Good News for Mon Children in Thailand

Mon school children living near the western border of Thailand have not traditionally been happy students. In the past, most Mon children spent their school days trying to understand the teacher who was speaking in a language they did not understand well or speak.

The good news is that for at least some Mon children, that is no longer the case.

Mon language classroomFive years ago, the Foundation of Applied Linguistics (FAL), working with local schools and communities and with the Thai government’s Office of Basic Education Commission, began a Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB MLE) pilot program in the Mon community. The program is located in just one school but it is a large school with 254 children in nine kindergarten classes and 337 students in nine classes from Grades 1 to 3.

The first cohort of children who are now in Grade 3 are fluent readers and creative writers in their own Mon language and also in Thai, the national language. After using only Mon for learning in the early grades, the Grade 3 students are now able to understand when their teachers use Thai, along with Mon, for teaching other subjects.

Mon language studentsThe confidence and joy of learning exhibited by the Mon students can be seen in other non-dominant language communities when children are able to use the language they understand best as the foundation for learning in school. Rather than confusion and silence, students are eager to ask and answer questions and to work together in solving problems and thinking creatively. Equally important to parents and education officials is that children in strong MTB MLE programs achieve an impressive level of oral and written fluency in the official school language that will enable them to continue learning when they move into higher grades.

child's journal in Mon languageNot surprisingly, significant challenges remain for the Mon program. For example, a new government policy encourages certified teachers to move to schools close to their hometowns. As in many non-dominant language communities who until recently have been denied the use of their home language in school, there are few certified teachers who speak Mon as their mother tongue. Hopefully, as these children progress through secondary school, they will become teachers and return to their own communities so other children can have the same successful school experiences that they did. In the meantime, FAL is training bilingual community members as Teacher Assistants (TAs) to fill this gap in the MTB MLE classrooms.

Funding for the Mon project is another challenge that is shared by MTB MLE projects in non-dominant language communities around the world. Currently, some funds for the Mon program come from the local school and district budgets and from the Office of Basic Education Commission (OBEC), FAL, SIL International, UNICEF and the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation (PCF). Knowing that their program cannot count on outside funding over the long term, program leaders hope that the Royal Thai Government’s Ministry of Education will take on that responsibility and sustain the benefits of MTB MLE for the Mon and other children from non-dominant language communities in Thailand.

Another challenge is the lack of awareness of the purposes and benefits of MTB MLE. To overcome that challenge, FAL and OBEC organized a national-level advocacy conference. Among the participants were representatives from national newspapers and TV stations and a TV journalist/documentary film producer. Following the conference, articles about MTB MLE and Thailand’s non-dominant language communities appeared in three national newspapers and a 30 minute video was shown on national TV. Organizers hope to repeat similar awareness-raising efforts every year.