As the world observes International Literacy Day today, Thailand still faces a huge challenge despite a generally high literacy rate in Thai.
Officially, literacy in Thai is at 94%. However, both national O-Net and international testing such as the OECD Pisa programme show the education system is highly inequitable. Even worse, this year’s World Bank country report found one third of teenagers are functionally illiterate, meaning unable to fully comprehend documents, a revelation that partially explains why electronics firms are leaving for Vietnam due to workforce “quality” issues.
Given that only in Bangkok are schoolchildren’s test results comparable with the West, the problem is enormous. Literacy is lowest in the mainly Muslim deep South, which presents a special problem as for decades Thai was rejected as irrelevant to the historical and cultural context there. In addition to an ongoing insurgency, for religious reasons Arabic has been prioritised above Thai, with the cumulative effect being that few students qualify for higher education. The state’s solution is a dual approach where both a Thai and local curriculum are taught, including religious studies.
There is an alternative. Mahidol University, supported by Unesco and Unicef and working with local communities and the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, has for several years been implementing a “Mahidol Model” approach where Pattani Malay has been taught alongside Thai and other languages, including Malaysian, English and Arabic. Thai literacy has consequently risen by 30%.
The reasons are twofold. Firstly, studying the mother tongue provides a bedrock for understanding discourse, and acquired skills are transferable. Secondly, though the subject presents additional work, students are engaged and enjoy class more, and attendance is higher. This then improves test results across the spectrum. Essentially, teaching mother tongues implies respect for identity and thus spurs ownership of the education system.
Low literacy is prevalent among ethnic minorities. According to the country report to the UN committee supervising the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 62 minorities reside in Thailand. Almost all are lower in social standing and academic results than the 20 million Central Thai of the Central Plains, who benefit from a tailored education system via standard textbooks and teacher training institutes.
Of the minorities, the largest is the 14 million Thai Lao of the Northeast, where the Thai literacy level is second lowest. The exception are Chinese, where the community can afford private schools.
Thailand has progressed in teaching minority languages due to the 2008 Basic Education Core Curriculum. Local languages can be taught as part of “local wisdom”. However, official support for these languages is not specified, nor are there central government budgets or policies designed to help them. For example, there are no government-approved textbooks for teaching Thai Lao. The Mahidol Model remains restricted to 20 schools and a few hundred children.
There is, however, a remedy, one sponsored by the Office of the Royal Society of Thailand, responsible for such august works as the Royal Thai Dictionary. Its draft National Language Policy (NLP), which was approved by both the Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra governments, demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of mother tongue literacy and would recognise Thailand’s minority languages.
Unfortunately, the policy faces a complex implementation phase as traditionally language policy has been the purview of the military, which has consistently prioritised teaching the Thai language as an essential component of “Thai-ness’. The Thai language is indeed a unique cultural inheritance, and it serves as a level playing field when competing for higher education or employment.
However, there is a widespread belief among the military and national security personnel that strengthening the locals’ mother tongues can reduce “Thai-ness” and undermine national security, leading to secessionism. They maintain that Thailand can have only one official language. But, the state cannot argue that rural voters are politically naive when it does not provide the means to improve literacy.
Because of the sensitivity, the National Language Policy will not pass without endorsement from the military. Compromise is required. It might be possible to specify “regional”, “local’ or “school” languages, thereby avoiding the “official” language problem and ultimately acknowledging a position of plurality. The improvement in literacy rates would help remedy the quality of education, and it would enhance Thailand’s human rights profile, especially children’s rights and rights to culture.
Thailand already presents itself as a multicultural country to promote tourism. Formally incorporating the mother tongue in schooling will show the military to be a rational and canny actor. This is not an impossible outcome: it has already passed inheritance and land and property taxes, proving “Team Thailand” can overcome vested interests. The sustainable economic, cultural, and perhaps even political development is worth the risks associated with a giant leap towards enriched literacy.