GSE News

Language and Identity

March 8, 2010 - What a Thai kindergarten tells us about teaching in multilingual settings

In the Pong Noi village school in Northern Thailand, kindergartners are settling down for their morning activities. The students belong to the ethnic minority Muang, and their first language is Kam Muang, not Standard Thai.

Their teacher, Mrs. Aaphorn, is correcting a slip-up — in addressing her, her students failed to use Thai, the official language of instruction.

Thai kindergartenersAs a researcher in Pong Noi, Kathryn Howard was interested in understanding how minority students "learn to be Thai in school." How did the local school socialize its Muang pupils? Specifically, how did they learn the habits of respect so critical to Thai cultural identity and so deeply embedded in Standard Thai usage?

Howard’s immediate focus on the Muang community speaks to larger questions of language socialization — not simply how Muang children learn to be Thai, but how language policy plays out on the ground level.

In a multi-ethnic society like Thailand, "learning to be Thai" proves challenging, and so the government historically relied on schools — and a Thai-only language policy — to help create national unity.

More and more, societies have to cope with multilingual populations, most pressingly in schools. What language, or languages, should teachers teach in? How do we respond to the presence of students from Korea, Mexico, Hungary, and Pennsylvania — all in one classroom? Can we even succeed in excluding "unofficial" languages from instruction? What are we teaching children when we teach only in one language? What do they learn?

Back in Pong Noi, Howard wanted to understand the links between language and models of proper Thai conduct. What she found was that while classroom activities and texts taught the ideal — how to speak politely and bow to teachers and parents — not every classroom exchange followed the prescribed pattern.

Rather, what happens in the give-and-take of the classroom is far more nuanced. National language policy aside, actual instruction isn’t a purist affair. Instead, Howard observed that, throughout the day, the teacher and her students engaged in multilingual exchanges, with the vernacular and the official languages jostling up against one another. In fact, she found that the students, although they knew the forms of polite address, used them only about ten percent of the time in addressing Mrs. Aaphorn.

"From the perspective of the kindergarten student," Howard explains, "the day is filled with vernacular spaces and punctuated by ceremonial deferential pledges." In engaging in these momentary rituals, children clearly acknowledge the ethos of respect and the common Thai national identity. But, for the rest of their day, they play, stretch, fight, hug, eat, drink — and speak in the vernacular.

In Thailand — as in many countries — policymakers call on language to create a unified national identity, and the privileged position given to "official languages" enforces the primacy of the national over the local.

Reporting back from the field, Howard tells us that the view from the margins is a bit more complex, with local forms thriving in "official" classrooms.