Friday, March 27, 2009

BRIDGE to better learning

Southeast Asian educators discuss language of instruction in schools
Published: 24/03/2009 at 12:00 AM
Bangkok Post

The popular wooden bridge of the Mon community in Sangkhla Buri, Kanchanaburi province, stands as a symbol of the Mon peoples' aspiration to traverse the way to a better life and at the same time preserve their birthright.

Mon students enjoy their walk to school. PHOTOS COURTESY OF SEAMEO

Considered the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, the Mon Bridge, or Saphan Uttamanuson, is an enduring pathway that provides ease for Mon villagers to travel back and forth between the two ends of the Khao Laem lake as they go about their daily lives.

The same bridge serves about 1,200 Mon children who cross it every day to reach the Wat Wang Wiwekaram School, the only government institution of learning in the village.

Just like many other ethnic and linguistic minority people in Southeast Asia, the Mon often face barriers to quality basic education.

Oftentimes, Mon children have difficulty in schools because the language of instruction is different from what they speak at home.

In an attempt to facilitate teaching and learning among the Mon children, the school introduced the Mon-Thai Bilingual Programme, where the Mon language is used as the language of instruction when teaching younger children.

The approach allows teachers to use the native language of the children to introduce general learning and use it to bridge to the Thai language.

Only a year old, the learning innovation has made a big difference in the performances and attitudes of the children.

Their parents speak of the abundant benefits from the new manner of teaching introduced to their little ones.

Use of mother tongue

Persuaded by the nobility of the initiative, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (Seameo) Secretariat, which is based in Bangkok, visited the site and captured visual documentation of the school and its community.

The story found its way through the Seameo meeting of senior education officials from the Southeast Asian countries that was held from Feb 24 to 26 in Bangkok. Presented in cooperation with Thailand's Ministry of Education and the Foundation for Applied Linguistics, the implementation strategy and immediate outcomes of the Mon-Thai Bilingual Programme inspired educators from other Southeast Asian countries to adopt and adapt its basic principles to their own academic programmes.

The Mon Bridge or ‘Saphan Uttamanuson’.

Confronted with unique and diverse linguistic situations, Southeast Asian countries speak of the same need to provide access to quality basic education for all, including minority groups and the linguistically disadvantaged.

Country representatives shared good and functioning examples of using the first language or the mother tongue of the learner to connect to the learning of a second or national language. The examples reveal that a strong foundation in the first language and a good bridge to the second language builds successful, lifelong learners in both languages. At the same time, this preserves the people's culture and the language itself.


The meeting identified exemplars and assessed their usability. Among the many good practices shared at the meeting was the use of both Thai and Pattani Malay in teaching and learning in the southern provinces of Thailand, including Songkhla, Pattani, Narathiwat and Satun provinces.

Other good examples included the use of lingua franca, or the commonly spoken language in a region, such as in the Philippines, or the bilingual literacy programme for the Khmou minority in Laos, or the use of the Sudanese language in Indonesian classrooms.

The countries expressed enthusiasm to work further with Seameo in pursuing collaborative projects to implement the good practices shared at the meeting.

Organised by the Seameo Secretariat and with support from the World Bank, the meeting aimed at providing the opportunity to explore how Southeast Asian countries, through appropriate language policies, can achieve Education for All (EFA) by widening access, reducing repetition of grade levels and dropout rates, and improving learning outcomes.

Those who attended the meeting include senior education officials and representatives from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.

Representatives from several international non-government organisations (NGOs) provided a wider dimension in the discussions at the meeting. The NGOs comprised Care Cambodia, International Cooperation Cambodia, Mahidol University, Save the Children, Unesco Bangkok, Unesco Hanoi, Unicef, the World Bank, Summer Institute of Linguistics (known as SIL) International, Seameo Regional Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology, Seameo Regional Language Centre, and Seameo Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts.

"This is the very essence of this gathering. We have to showcase good and functioning examples of using the native language of the child at the beginning of schooling to usher him [or her] slowly to learn in a new language. This approach will greatly improve learning," explained Seameo Secretariat director Dr Ahamad bin Sipon.

Just like the expressions of satisfaction from the meeting's participants regarding their newly found knowledge, the voices of the Mon children echo through the village, giving voice to the joy of learning in school. And besides their old but unfailing wooden bridge, the Mon people have found a new bridge that will lead them to wider horizons.

The use of their very own Mon language in school will surely connect the young children to a greater world of learning through the Thai language. It will not only improve the learning outcomes of the Mon children, but will also help to keep the Mon legacy alive.

Abigail Cuales Lanceta is a programme officer in charge of information at the Seameo Secretariat in Bangkok. She has been a teacher and an education programme specialist working on various education development projects in the Philippines' Department of Education. Contact her at .

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