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
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 Siam.
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 approved the implementation of a new national-language policy drafted by the Royal Institute of Thailand, which has also been approved by the incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. 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 also 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, Meuang Phon Municipality received a grant of about 500,000 euros (Bt21 million) from the European Union to promote the use and preservation of the Isaan language. as the leader of a consortium including Ban Phai, Chum Phae, and Khon Kaen Municipalities together with the College of Local Administration (COLA) at Khon Kaen University.
Clearly a more culturally democratic Thailand will be better prepared to meet the diverse cultural and linguistic challenges during the era of the Asean Economic 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 email@example.com.