Education in Thailand’s Ethnic Languages: Reflections on a Decade of Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education Policy and Practice

  • Suwilai PremsriratEmail author
  • Kirk R. Person
Part of the Education in the Asia-Pacific Region: Issues, Concerns and Prospects book series (EDAP, volume 42)


Thailand is home to some 70 diverse ethnic groups, each of which has its own unique language. Statistics reveal that many children from these communities living in remote northern, southern, and northeastern border regions have limited success in “normal” government schools, due in part to low Thai language abilities. This chapter chronicles efforts by academics, nongovernmental organizations, and language communities to integrate diverse ethnic languages into local schools via mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB MLE). Eight years of student testing demonstrates that children in these MTB MLE pilot schools outperform their peers in “normal” Thai-only schools in all subjects – including the Thai language. The positive results of these programs deeply influenced the Royal Society of Thailand’s new national language policy, which states that all Thai children have the right to education in their mother tongue.


Ethnic Language Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education National Language Policy (NLP) Thai Language Office Of The Basic Education Commission (OBEC) 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Abhisit Vejjajiva. 2010. Opening speech by H.E. Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand at the international conference on Language, education, and the millennium development goals, November 9. Twin Towers Hotel, Bangkok.Google Scholar
  2. Bangkok Post. 2010a. Bilingual education pays off for border students, 11 July 11.Google Scholar
  3. ———. 2010b. Teaching in the mother tongue, October 3.Google Scholar
  4. ———. 2015a. Violence in South down ahead of peace talks.
  5. ———. 2015b. Narong orders Thai language skills probe.
  6. Busaba Prapasapong. 2009. Language policy and development of education management in public schools in Thailand. In Mother tongue as bridge language of instruction: Policies and experiences in Southeast Asia, ed. Kimmo Kosonen and Catherine Young, 102–108. Bangkok: Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO).Google Scholar
  7. Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, B.E. 2540 (1997). 1997. Bangkok: Office of the Council of State.Google Scholar
  8. Cummins, Jim. 1980. Psychological assessment of immigrant children: Logic or intuition? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 1: 97–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. ———. 1981. Age on arrival and immigrant second language learning in Canada: A reassessment. Applied Linguistics 2 (2): 132–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. ———. 1986. Minority students and learning difficulties: Issues in assessment and placement. In Bilingualism in education, ed. Jim Cummins and Merrill Swain, 183–204. London/New York: Longman.Google Scholar
  11. Delang, Claudio O. 2003. Living at the edge of Thai society: The Karen in the highlands of Northern Thailand. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Diller, Anthony. 2002. What makes Central Thai a national language? In National identity and its defenders: Thailand today, ed. Craig J. Reynolds, 71–107. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.Google Scholar
  13. Dowding, Laura. 2015. Pathways to a better future: A review of education for migrant children in Thailand. Bangkok: Save the Children and World Education.Google Scholar
  14. Draper, John. 2015. Towards a curriculum for the Thai Lao of Northeast Thailand? Current Issues in Language Planning. Scholar
  15. Draper, John, and Peerasit Kamnuansilpa. 2015. 200,000 migrant kids deserve a chance. Bangkok Post, April 23.
  16. Ferguson, Jane M. 2014. Thailand in Figures of Southeast Asia modernity, ed. Joshua Barker, Erik Harms, and Johan Lindquist, 107–110. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.Google Scholar
  17. Foundation for Applied Linguistics (FAL). 2015. 2014 Annual report to the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation: Supporting mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) pilot projects in ethnic communities. Chiang Mai: FAL.Google Scholar
  18. Gainey, Jerry W., and Theraphan L. Thongkum. 1977a. Language map of Thailand. Bangkok: Indigenous Languages of Thailand Research Project, Central Institute of English Language: Office of State Universities.Google Scholar
  19. ———. 1977b. Language map of Thailand handbook. Bangkok: Indigenous Languages of Thailand Research Project, Central Institute of English Language: Office of State Universities.Google Scholar
  20. Gilquin, Michel. 2002. Les musulmans de Thaïlande. Paris/Bangkok: L’Harmattan/Institut de Recherche sur l’Asie du Sud Est Contemporaine (IRASEC).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Human Rights Watch. 2010. Targets of both sides: Violence against students, teachers, and schools in Thailand’s southern border provinces. New York: Human Rights Watch. Scholar
  22. Jolliffe, Pia. 2016. Learning, migration and intergenerational relations: The Karen and the gift of education. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Scholar
  23. Kadir, Mohammad Abdullah. 1989. Thoughts on developing a language plan for Thailand in the future. In Linguistics and worldview: Papers from the Academic seminar on linguistics and world view held at Thammasat University, Bangkok, February 17–19, 1986, in Honor of Professor Kenneth L. Pike, ed. Potchanat Samermitt and David Thomas, 38–43. Bangkok: Thammasat University and Summer Institute of Linguistics Language Research and Development Project.Google Scholar
  24. Khaosod English. 2013. 32,000 sixth graders are illiterate.
  25. Kosonen, Kimmo, and Kirk R. Person. 2014. In Languages, identities and education in Thailand. Languages, identities and education in Southeast Asia, ed. Peter Sercombe and Ruanni Tupas, 200–231. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  26. Kwanchewan Buadaeng. 2006. The rise and fall of the Tribal Research Institute (TRI): “Hill Tribe” policy and studies in Thailand. Southeast Asian Studies 44 (3): 359–384.Google Scholar
  27. Lewis, M. Paul. 2015. Ethnologue: Languages of the world. 16th ed. Dallas: SIL International. Scholar
  28. Macan-Markar, Marween. 2012. Thailand: Malay-Muslim insurgency – Lessons learnt. Inter Press Service News Agency. January 17.
  29. Matichon. 2015. Sang tobtuan kansonbaep tawiphasa tham dek khaochai phasa Thai cha [Review of bilingual teaching ordered: Causes children to understand Thai language slowly]. March 5.
  30. Ministry of Culture. 2010. Recovering the Karen livelihood in Thailand – A cabinet resolution of the Royal Thai Government.
  31. Ministry of Education. 1982. Hill areas education project. Bangkok: Ministry of Education and USAID.Google Scholar
  32. Office of the National Education Commission. 2003. National Education Act of B.E.2542 (1999) and amendments (Second National Education Act B.E. 2545 (2002). Bangkok: Office of the National Education Commission, Office of the Prime Minister.Google Scholar
  33. Patani (region). 2014. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
  34. Person, Kirk R. 2009. Heritage scripts, technical transcriptions, and practical orthographies: A middle path towards educational excellence and cultural preservation for Thailand’s ethnic minority languages. In Proceedings from the international conference on national language policy: Language diversity for national unity. Bangkok: Royal Institute of Thailand.Google Scholar
  35. ———. 2010. Language policy in Thailand: Historical background and current work of the Royal Institute. In Proceedings from the international scademic conference on language policy in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the National Institute of the Korean language, 151–172. Seoul: National Institute of the Korean Language.Google Scholar
  36. Person, Kirk R., and Udom Warotamasikkhadit. 2011. Development of the National Language Policy (2006–2010). The Journal of the Royal Institute of Thailand 3: 29–44. Scholar
  37. Person, Kirk R., and Wisanee Siltragool. 2007. Thailand: Bilingual education among the Pwo Karen of Omkoi. In Mother tongue-based literacy programmes: Case studies of good practice in Asia. Bangkok: UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education. Scholar
  38. Person, Kirk. 2018. Bridge to a brighter tomorrow: The Patani Malay-Thai multilingual education programme. Bangkok: UNICEF and Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University.Google Scholar
  39. Phuthaphon Mongkhlawan. 2009. Kho tet ching bang prakan kiao kap ‘kho riak rong 7 prakan khong Haji Sulong’ [The truth regarding the ‘7 requests of Haji Sulong’] Warasan Rusmilae 30, 3 (September–December): 15–27.Google Scholar
  40. Prasit Leepreecha. 2015. Summary remarks. Conference on mother tongue: A gateway to successful education for ethno-linguistic minority people and Chiang Mai Provincial educational reform towards national educational reform. Videotape archived by the Foundation for Applied Linguistics: Chiang Mai, February 21.Google Scholar
  41. RILCA (Research Institute of Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University). 2015. Interim narrative report to the delegation of the European Union in Thailand: Institutionalizing mother tongue based multilingual education (MTB MLE) in Thailand’s deep south (1 January–31 December 2014). Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  42. Royal Institute. 2010. Rang nayobai phasa haeng chat [National language policy draft]. Bangkok: Royal Institute of Thailand.Google Scholar
  43. Schliesinger, Joachim. 2001a. Tai groups of Thailand: Volume 1, introduction and overview. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.Google Scholar
  44. ———. 2001b. Tai groups of Thailand: Volume 2, profile of the existing groups. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.Google Scholar
  45. SEAMEO. 2009, February 24–26. Project on mother tongue as bridge language of instruction in Southeast Asian countries: policy, strategies and advocacy. In Proceedings of the regional meeting on the dissemination of project results and identification of good functioning models. Bangkok: Southeast Asian ministers of education organization (SEAMEO).Google Scholar
  46. Smalley, William A. 1976. Phonemes and orthography: Language planning in ten minority languages of Thailand. Canberra: Department of Linguistics/Research School of Pacific Studies/Australian National University.Google Scholar
  47. ———. 1994. Linguistic diversity and national unity: Language ecology in Thailand. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  48. Supalak Sintana, et al. 2010. Report on an assessment of the bilingual teaching and learning administration using Thai and Melayu dialects in schools in the four southern border provinces of Thailand. Institute for Southern Border Area Research and Development, Yala Rajabhat University. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  49. Supang Chantavanich, and Tawin Pleansri. 2011. The Lao Hmong in Thailand: State policies and operations (1975–2009). Bangkok: Sriboon Computer.Google Scholar
  50. Suwilai Premsrirat. 2006a. Thailand: Language situation. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics, ed. Keith Brown, vol. 2, 642–644. Amsterdam: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. ———. 2006b. Language development and language revitalization in Thailand: The case of the Chong revitalization program. Salaya: Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, Mahidol University, Thailand.Google Scholar
  52. ———. 2007. Endangered languages of Thailand. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 186: 75–93.Google Scholar
  53. ———. 2014. Redefining “Thainess”: Embracing diversity, preserving unity. In Contemporary socio-cultural and political perspectives in Thailand, ed. Pranee Liamputtong. London: Springer.Google Scholar
  54. ———. 2015. Patani Malay in Thai education. In Education in languages of lesser power: Asia – Pacific perspective, ed. Craig Alan Volker and Fred E. Anderson, 91–110. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  55. ———. Forthcoming. Mahidol model for the preservation of language diversity: Thailand experience. In Indigenous language revitalization: Insights from Thailand, ed. Suwilai Premsrirat and David Hirsh. Bern: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  56. Suwilai Premsrirat, and Uniansasmitah Samoh. 2012. Planning and implementing Patani Malay in bilingual education in Southern Thailand. Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society 5: 67–84.Google Scholar
  57. Suwilai Premsrirat, et al. 2001. Ethnolinguistic maps of Thailand. Bangkok: Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development/Mahidol University.Google Scholar
  58. Tan Hoong Yen. 2011. Using Hmong in pre-primary education in Thailand: An evaluation of the orthography acceptance, teacher training and reported outcomes in a pilot project. Unpublished MA thesis in Linguistics. Payap University, Chiang Mai.Google Scholar
  59. The Nation. 2005. Solutions for strife: Schools in South to teach Yawi, August 6.Google Scholar
  60. ———. 2014. Pattani teacher killed by gas-cylinder bomb, 29 August.
  61. ———. 2015a. Studies into Isaan’s past, culture get boost, 23 February 2015.
  62. ———. 2015b. Prayut to lead “super board” on education system reform, February 28.
  63. UNESCO. 2007. Advocacy kit for promoting multilingual education: Including the excluded. Bangkok: UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, 5 booklets.Google Scholar
  64. UNICEF. 2007. Multiple indicator cluster survey. UNICEF. Accessed 14 Nov 2011.
  65. Walter, Steven. 2011. Analyzing MLE data: A “Stream-of-consciousness” set of heuristics. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  66. Wanna Tienmee. 2009, February 24–26. The Mon-Thai bilingual project, Wat Wang Wiwekaram School, Kanchanaburi Province. A paper presented at SEAMEO’s regional meeting on the dissemination of project results and identification of good functioning models, “Project on Mother Tongue as Bridge Language of Instruction in Southeast Asian Countries: Policy, Strategies and Advocacy.” Bangkok.Google Scholar
  67. ———. 2015. Bilingual is the way. Bangkok Post, Postbag Section.
  68. Womack, William Burgess. 2005. Literate networks and the production of Sgaw and Pwo Karen writing in Burma, c.1830–1930. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of London: School of Oriental and African Studies.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Resource Center for Documentation, Revitalization and Maintenance of Endangered Languages and Cultures, Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia (RILCA)Mahidol UniversitySalayaThailand
  2. 2.SIL InternationalPhayathai, Samsennai, BangkokThailand

Personalised recommendations