Realising the spirit of the new Thai National Language Policy

opinion January 13, 2014 00:00

By Dr Peerasit Kamnuansilpa,

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In line with the spirit of the draft Thai National Language Policy, the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP) has attempted to preserve and support regional Thai culture.

The draft policy may ring a bell with many of you, as a recent article by Professor Gerald Fry, which discusses the policy, was referred to in one of my earlier columns. 

Let me reiterate again that while the draft Thai National Language Policy would make the Thai language Thailand’s official language, Mahidol University has found that there are about 70 indigenous languages spoken in Thailand. Four of these are recognised regional languages, namely Central Thai (Thai Klang), Southern Thai (Pak Tai), Northern Thai (Kam Meuang), and Northeastern Thai (Isan, technically ‘Thai Lao’).

This article looks at the innovative ICMRP project and how it has attempted to preserve and support regional Thai culture. The ICMRP is a four-year project (2012-2016) involving a consortium of five partners, namely Ban Phai, Chum Phae, Khon Kaen and Meuang Phon municipalities, together with the College of Local Administration (COLA) at Khon Kaen University (KKU).

Also involved are staff from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Department of Culture, and the Faculty of Fine Arts at KKU; senior local experts at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (Khon Kaen campus); and the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Culture Promotion, which has licensed a special 16,000-word Thai-Isan dictionary for publication. There are also strong academic links with Mahidol University’s Research Institute for Languages and Culture of Asia.

Of note, all the municipalities in the ICMRP are quasi-autonomous under the 1999 Decentralisation Act, and thus this is an important example of the way that decentralised municipalities are successfully and creatively working together.

The ICMRP began in 2012 and is designed to develop effective ways of preserving local Isan culture by incorporating it in municipal education departments, urban life, and the formal education system. Each municipality works on a focus area in the first two years and then shares its experiences and an implementation plan in the last two years.

The ICMRP sees language as an integral part of culture, and therefore it supports a programme of municipal change which promotes Thai national, local (Isan in this case), and international culture, with four major components.

Firstly, it supports locally designed and made school uniforms, developed by Ban Phai Municipality because of its relationship with the famous Isan silk village of Chonnabot. Ban Phai is responsible for producing locally-designed and manufactured Isan-style uniforms for municipal officials, teachers, and students. This stimulus of the domestic economy provides cash jobs for those in villages, particularly the elderly, contributing to less migration to the cities. It also preserves and promotes local Thai wisdom and the dying art of weaving local Isan silk.

Secondly, ICMRP Chum Phae supports multilingual Thai-Isan-English signs that are both attractive and pay respect to Thai as the national language, principally by making sure Thai language is in a higher position on the sign or is in a larger font. The alphabet used is Tai Noi, which was developed in the reign of the Sukhothai-period by King Lithai and was widely used throughout the greater Mekong subregion at one time; it was one of many pre-cursor scripts to modern Thai and is still occasionally used in Isan, especially in temples and on palm-leaf manuscripts. Tai Noi has similarities to the Lao script, and, thus, its promotion will facilitate language learning valuable in the Asean Economic Community (AEC) era.

Thirdly, the programme supports an Isan curriculum, developed by Khon Kaen Municipality, which won an award from the King Prajadhipok Institute for its good management practices, particularly in the area of building good ethnic identity relations. Khon Kaen Municipality has also strongly promoted a local cultural hero, Sinsai, together with Thai heroes, in its curriculum and throughout the city, as an alternative to international cultural heroes. It has now introduced the Tai Noi alphabet and has started teaching Isan language as a subject, as a pilot project, in the formal curriculum.

Finally, ICMRP Meuang Phon has developed a multimedia database of Isan cultural performances such as lullabies, styles of traditional Isan fighting dance, shadow plays, and the regional speciality, “moh lam”. These performances are being recorded and also introduced into the Khon Kaen Municipality curriculum. This helps preserve and promote local Thai cultural performances and encourages cultural tourism within the Northeast region.

The ICMRP welcomes a future where the formal Thai educational system supports teaching local Thai languages together with standard Thai, where doctors and nurses are trained to communicate with their patients in local languages to ensure better patient care, and where municipalities and districts use a local language together with Thai in order to communicate more effectively and sensitively with their citizens.

This future could be one where primary school Thai students may choose the language in which they take tests (though in schools with good resources they should be able to take tests in Thai at secondary level) and so have the opportunity to perform better academically and realise their intellectual potential, as well as to ensure higher self-respect and esteem. These traits in turn also lead to lower truancy, lower drop-out rates, and better emotional intelligence. Thailand needs smarter and happier students and citizens, and supporting the draft Thai National Language Policy is one creative and inspiring way to achieve this.

The ICMRP can be found at and


Dr Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is associate professor and former dean and founder of the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University.

Dr. Gerald W Fry, Distinguished International Professor, the Department of Organizational Leadership and Development, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota.