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Patani-Malay teaching initiative brings hope to children of deep South
Despite the escalating violence in the country's deep South, the directors of four schools in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are hopeful that the next academic year will bring higher enrolment in their kindergartens, thanks to the introduction of some major changes in educational practice into their classrooms.
"Using Patani-Malay as the language of instruction from kindergarten to grade 1 will spare little children from the confusion and fear of having to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue - central Thai," said Apisith Laeha, director of Narathiwat's Thairath Wittaya School 10, his alma mater, during a recent working session on the idea at the Mahidol Salaya Campus in Nakhon Pathom.

The director has 33 years of experience behind him and was administering Narathiwat's Ban Hua Kao School until three years ago, when it became one of the 130 schools burnt down in the region since 2004. He did not hesitate to seize the opportunity to be part the project called "Mother tongue-based bilingual education programme for Patani-Malay speaking children in Thailand's deep South", initiated by Mahidol University's Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development.

"The change should have been done long ago," the director said, citing the unnecessary hardship that Patani-Malay-speaking children have to face right from the start of their schooling.

While "Pattani" is the standard name for the Thai province, "Patani" has historically referred to a larger area straddling southern Thailand and Malaysia, most of whose inhabitants are ethnic-Malay Muslims.

As educators have observed, many children simply refuse to go to school, particularly if speaking their mother tongue at school is punished or derided. Only the fittest few manage to succeed while the rest struggle, resulting in the region producing the lowest scores in national examinations.

The change in the language of instruction is only part of a project aimed at promoting more equitable educational opportunities for Patani-Malay-speaking children by facilitating their entry into mainstream Thai education and ultimately ending their chronic underachievement. The project has a comprehensive syllabus for kindergarten and elementary education that complies with the 30-per-cent limit on local curriculum allowed by the Education Act.

New teaching materials for oral and written Patani-Malay have been carefully developed by a group of native speakers, including local teachers and educators of various fields.

Teachers of Patani-Malay have also been given detailed training, from planning lessons to teaching and managing bilingual classrooms. The popular Total Physical Response method (TPR), in which students initially remain mute while the teachers use the language being taught to order them to make physical actions, is being introduced along with other new techniques in child-centred education.

A trilingual, 5,000-word dictionary of Patani-Malay, Thai and Malay using the Thai-based notation is ready to be put into trial use.

All these preparations have been carefully carried out by a team of Patani-Malay-speaking academics and teachers under the close technical supervision of the Mahidol's Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development. Bilingual and multilingual education experts Dr Dennis and Susan Malone were brought in from SIL International as advisers.

Indeed the institute put into the project all the expertise gained from its many projects to preserve minority languages in the country. Among its ongoing projects that have had astonishing success in revitalising the language and improving children's school performance are the Chong language project in Chanthaburi, the Nya Kur project in Chaiyaphum and the So-Thawung project in Sakhon Nakhon.

Without their own scripts, these languages have been coded using Thai script designed to represent their sound units or phonemes.

"The notation of minority oral languages is not new, the missionaries pioneered it for several decades ago. While they use the Roman script, I experiment with the Thai script," explained Dr Suwilai Premsirat, the main force behind the innovative practice.

Her language experiments and action-based research won her recognition as a distinguished inventive researcher in philosophy from the National Research Council of Thailand this year.

However, while Suwilai's Thai notation of minority languages has been a boon so far, the same attempt with the Patani-Malay language has stirred up controversy among Thai-Muslim teachers and intellectuals in different sectors.

Opponents attack the attempt as damaging to the Arabic-based Yawi script, which could be improved to write Patani-Malay. They question the need to use the foreign Thai script, which would risk wiping out the teaching and writing of the Yawi script altogether.

Supporters of the idea say the Yawi script is currently inadequate to write the Patani-Malay. While the Yawi-based notation is being improved, they prefer to go ahead with the fully developed Thai-based notation. They say that Yawi script will continue to be taught wherever it used to be taught, such as in religious schools, and the Thai-based notation will only be used in secular schools. Yawi will continue to be used and their bilingual programme will consider incorporating the Yawi script at a later stage anyway.

While embracing the project at his school, Pansa Wongbulan, director of Ban Rawaeng School in Pattani, warned that the well-intentioned attempt must be explained clearly to parents.

"What if parents think this is to sabotage to their children, who need to learn Thai in secular schools, but these schools are now switching to teaching them in the Patani-Malay?" he asked.

Many raised concerns about informing not only the local community but, more importantly, outsiders.

"Without effective public relations, uninformed governors or district officers might see the new educational practice as a sign of rebellion for the 'independence' of the Patani state. Then we will have a real risk," said teacher Napee Sue Mae.

Je Hu Sen Je-U Bong, a member of the Pattani Islamic Committee, said briefing key figures in various ministries was a must.

Meanwhile, the fact that the project must be carried out by the local people themselves and has been met with enthusiastic cooperation so far makes Suwilai more determined to help chart a new course for education in the country's deep South.

Sukanya Hantrakul

Special to the Nation

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