‘Karaoke’ class: A high note for literacy in Thai mountain villages
It’s not your typical karaoke session. The giggles and apparent trepidation a young woman shows before launching into a Thai love ballad might not be out of place among a group of friends out anywhere in the country, but the focus here is neither on vocal prowess nor solely on having fun – and nothing about the venue suggests urban entertainment.
Some four hours up winding dirt mountain roads in northern Thailand’s Tak province is the community learning center at Khanajue Kee village. This afternoon the CLC is close to full, with villagers ranging in age from infants to senior citizens in the audience as the young woman, and several other speakers of the S’gaw Karen dialect, practice their Thai by singing the lyrics projected onto the white sheet serving as a screen.
Khanajue Kee is one of 125 villages selected for the “Thai Literacy through Edutainment for Disadvantaged People in the Highlands of Tak Province” project. Non-formal education teachers visit remote villages to screen Thai-language (or Thai-dubbed) films and hold Thai karaoke sessions with the aim of engaging learners in the language.
The “edutainment” initiative was launched by UNESCO Bangkok Office and the Tak Provincial Office of the Non-Formal and Informal Education a little more than a year ago and in that time has already had success in raising literacy rates and educational engagement among its target group of learners over the age of 15 and no longer in school.
“Before we start to talk about them learning Thai, we must understand that they live in very rural areas, many of them in the forest, so they might not see the relevance of education,” says Surapong Chaiwong, Director of Tak’s ONIE.
A 2014 study by his office found that 10,187 out of 390,287 people over the age of 15 in Tak are illiterate. Khanajue Kee, like many villages in Thailand’s northern highlands, is further isolated by its total lack of internet and an intermittent electrical supply.
For the 200 or so villagers there and the thousands of others like them throughout Thailand’s highlands, Mr Surapong says, “The question becomes: How can we get them interested in education?”
To answer that question, Mr Surapong and UNESCO specialists began looking to an unlikely source for inspiration – music and film.
“For example, I saw how foreign born singers like Jonas [Andersson, a Swedish born singer of Thai country songs] really embraced Thai culture and language through song; it seemed like there could be an opportunity there,” he says. “In a song or a movie, even if you don’t understand the language, the feelings still connect.
“Tak is very diverse and we have many ethnic groups, making it challenging to tailor education to their needs – music can unite them.”
HILLS ALIVE WITH SOUND OF MUSIC – AND LEARNING
The edutainment classes are held mainly in the evening when villagers come in from their work in the surrounding hills and the electricity supply is most reliable. They follow a similar format. First a movie is shown, which can range from documentaries on the dangers of crop burning to Hollywood features (the 2014 Planet of the Apes being one of the selections during UNESCO’s visit). The film is stopped halfway and again at the end for a teacher-facilitated discussion to gauge comprehension and encourage dialogue in Thai.
Then it’s time to sing.
“Khru Dao”, one of the NFE teachers involved in the program says that one of her biggest challenges is helping the Karen villagers, particularly the women, get comfortable with public performance, which for most would have been an alien concept.
Khru Dao has her methods, however. “When it comes to the karaoke part, the Karen can often be so shy, so I’ll need to sing and dance first!” she says. “Once the mood is lightened, the students get involved too. We can help them by conducting these activities frequently to give them more confidence in the language.”
While NFE in general, and this initiative in particular, target adult learners, the karaoke classes draw community members of all ages.
“Now it's become a community experience, where people look forward to the classes and parents will bring their children to join them,” says Khru Dao.
The classes are among the activities offered at the CLCs to prepare people to enter into the official government Thai literacy programme. Teachers will note the attendance and progress of those registered with the NFE office, but others are welcome to join.
Khru Dao says that in the year she has been involved in the edutainment initiative, half of her learners have gone on to join the literacy programme.
“People are gaining more confidence to communicate in Thai and with that basis, we can teach them skills to improve their quality of life,” says Mr Surapong. “I’ve noticed that as their language skills increase, so does their desire to participate in the community, to stop crop burning, for example. But that basic level is where it begins and this activity has been successful in helping them get there.”
Editor's Note: UNESCO promotes mother tongue based multilingual education for all ethnolinguistic minority communities, especially for early learning/initial stage of learning in order to provide them with the foundation they need to later acquire national and other languages. This initiative is run through a CLC, attendance at which is not mandatory, and is aimed at providing target learners (mainly adults and older youth) with the opportunity to learn the Thai language if they so choose. This innovative non-formal education literacy project in no way contravenes or challenges UNESCO's unwavering stance on the importance of MTB-MLE for ethnic minority communities.
By Noel Boivin