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Intenational Herald Tribune on linguistics

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    Globalization: Saving Thailand s other languages By Lim Li Min International Herald Tribune Published: October 23, 2006
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 23, 2006
      Globalization: Saving Thailand's other languages

      By Lim Li Min International Herald Tribune

      Published: October 23, 2006

      http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/10/23/features/lang.php





      BANGKOK GLOBALIZATION



      Taek-taek took-took: Feeling embarrassed but not showing it on your
      face. Kathaeng: A brook that's swollen in the monsoon season, but which
      dries up when the rains stop. Kathai: A bamboo basket used to hold
      offerings for ancestral spirits.



      These words form part of the unusual lexicon of the Chong, a small
      ethnic minority group in southeastern Thailand. Traditionally
      hunter-gatherers, the tribe has turned to cultivating fruit as newly
      built roads have made the towns more approachable. But as they bump up
      against the forces of modernity and the dominant, unifying Thai culture,
      their language may face a slow death. Should that happen, the Chong's
      unique world view, local wisdom and rich culture would also get buried.



      What the researchers here are doing to stop the Chong language's demise
      could form a template for Thailand's ethnic minority groups to survive
      the inexorable march of globalization.



      In a show of unity, Thais in Bangkok have for months donned yellow T-
      shirts as a sign of respect to their revered king. On Sept. 19 the
      symbol became a mark of solidarity with a coup that overthrew their
      democratically elected government, as they posed for photos next to
      tanks parked in front of Government House in Bangkok. But the issues of
      ethnic identity and deep societal divisions were never far from the
      surface, as an intractable Muslim insurgency rumbled on in the south.



      Like many of its Asian neighbors, Thailand is home to a colorful
      patchwork of ethno-linguistic groups, making up some 14 percent of its
      64 million people. But some are in an especially bad way: 14 of the
      country's 70 or so languages are "imminently endangered" and could die
      out in the next 50 to 100 years, say linguists.



      "People might say that this is a natural process, but it is not," said
      Suwilai Premsrirat, director of the Institute of Language and Culture
      for Rural Development at Mahidol University in Bangkok. "Globalization
      makes these things happen very fast. Like the loss of biodiversity, the
      loss of language is happening at an alarming rate."



      In Thailand, one of the reasons for this linguistic deterioration is the
      government's unofficial policy of promoting standard Thai - the medium
      of instruction in all schools.



      For Thailand's 14 endangered languages, the chances of survival are
      dependent on a number of factors. For example, the Kasong and Samre,
      with only 10 elderly speakers each, are thought to be beyond redemption.
      For other groups, geographical location plays a crucial role. In central
      Thailand, the Mons, surrounded by Thai speakers, are thought to be
      imminently at risk, although other Mons residing near the remote
      Thai-Burmese border are not.



      For the Chong, living cheek-by-jowl with their Thai neighbors in
      Chanthaburi, a small town near the Cambodian border, keeping their
      language alive was always going to be tricky. Part of the Mon-Khmer
      language group, Chong is marked by its unusual glottal stops and has a
      grammar structure vastly different from Thai. Fifty years ago, the tribe
      realized that its language was in jeopardy when its young refused to
      speak Chong after school hours.



      Like some of Thailand's minority languages, Chong had no written script.
      But with the help of the villagers in 2000, researchers at Mahidol
      University formulated an orthography based on a simplified version of
      standard Thai characters. Using the newly developed script, members of
      the Chong tribe then wrote instructional materials, trained their
      teachers, and for the first time, were able to record their own history
      and culture for posterity.



      Like a biologist gathering the specimens of an endangered species, the
      linguist Siripen Ungsitipoonporn sits in a bamboo hut taking down Chong
      words from a native speaker. Sarong- clad Chinpanpai, 62, whose bronzed
      skin and wavy hair mark her as belonging to the Chong, is helping
      Siripen compile the first Chong dictionary. She is one of the 3,000 or
      so speakers in their community fluent in Chong, roughly one fifth of the
      tribe.



      Today, Chong is taught three times a week in the tribe's primary
      schools. As a result, many schoolchildren can now speak a smattering of
      their mother tongue. "I was embarrassed to speak it, I felt just like a
      dot of ink among others," says Chen Phanpai, a former village head, when
      asked about the success of the language revitalization program. "But now
      I feel unique because nobody else speaks Chong."



      Sheldon Shaeffer, director of Unesco's Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau
      for Education, says that "Learning their mother tongue makes minorities
      more confident in themselves, and more approving of government
      initiatives."



      Thailand's Ministry of Education has begun to listen. In Omkoi, a poor
      district of Chiang Mai, bilingual education is taught in community
      learning centers to the Pwo Karen tribe. This is a pilot project started
      three years ago by the Ministry of Education and Unesco. In the
      country's restive south, the hotbed of a Malay-Muslim insurgency that
      has killed more than 1,700 people since 2004, Mahidol University and the
      Thailand Research Fund are working with local communities to develop a
      Jawi script for Pattani-Malay speakers.



      The new government under Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has talked
      about prioritizing reconciliation in the south. This might lead to a new
      political landscape, which in the long run, could affect the language
      and cultural policies of the central government.





      BANGKOK GLOBALIZATION



      Taek-taek took-took: Feeling embarrassed but not showing it on your
      face. Kathaeng: A brook that's swollen in the monsoon season, but which
      dries up when the rains stop. Kathai: A bamboo basket used to hold
      offerings for ancestral spirits.



      These words form part of the unusual lexicon of the Chong, a small
      ethnic minority group in southeastern Thailand. Traditionally
      hunter-gatherers, the tribe has turned to cultivating fruit as newly
      built roads have made the towns more approachable. But as they bump up
      against the forces of modernity and the dominant, unifying Thai culture,
      their language may face a slow death. Should that happen, the Chong's
      unique world view, local wisdom and rich culture would also get buried.



      What the researchers here are doing to stop the Chong language's demise
      could form a template for Thailand's ethnic minority groups to survive
      the inexorable march of globalization.



      In a show of unity, Thais in Bangkok have for months donned yellow T-
      shirts as a sign of respect to their revered king. On Sept. 19 the
      symbol became a mark of solidarity with a coup that overthrew their
      democratically elected government, as they posed for photos next to
      tanks parked in front of Government House in Bangkok. But the issues of
      ethnic identity and deep societal divisions were never far from the
      surface, as an intractable Muslim insurgency rumbled on in the south.



      Like many of its Asian neighbors, Thailand is home to a colorful
      patchwork of ethno-linguistic groups, making up some 14 percent of its
      64 million people. But some are in an especially bad way: 14 of the
      country's 70 or so languages are "imminently endangered" and could die
      out in the next 50 to 100 years, say linguists.



      "People might say that this is a natural process, but it is not," said
      Suwilai Premsrirat, director of the Institute of Language and Culture
      for Rural Development at Mahidol University in Bangkok. "Globalization
      makes these things happen very fast. Like the loss of biodiversity, the
      loss of language is happening at an alarming rate."



      In Thailand, one of the reasons for this linguistic deterioration is the
      government's unofficial policy of promoting standard Thai - the medium
      of instruction in all schools.



      For Thailand's 14 endangered languages, the chances of survival are
      dependent on a number of factors. For example, the Kasong and Samre,
      with only 10 elderly speakers each, are thought to be beyond redemption.
      For other groups, geographical location plays a crucial role. In central
      Thailand, the Mons, surrounded by Thai speakers, are thought to be
      imminently at risk, although other Mons residing near the remote
      Thai-Burmese border are not.



      For the Chong, living cheek-by-jowl with their Thai neighbors in
      Chanthaburi, a small town near the Cambodian border, keeping their
      language alive was always going to be tricky. Part of the Mon-Khmer
      language group, Chong is marked by its unusual glottal stops and has a
      grammar structure vastly different from Thai. Fifty years ago, the tribe
      realized that its language was in jeopardy when its young refused to
      speak Chong after school hours.



      Like some of Thailand's minority languages, Chong had no written script.
      But with the help of the villagers in 2000, researchers at Mahidol
      University formulated an orthography based on a simplified version of
      standard Thai characters. Using the newly developed script, members of
      the Chong tribe then wrote instructional materials, trained their
      teachers, and for the first time, were able to record their own history
      and culture for posterity.



      Like a biologist gathering the specimens of an endangered species, the
      linguist Siripen Ungsitipoonporn sits in a bamboo hut taking down Chong
      words from a native speaker. Sarong- clad Chinpanpai, 62, whose bronzed
      skin and wavy hair mark her as belonging to the Chong, is helping
      Siripen compile the first Chong dictionary. She is one of the 3,000 or
      so speakers in their community fluent in Chong, roughly one fifth of the
      tribe.



      Today, Chong is taught three times a week in the tribe's primary
      schools. As a result, many schoolchildren can now speak a smattering of
      their mother tongue. "I was embarrassed to speak it, I felt just like a
      dot of ink among others," says Chen Phanpai, a former village head, when
      asked about the success of the language revitalization program. "But now
      I feel unique because nobody else speaks Chong."



      Sheldon Shaeffer, director of Unesco's Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau
      for Education, says that "Learning their mother tongue makes minorities
      more confident in themselves, and more approving of government
      initiatives."



      Thailand's Ministry of Education has begun to listen. In Omkoi, a poor
      district of Chiang Mai, bilingual education is taught in community
      learning centers to the Pwo Karen tribe. This is a pilot project started
      three years ago by the Ministry of Education and Unesco. In the
      country's restive south, the hotbed of a Malay-Muslim insurgency that
      has killed more than 1,700 people since 2004, Mahidol University and the
      Thailand Research Fund are working with local communities to develop a
      Jawi script for Pattani-Malay speakers.



      The new government under Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has talked
      about prioritizing reconciliation in the south. This might lead to a new
      political landscape, which in the long run, could affect the language
      and cultural policies of the central government.









      Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA

      CCC Metro TLC



      216-987-3584

      FAX:707-924-2471





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