Patani Malay – Thai Bilingual / Multilingual Education, Thailand

  • Date published:
    19 August 2016

Programme Overview

Programme Title Patani Malay – Thai Bilingual / Multilingual Education in Thailand’s Deep South (PM-MLE)
Implementing Organization Resource Center for Documentation, Revitalization, and Maintenance of Endangered Languages and Cultures, Research Institute of Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University
Language of Instruction Thai, Patani Malay
Funding Thailand Research Fund
Mahidol University
Southern Border Provinces Administration Center
Thailand Ministry of Education
Programme Partners Thailand Research Fund
Thailand Ministry of Education
SIL International
Yala Rajabhat University
Prince of Songkla University
Local Communities
Local Muslim Religious Leaders
Local Thai Government Agencies
Annual Programme Costs US$ 353,799/Year (2016)
Date of Inception Preliminary research: 2007. Teaching started in 2008

Country Context and Background

Thailand is one of the biggest development success stories in South East Asia. After the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, the country managed to achieve remarkable economic growth and poverty reduction. According to World Bank figures, the poverty rate decreased from a height of 42.6% in 2000 to 13.2% in 2011, and the economic growth was sufficiently strong to lift Thailand from a lower-middle income to an upper-middle income country. Thailand is also likely to reach most of its Millennium Development Goals (World Bank). The educational sector in Thailand benefited from the National Education Act implemented in 1999, which guarantees every person the right to free quality education. The Decentralization Act of 1999 addressed the linguistic and cultural diversity in Thailand, because it established a framework for regional, specific planning of educational policy. Thailand has managed to come close to universal primary education. However, people with a low socio-economic status and people from diverse ethnic communities, especially in the North, Northeast and Deep South, still have limited access to education (UNESCO Bangkok).

The Research Institute of Languages and Cultures of Asia of Mahidol University has pointed out that government policy to promote national unity established a primarily Thai-only educational system, which does not take the needs of ethnic minority children into consideration. For example, children from the Muslim Patani Malay minority in Thailand’s Deep South tend to perform worse than their Thai majority counterparts. One example is the Thai writing test taken by all third graders. In 2008, 42.11% of third graders in the Deep South failed the test compared to 5.8% nationwide.

Around one million Patani Malay people live in Thailand’s Deep South. After years of dormancy, the conflict in Thailand’s South broke out again in 2004. The conflict is fuelled by the fears of the Patani Malay people of becoming assimilated by the Thai majority. This led to resentment and a sense of alienation among the Patani Malay people, resulting in a violent insurgent movement. Since 2004, the World Bank estimates that 5000 people have died in the conflict. Government schools, which are perceived as instruments of Thai assimilationist policies, have become targets. Many have been burned or bombed, and over 150 teachers have been killed. In 2013, the Thai government increased its efforts towards peace and reconciliation by agreeing to peace talks with insurgent representatives. Thai officials are also supporting the Patani Malay – Thai Bilingual/Multilingual Education in Thailand’s Deep South—the literacy programme described in this case study--which incorporates the linguistic and cultural identity of the Patani Malay people into the educational approach. This reduces the resentment of the Patani Malay people against the Thai majority, by showing respect and appreciation for their unique cultural heritage. The PM-MLE project therefore is making key contributions to peace and reconciliation efforts in Thailand’s Deep South, and the multilateral teaching approach also provides Patani Malay children with an education that better suits their individual background (World Bank 2013, Mahidol University).


The Patani Malay – Thai Bilingual/Multilingual Education in Thailand’s Deep South (PMT-MLE) programme is one of 23 minority language revitalization projects conducted by the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia of Mahidol University. The Resource Centre as part of the Institute and local PMT-MLE project staff in the south of Thailand jointly implement the PMT-MLE literacy programme. In addition, the programme is facilitated and guided by three other committees. The Steering Committee is responsible for overseeing the programme and for advocating it on a national level. The task of the Implementation Committee is to assist the facilitators with the implementation of the programme at the local level, and the Patani Malay Language Committee helps with questions regarding Patani Malay word usage and grammar.

The PMT-MLE project was initiated by the Mahidol University in 2008, with authorization from the Thai Ministry of Education and local Southern education authorities. The programme wants to provide children, families and communities of the Patani Malay minority with a quality multilingual education in both Thai and Patani Malay. By taking the unique cultural and linguistic identity of the Patani Malay into consideration, the programme providers aim to support peace and reconciliation efforts in the south by reducing Patani Malay people’s fears of being assimilated by the Thai majority through a Thai-only educational system. Since its inception, the programme has reached around 1200 students by taking place in 4 Thai government schools. The participating children and families are from the communities in which the schools are located. In 2012, the number of schools was expanded to 16, and an additional 50 schools have asked to join the programme.


Aims and Objectives

  • The school performance of Patani Malay speaking children will be raised, enabling them to pass the National Test (given in primary grades 3 and 6), improve their job prospects, and enhance their overall quality of life.
  • Other schools are expected to adopt the curriculum and methods of the PM-MLE project due to the benefits of mother tongue based multilingual education.
  • The unique Patani Malay language and cultural heritage will be preserved.
  • The empowerment of Patani Malay communities through the fostering of self-esteem and promotion of positive attitudes towards education.
  • To benefit the peace and reconciliation process in the South as the government school system honors the local language and culture.
  • To develop models and best practices that can be adapted for other minority language groups in Thailand and other Asian countries.

Programme Implementation

Teaching – Learning Approaches and Methodologies

The teaching methodology of the PMT-MLE project follows a child-centered approach that recognizes the specific cultural and linguistic background of Patani Malay children and takes their experiences and knowledge into consideration when setting up the teaching-learning content.

Another feature of the PM-MLE literacy programme is an emphasis on interpreting the meaning of concepts and developing the critical thinking skills of students (aspects often given little attention in the rote learning based Thai education system).There is also a strong emphasis on bridging from one skill to another, and one language to another.

The teaching of several languages, including Patani Malay, Thai, Standard Malay and English, is one of the central innovative features of the PMT-MLE project. Both Thai and Patani Malay are used as languages of instruction. In Kindergarten and primary grade 1, the language of instruction is Patani Malay, while some basic Thai is also taught as a subject. For primary grades 2 to 6, Thai and Patani Malay are both used as languages of instruction, albeit for different purposes and at different times in a lessons. Teachers introduce new concepts and Thai academic terms in Patani Malay, after which Thai is the used to extend concepts and to complete textbook assignments. Afterwards, Patani Malay is used to review and check for comprehension of concepts. In the early grades, the children learn Patani Malay reading and writing using a subset of the Thai based script. This familiarizes children with the larger Thai alphabet, thus making the eventual learning of Thai easier for students. Once students have acquired strong literacy skills in Patani Malay and Thai, they learn the historic Arabic-based Jawi script used for Central Malay in the 3rd year of primary school (although they will have had some exposure to the Jawi script in their Islamic Studies classes, starting in grade 1). In addition, students in upper primary grades start to learn English and basic Standard Malay, as spoken in neighboring Malaysia. For both English and Standard Malay, the students develop listening and speaking skills before they are introduced to the Roman-based English and Standard Malay alphabets. This approach is in contrast to most Thai schools, where heavy emphasis is giving to reading and writing English even though the students have no listening or speaking skills in this language.


The general language teaching is separated into two tracks. The Meaning Track focuses on understanding, processing and articulating ideas and concepts in a student-centered, creative, confidence building way. The Accuracy Track deals with pronunciation, word and sentence formation, spelling and other specific skills.

Besides language development, other learning activities include academic development and socio-cultural development. Academic development refers to the teaching of content according to the standards of the Thai Ministry of Education, while also taking pre-existing knowledge and experience of students into consideration. Socio-cultural development is also part of the teaching methodology, which means that the learning activities and materials reflect the values and goals of the local students’ communities. Additionally, students receive an education in values and respect for other languages, cultures and religion, so that they can develop both their local identity and a national identity as citizens of Thailand. Students who complete the program receive the same grade 6 diploma as students in mainstream schools.

Programme curriculum

The needs of learners are determined by taking the expectations of the Ministry of Education and the cultural, linguistic and religious values of the local community into account. The decision on the content of the curriculum requires extensive cooperation between community members, teachers, education administrators and project staff. Several workshops done in cooperation with community members ensure that the curriculum has the support of the local population. In Thailand, this is an innovative approach to deciding on a teaching curriculum since the curriculum for other schools is usually very centralized, set by the Ministry of Education without input from local communities. The collaboration between Thai Buddhist researchers and educational specialists and Patani Malay Muslim villagers is innovative in Thailand, given the country’s strong social hierarchy and the cultural/religious divide in the Deep South.

The main topics covered are language learning and literacy, mathematics, cultural knowledge, science, social science, health, arts and other subjects. The courses take place during the two-semester academic year that is used in all Thai government schools. Children participate in the programme for a total of 8 years, with two years in kindergarten and six years in primary school.

Teaching Material

A variety of teaching materials are employed by the PMT-MLE programme. Books are used for small group and individual readings. Additional teaching materials are games, listening and picture stories as well as posters of cultural scenes. The language education is supported by a Patani Malay primer and a Patani Malay-to-Thai transitional primer. In addition to this, other language learning materials are utilized to conduct language education. For example, songs and a school dictionary were specifically created for the PM-MLE project. The project schools along with communities and education officials develop the teaching material with support from the project staff in order to ensure that the teaching material meets the expectations of the Patani Malay culture and of the Ministry of Education. Program students will also benefit from the Ministry of Education’s plan to supply tablet computers to all first graders nationwide.

Recruitment of Facilitators

There are numerous different facilitators working on the project. The government staff of school officials and teachers are paid and employed by the Thailand Ministry of Education on a full time basis. Some Mahidol University staff also work on the project, either on a part or full-time basis with their salary being paid by the university. Furthermore, there are twelve project staff members and several Patani Malay-speaking teacher assistants who work directly for the programme. While all pre-primary classes have a Patani Malay speaking-teacher, some primary school classes do not have Patani Malay speaking-teachers. Hence, the programme providers make sure that these Thai speaking-teachers are supported by Patani Malay speaking assistants to allow for a bilingual education. These teacher assistants receive a monthly stipend from the PMT-MLP project. A number of unpaid volunteers also support the PM-MLE programme in various ways.

The number of students in each classroom varies, therefore, the learners/facilitators ratio varies from 20-30: 1 in pre-primary classes. In some primary classes, there are two teachers, one speaking Thai and the other one speaking Patani Malay. Hence, the learner/facilitators ratio in such classrooms fluctuates from 10 – 15: 1.

Training of Facilitators

New teachers and teacher assistants are trained by teachers who already have experience in multilingual education. In cooperation with the project staff, they mentor and help new teachers to become used to the multilingual teaching framework. Much work is done to help ethnic Thai teachers who do not speak Patani Malay to understand their role in the programme. The Faculty of Education of the Yala Rajabhat University is developing a curriculum to teach university students to become teachers for multilingual education. Yala Rajabhat University is also assisting in teaching new PMT-MLE facilitators to become accustomed to teaching in Thai and Patani Malay.

Monitoring and Evaluation

PMT-MLE project providers and several project partners conduct regular monitoring & evaluation. For example, the Thailand Research Fund conducted a survey that evaluated 100 parents and community members on their feelings about the project. The responses were overall positive. It was found that the PMT-MLE programme increased the confidence of Patani Malay community members in the Thai educational system. Additionally, parents reported that the programme has had a positive impact on the social and academic development of their children. In addition, the Faculty of Education at the Yala Rajabhat University undertakes annual testing of the primary grade students.

The PMT-MLE project organizers conduct annual pre-tests and post-tests for each of the two kindergarten years. The project staff is also in contact with teachers and school administrators in order to keep informed of developing issues, to review learning materials and make adjustments as necessary. In cooperation with local education officials, the programme providers perform an evaluation of teaching and learning activities once per semester. Moreover, all primary grade 3 students in Thailand undertake a national test that assesses their academic achievement. During the academic year of 2012-13, the first group of PMT-MLE students took the national test.

Programme Impact and Challenges

Impact and achievements

Yala Rajabhat University’s (YRU) longitudinal study of the project compares the academic performance of PM-MLE students to the performance of students in control schools. The study organizers have found that students who take part in the PMT-MLE project tend to achieve 40-60% higher scores in all subject areas compared to Patani Malay students in monolingual Thai classrooms. In addition, Patani Malay boys in PMT-MLE schools are 123% more likely to pass their Thai exams than their non-PM-MLE school counterparts. Another result is that girls in PMT-MLE schools have a 156% higher chance of passing their mathematics test than girls who do not attend one of the PMT-MLE schools. Furthermore, the PM-MLE project enjoys support of local Patani Malay communities. As outlined above, the programme also contributes to long-term peace and reconciliation efforts in Southern Thailand. The Thai Parliament’s Committee on Culturally Based Solutions for the Southern Crisis is therefore in frequent contact with the programme providers.

The PMT-MLE project also has a positive influence on the families in communities with PM-MLE schools by bringing the generations closer together. Because the education takes place in Patani Malay, parents and grandparents can better relate to their children’s schooling. In a Thai-only curriculum, Patani Malay speaking parents and grandparents feel alienated by their children’s education and they have no opportunity to help their children with their school work. If part of the schoolwork is done in Patani Malay and deals with cultural issues of the Patani Malay people, all family members are able to read and discuss the school work as well as to share their experiences and knowledge, as parents with basic Thai literacy skills find it easy to learn the Thai-based Patani Malay script. As a result, the family becomes closer and the self-esteem of all family members is enhanced.

The project also has a nationwide influence. In light of the success of the PMT-MLE programme, the Thai Royal Institute, Thailand’s premier academic body, drafted a comprehensive national language policy that supports the right of all Thailand’s ethnic minority children to obtain an education that incorporates their mother tongue. The policy was signed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejiajiva in 2010 and by his successor Yingluck Shinwatra in 2012. Although the policy has yet to be implemented throughout Thailand (as of September 2013, the implementation plan is being finalized by a committee headed by the deputy prime minister), it shows that the PM-MLE project has a pioneering role in the field of bilingual and/multilingual education in Thailand.


Over time, the PM-MLE programme has faced criticism from numerous political and social actors. Thai civilian and military officials expressed concerns that using any other language in school besides Thai might threaten national security. On the other hand, some Patani Malay Muslim leaders accused the PMT-MLE project of being just another attempt of the Thai majority to undermine their cultural, linguistic and religious heritage. Moreover, some Thai educational specialists have raised doubts as to the effectiveness of multilingual education, as they feel that only Thai-English bilingual education is truly valuable. Some parents voiced concerns that speaking Patani Malay in the classroom would make their children less likely to learn Thai, thus worsening their future job prospects. A few school teachers and administrators feared that PMT-MLE students might fail the primary grade 3 national exam, thereby negatively influencing the reputation of their schools. However, the concerns and criticisms have eased over time due to the success and proven positive results of the programme.

Security issues are a major challenge to the implementation of the programme. Since the programme is implemented in a conflict zone, larger meetings between stakeholders and teacher training organisations have to take place in safe areas, which is a financial and logistical challenge. Some of the teachers are also dependent on military escorts to make it to school every day. Due to the security environment, the military escorts take place at different times each day. If a potential threat is discovered by the military, teachers have to stay at home for the entire day. The time teachers can actually spend in the classroom thus varies on a day-to-day basis. The same holds true for the PMT-MLE project staff, who also have difficulties observing the implementation of the programme in the schools and providing feedback to the PMT-MLE teachers.

The project implementers also have found that teachers need more pre-service and in-service training than originally predicted, because the bi/multilingual teaching method is significantly different from the Thai-only teaching approach. Native Thai speaking teachers were afraid they would lose their jobs, because they do not speak Patani Malay, and it took much discussion to convince them that they are still important.

Another challenge of the programme relates to the use of the Thai based orthography to teach Patani Malay (a language that traditionally does not have its own script) instead of the Arabic based orthography, which is preferred by some of the educated Patani Malay elite. The programme providers decided to use the Thai based script as the main orthography for teaching Patani Malay because the Arabic based script is mainly used for religious purposes, and represents a dialect that is quite different from modern day Patani Malay. The use of the Thai-based script was also supported by the majority of nearly 1000 Patani Malay villagers surveyed during the project planning phase. The idea of using a Romanized script for Patani Malay - as it is used in Malaysia – was met with opposition from local communities because they were unfamiliar with it, and stressed it would make the transition from Patani Malay to Thai harder for students. Furthermore, the Romanized script idea was not appreciated by Thai officials, who worried that this script would make the Patani Malay people feel they belong to Malaysia and not to Thailand. Nevertheless, some Patani Malay elites were in favor of either the Romanized or Arabic based script to the exclusion of any Thai based script. The question of which script to use is of strong symbolic significance. Finally, the discussion was settled by the compromise to start with the Thai based script and then move on to teach the other two scripts as well. By incorporating all three scripts into the curriculum, the project contributes to peace and reconciliation because it meets the interests of all the stakeholders involved.

Lessons learned

  1. The whole community needs to be involved in order to successfully undertake an MLE programme.
  2. Consultation and dialogue are important to find solutions that are acceptable to all parties, particularly in a conflict zone.
  3. Multilingual approaches to the education of linguistic minorities seems to be the best way forward for promoting peace and reconciliation, but it involves careful implementation that incorporates sound MLE teaching methodology and sensitivity to cultural, religious and linguistic factors.
  4. Security issues can become an obstacle to the efficient delivery of literacy programmes.


The financial sustainability of the programme is promoted by the project staff through cooperating with the Ministry of Education and the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), which increases the likelihood of receiving budgetary support in the future. This cooperation with policy makers also increases the chances of continued policy support, which will allow the project to expand to other schools in the south. The programme also receives key support from the parents of PM-MLE children. Their advocacy to friends, neighbours, journalists and government officials is important to sustain the programme.

In 2012, twelve additional schools joined the programme and an additional fifty schools have expressed interest in taking part in the programme. At one point, ninety schools asked whether they could join the programme as well, but the PM-MLE project staff plans to expand the programme on a smaller scale to preserve its quality.

To ensure the sustainability of the programme, the incorporation of bi/multilingual education into the teacher training curriculum of Yala Rajabhat University (YRU) is important and innovative, because many successful pilot programmes disappear if there are no sustainable training programmes for teachers. Through cooperation with YRU, the PM-MLE programme aims to avoid such a fate. The YRU staff have taken a great interest in participating in the programme through teacher training and evaluation due to the programme’s potential to contribute to peace in the region.


Suwilai Premsrirat & Uniansasmita Samo(2012), Planning and Implementing
Patani Malay in Bilingual Education in Southern Thailand, Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (JSEALS) 5:85-96

Suwilai Premsrirat (2008), Language for National Reconciliation: Southern Thailand, EnablingEducationNetwork

Suwilai Premsrirat (2009), Bilingual Education for National Reconciliation in Southern Thailand:A Role for Patani Malay and Thai

World Bank (2013), Thailand’s Deep South: Strengthening Communities in Conflict Areas

World Bank, Thailand Overview

UNESCO Bangkok, Education System Profile Thailand

Contact details

Suwilai Premsrirat, PhD
Professor and Project Director
Resource Center for Documentation, Revitalization,
and Maintenance of Endangered Languages and Cultures
Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia
Mahidol University
999 Phuttamonthon 4 Road, Salaya
NakhonPathom 73710
Telephone: +66 2 800-2308
Fax: +66 2 800-2332
suwilai.pre (at) mahidol.ac.th

Last update March 2014

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 25 July 2017. Patani Malay – Thai Bilingual / Multilingual Education, Thailand. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 26 November 2022, 15:18 CET)

PDF in Arabic

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