KHON KAEN – On Thursday, the European External Action Service of the European Union launched its funding for an Isaan language program, The Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP), at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University (KKU).  The EU pledged nearly half a million euros to a program that codifies Isaan language for its integration into city schools and local signage.

The program will develop an Isaan language curriculum implemented in 17 public schools, record and archive Isaan cultural dance and performance, introduce official city signage in Isaan language, and initiate a weekly ‘Isaan Day’ that encourages government employees to wear traditional Isaan clothing. The mayors of Khon Kaen, Phol, Chumphae, and Ban Phai will collaborate with a coordination team at KKU over four years in the hopes of enhancing the perception of Isaan culture and language.

Khon Kaen’s Governor, Sombat Triwatsuwan, delivered the opening address in which he talked (partly in Isaan language) about the need to preserve Isaan language for future generations and encourage people not to be ashamed of it. “Isaan people are shy to speak their own language,” he said in an interview. “I want them to be aware of its value.”

National media has given Isaan people good reason to shy away from speaking Isaan language in formal settings. According to John Draper, a sociolinguistic researcher at KKU and the Project Officer of the ICMRP, they are popularly cast as “maids, laborers, and servants, and this is made obvious through the way they speak, which is often as comic relief.” In studies which test the national perception of Isaan speakers, “consistently, Isaan people come out sounding uneducated, and naïve, however honest and hardworking as well,” he explained.

Mr. Draper (also an Isaan Record contributor) argues that this program should not only enhance the perception of Isaan speakers by publicly embracing the language, but also help close the performance gap between Isaan and Central Thai students. Research shows that people who achieve literacy in their mother-tongue language at an early age are more likely to achieve better scores in school overall.

Teaching Isaan language and culture in schools, however, is still politically sensitive. Central Thai is Thailand’s only officially recognized language and the government has long fought to keep Thais unified under one language and minority dialects out of the classrooms.

Priya Waeohongsa, Programme Officer of the European Union and an attendee of Thursday’s opening ceremony, argues that it is time for change in Thailand’s centralized education system that was initiated a hundred years ago. “One language [was used] as a medium for control – not only for education’s sake, but to control the people by imposing the central language on the schools [in a time of national integration],” she explained. “At that time it might have been the right thing, but now we found this is not the right approach and we need to revitalize local culture.”

Though some may fear that allowing regional languages in schools could disrupt the long sought after “national unity” of Thailand, programs similar to the ICMRP have revealed quite opposite results. The Asia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization focused on capacity building, has been implementing a similar language program in the Deep South for nearly five decades. “When we did a public perception survey, what the majority of people said very clearly was that they were not on a quest for independence but a quest for common understanding and respect. Our language program puts that into practice,” said Kim McQuay, the organization’s Thailand Representative.

The ICMRP’s Project Officer, Mr. Draper, is confident that this program will maintain the support of government officials like Governor Sombat Triwatsuwan of Khon Kaen by garnering regional interest in mother-tongue education. “Sustainability will come from the top down,” he said. “But the know-how and the knowledge to implement it in a way that people will welcome it will come from this program that was launched today. It will serve as an incubator for larger-scale deployment later.”