simple word. All they did was memorize. Now, even kindergarten students can read well and create simple sentences. During the break, they run to grab books instead of running around outside. When they have fun, their school performance is better.”

Many parents said they want their children to attend schools that offer the bilingual education programme. Waesah Waehaji, a mother of three young children at Baan Prachan School, said her children can read and write in Pattani-Malay and Thai with no difficulty. Other parents said their children now ask a lot of questions and are always trying to read signs.

“My two daughters have attended the bilingual programme since kindergarten and they are doing better in school than their brother who has not,” said Waesah. “I can see that my daughters love to read and that they can read quickly.”

Hard evidence

An evaluation of the programme by Yala Rajabhat University in 2010 showed that overall academic achievement has improved.  According to tests conducted in four bilingual progamme schools and four schools where only Thai is used, children in the bilingual schools scored 35 per cent higher in Thai language skills than students in the Thai-only schools. In addition, students in the bilingual schools also scored higher in other subjects, such as mathematics and science.

The Ministry of Education has encouraged other schools in the far south to apply bilingual education methods in a bid to improve academic performance and create a more positive attitude towards schooling among parents.

UNICEF’s Rangsun hopes bilingual education will be adopted in schools in other parts of the country where other ethnic languages are children’s mother tongue. He said that this will not only help promote academic performance, but also help preserve ethnic identity and local culture.

“If children can use both their mother tongue and the Thai language proficiently, they will have improved education and job opportunities when they grow up,” Rangsun said. “In addition, it will promote better communication among no matter

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