Language Revitalization

Insights from Thailand

by Suwilai Premsrirat (Volume editor) David Hirsh (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection 326 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 246


This volume reports on programs to revitalize and maintain languages of Thailand, with a particular focus on small enclave languages and school-based revitalization programs. Issues of language status, cultural heritage and identity are explored. The approximately 70 languages of Thailand belong to five language families: Tai (24), Austroasiatic (23), Austronesian (3), Sino-Tibetan (18) and Hmong-Mien (2). Currently, fifteen of these languages are classified as seriously endangered. This volume discusses language revitalization efforts involving six Mon-Khmer groups (Maniq, Chong, Nyah Kur, So, Mlabri, Lavue); four Thai-related groups (Phetburi western central Thai, Phutai, Lao, Nyaw); two Austronesian groups (Moklen, Patani Malay); and one Tibeto-Burman group (Bisu). The book provides a framework and model for future developments in revitalizing Thailand’s indigenous languages.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Ethnolinguistic Maps
  • Introduction: The Importance of the Mahidol Model for Language Revitalization (David Bradley)
  • Section 1: Approaches to Language Revitalization
  • Mahidol Model for the Preservation of Language Diversity: Thailand Experience (Suwilai Premsrirat)
  • Orthography Development: A Tool for Language Revitalization and Preservation of Local Wisdom (Suwilai Premsrirat)
  • Section 2: Case Studies of Language Communities
  • The Impact of the Nyah Kur Language Revitalization (Siripen Ungsitipoonporn)
  • Cheum Chong: Outcomes and Challenges of Chong Language Revitalization Project (Toshiyuki Doi)
  • Lavue Revitalization Project and Networks (Mayuree Thawornpat)
  • Reflections on Two Decades of Bisu Language Revitalization (Kirk R. Person)
  • Community Learning Centers for Ethnic Language and Culture Revitalization: A Case Study of the So (Thavung), Nyaw, Phutai and Lao (Kumaree Laparporn)
  • Ecological Vocabulary of Coastal Dwellers (Sunee Kamnuansin)
  • The Limit of Literacy-based Language Revival: Maniq, Mlabri, and Moklen (Isara Choosri / Chumphol Phothisarn / Amornrat Rattanawong / Sarawut Kraisame)
  • Section 3: Language Situation in the Deep South
  • Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education in Thailand’s Deep South (Suwilai Premsrirat / Mirinda Burarungrot)
  • The Situation of Code-mixing between Patani Malay and Thai by Patani Malay-speaking People in Pattani Province (Rusdee Masor)
  • Identity Issue Through the Lens of Languages and Scripts (Uniansasmita Samoh)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Index of Languages
  • Series index

← 6 | 7 →


The idea for this edited volume arose while I was spending a period of sabbatical leave at the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia (RILCA), Mahidol University, Thailand. The publication project was intended to capture the detail of language revitalization work spanning decades being undertaken by the RILCA research team and those closely associated with the Institute. There was an interest in conveying the voices of community members whose lives were changed through involvement in language revitalization programs, as well as the reflections of the researchers. There was a particular interest in representing and exploring the link between language, culture and identity.

A recurring theme captured in this volume is the importance of improving educational outcomes for those negatively impacted by language policy. There is a need to turn situations of ‘competing languages’ into ones of ‘complementary languages’ as a means to benefit speakers of local languages. A clear challenge lying ahead is to enable children from indigenous language communities in Thailand to experience education in their mother tongue, the national language (Thai), and also English (as an international contact language) in progressive stages which reflect the importance and role of each language within the local and wider community. Such a multilingual education approach, with a mother tongue-first component, is being trialled to determine effective pedagogical models for embedding multiple languages, each used in different domains, in educational settings.

It is hoped that the insights gathered in this volume will inform efforts elsewhere to shape language policy, enhance heritage language knowledge and status, and reverse patterns of language loss.

David Hirsh ← 7 | 8 →

← 8 | 9 →

Ethnolinguistic Maps1


Map 1. Thailand situated within Southeast Asia. ← 9 | 10 →


Map 2. Ethnolinguistic diversity in Thailand. ← 10 | 11 →


Map 3. Endangered languages in Thailand. ← 11 | 12 →


Map 4. Languages in crisis. ← 12 | 13 →


Map 5. Ongoing language revitalization efforts in 25 language groups. ← 13 | 14 →

1 Maps 1–5 are reproduced with the kind permission of the Resource Center for Revitalization and Maintenance of Endangered Languages and Cultures, Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University at Salaya, Thailand.

← 14 | 15 →


Introduction: The Importance of the Mahidol Model for Language Revitalization

This very rich volume is the culmination of over forty years of work by Prof Suwilai Premsrirat of Mahidol University. In addition to her own very extensive research outputs on a variety of Mon-Khmer and other languages of Thailand, she has developed and led a large team of students, colleagues, and former students who have become colleagues in the Center for Documentation and Revitalization of Endangered Languages and Cultures. This center was formally established in 2004 but in reality was very active for over twenty years prior to this, producing very valuable surveys, maps and linguistic documentation of all kinds, and doing extensive community outreach work.

The center and the institute of which it is a part have a proud history, not just documenting endangered and other indigenous languages of Thailand, but also working closely with many language communities for language development, language revitalization and community improvement. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of Thailand’s indigenous communities would not have such positive attitudes about themselves and their languages without the efforts of the Mahidol team and their Mahidol Model for language development and revitalization. Many of these languages would also not be as vital as they are today without the efforts of the Mahidol team. In some areas of Thailand such as the Deep South, these efforts have also promoted reduced tensions and less conflict. Prof Suwilai and the Mahidol team have also worked hard to raise awareness about language issues and bilingual education needs with the Royal family and government at all levels from national to local, and helped to introduce groundbreaking new bilingual education programs around the country.

The volume contains twelve chapters, eleven of which are authored by scholars with a close connection to Mahidol; most are ← 15 | 16 → students or former students of Prof Suwilai. They discuss revitalization efforts and related issues among six Mon-Khmer groups of Thailand: the Maniq in the Deep South, the Chong in the East, the Nyah Kur between the Central region and the Northeast, the So in the Northeast, and the Mlabri and Lavue in the North; also four Thai-related groups including Phetburi western central Thai and more briefly Phutai, Lao and Nyaw in the Northeast; two Austronesian groups, Moklen and Malay in the South; and the Tibeto-Burman group Bisu in the North. The volume is framed by a general introduction to the Mahidol Model and a more in-depth discussion of the first stage in this model, the development of new orthographies as a key component in revitalization, both by Prof Suwilai.

In Chapter 1, Prof Suwilai discusses the importance of work on endangered languages. This is a brief summary of a great deal of work which has been carried out in Thailand (e.g. Bradley 1978, 1985, 1994, 1996, 2006, 2007, 2010a) and elsewhere on related languages also spoken in Thailand concerning this most important social issue confronting the discipline of linguistics, which threatens the disappearance of much of humanity’s rich cultural heritage. The fundamental response to this issue is the revitalization of endangered and other indigenous minority languages, which is exactly what the Mahidol Model aims to do. The first and crucial step in this process is to secure the participation of the community and help it to change the negative attitudes which have led to endangerment in the first place, and develop a positive group identity based in part on language (Bradley 1978, Bradley & Bradley 2002).

Chapter 2 by Prof Suwilai is on orthography and other areas of language development. Creating a suitable orthography represents the first step in the process for many communities without an existing writing system, and many later stages of the language development process may be very helpful for other communities who have an orthography but lack some of the other necessary components of a successful revitalization program. Initially, there is an orthography design workshop with in-group experts and a linguist as a facilitator, a widely-implemented process (Easton & Wroge 2012). This leads to the development of a draft orthography which is then used and tested by the in-group ← 16 | 17 → members while creating a range of texts, and refined into a final version. The orthographies are designed to represent the phonology accurately and consistently in a way which gives maximum transfer to the learning of Thai, using the existing resources of the Thai writing system. Much of the ensuing work is oriented towards locally-created language learning materials, such as big books with large pictures and simple texts for beginning learners; primers and an alphabet chart like the Thai one, with a word in the language to illustrate each letter; small books at various levels for more advanced learners; and advanced cultural materials. Also essential are teacher training, teacher guides and curriculum; advocacy with government and local educators; and funding. Prof Suwilai has been very successful in obtaining funding from the Thailand Research Fund for all stages of the process, and we must all hope that this will continue. One additional type of support which may be useful is the provision of hostels for individual indigenous groups in Thai towns where students can pursue education at a higher level than what is available in the village, in a supportive environment which also maintains their mother tongue, as advocated in Bradley (1985) and now widely implemented in northern Thailand.

The choice of Thai as the basis for new orthographies for indigenous languages of Thailand is clear. Thai is the national language, and all children must learn to read and write in Thai from the beginning of their schooling. Using a parallel orthography for the mother tongue is mutually supportive and will provide transfer in both directions: for those literate in Thai to become literate in their mother tongue, and for children learning Thai in school to progress more rapidly in Thai while also maintaining their mother tongue. The use of Thai-based orthographies is also the strong preference of various levels and parts of the Thai government, and has long been an official and legal requirement. This has been implemented successfully by Prof Suwilai and her colleagues in the Mahidol Model, as explained and exemplified in detail in Chapter 2 of this volume with a case study of the Chong orthography.

The initial impetus for writing indigenous minority languages using the Thai orthography came from William A. Smalley, who convened a workshop in Chiang Mai in 1958 to discuss and promote this (Smalley 1976: 12). His 1976 volume provides detailed case studies ← 17 | 18 → and proposals for ten such orthographies, including for the Lavue language discussed in this volume. Of all of these, only the Lavue now use a newly-developed Thai-based orthography not based on the one described by Schlatter (1976) in the Smalley volume; the other groups included already had existing orthographies based on other principles. Another early scholar in this area was Jimmy G. Harris; he initiated the Indigenous Languages of Thailand Research Project which developed Thai-based scripts for a number of languages and supported the preparation of several dictionaries using these scripts, such as Srinuan (1976) for Mpi, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in one village near Phrae and another in Nan; another part of this project was an unrealized Bisu dictionary project. Again, these orthographies have not continued. Thus the efforts of the Mahidol team using the Mahidol Model have been by far the most successful such efforts.

In co-operation with the communities, I devised Thai-based scripts for Bisu in 1976 and Gong in 1982. These were developed in conjunction with a number of speakers of these languages while I was affiliated with Mahidol University, and I am very pleased to thank Mahidol University and Prof Suwilai and many other colleagues there for their support and assistance in this work then and since. Our 1976 Bisu script continued in use by Moon Tacaan. When Kirk Person came to the community in 1996, the Bisu were ready to proceed to revise and implement this script, as the idea had been percolating within the community for twenty years (Person 2005, this volume). Similarly, the Gong script was further developed within the Mahidol Model by Mayuree, whose PhD thesis (Mayuree 2006) describes her survey of one of the Gong villages. This village, Kok Chiang in Dan Chang District of Suphanburi Province, was the location of our project supported by the Thailand Research Fund including documentation, a Village Cultural Center and other language and culture revitalization efforts by Mayuree and by me using the Mahidol Model, and the Gong language been recognized as part of the cultural heritage of Thailand by the Ministry of Culture; for further discussion on Gong, see Bradley (1989, 1992, 2010b, 2011).

In the Mahidol Model, parallel decisions are made for the representation of all similar segments in every language, as outlined by ← 18 | 19 → Prof Suwilai in Chapter 2. For example, Thai กฺ ‘k’ with a dot under it is used to represent /g/. For this reason, earlier orthographies such as Bisu required some modification when they moved over to this system, as Person indicates in his chapter; though in fact the Bisu have resisted this particular change. Similarly, the Gong orthography which I developed moved from using Thai ฆ for /g/ (using one of the rarely used Sanskrit/Pali ways of representing Thai /kh/) to the new Mahidol Model กฺ for /g/.

The case studies include in-depth descriptions of the application of the model in various language communities Nyah Kur by Siripen, Chong by Doi and Lavue by Mayuree; also a parallel effort since 1996 among the Bisu by a Summer Institute of Linguistics colleague also associated with Mahidol, Person. In a comparative study of four related projects among the So (Thavung) and the three Thai-language groups Nyaw, Phutai and Lao, all four originally from Laos, Kumaree shows how the topics and goals of projects can be community-driven: some communities choose to focus on cultural rather than language activities: indigo-dyed clothing among the Phutai, a plant-derived fuel used for lighting among the Nyaw and mat weaving among the Lao. The Mahidol Model is flexible enough to cater to such community desires and initiatives as well. In the chapter by Isara on three formerly nomadic and nonliterate groups, the Maniq, Mlabri and Moklen, the major effects of abrupt social transformation and forced sedentarism mean that linguistic documentation and developing social stability may need to precede revitalization efforts. The chapter by Sunee discusses the extremely detailed terminology and taxonomy for water in a Thai coastal fishing community in western Central Thailand; this shows that any salient aspect of culture can be part of important cultural heritage which may be threatened by change and may thus also require linguistic and other documentation.

Several of the language groups have been involved with members of the Mahidol team in projects documenting traditional medicinal and other plants: the Nyah Kur, the Lavue and the So (Thavung). Other aspects of traditional life, such as the agricultural cycle, fishing, mat-making, cloth weaving and dyeing, have also been documented. One form of visible revitalization undertaken in several communities is the revival of traditional clothing, especially for women, as among ← 19 | 20 → the Nyah Kur, Bisu, Phutai and Gong. Another aspect of strengthening traditional culture is reviving, developing or creating activities such as song, dance, poetry and festivals.

The assistance of Mahidol has also been essential in receiving recognition of the value of traditional language and culture from the Thai government: the formal recognition of several of these groups and their languages as part of the cultural heritage of the nation by the Ministry of Culture, the recognition of their orthographies by the Royal Society of Thailand, the inclusion of language classes in local government schools, and the representation of various groups in wider regional festivals and tourism activities. These may also lead to positive views among outsiders, such as the popular Bisu dish laphitshatong noted by Person, thus further strengthening a group’s positive self-image.

The final three chapters discuss an issue which has occupied much of Prof Suwilai’s attention for many years: how to integrate the Patani Malay of the Deep South more successfully into Thailand. The chapter by Prof Suwilai and Mirinda briefly outlines the successful introduction of mother-tongue education in four schools in Patani Malay, starting from oral Patani Malay and later oral Thai in Kindergarten 1, then introduction of literacy in a Thai-based Patani Malay script and continuing oral Thai in Kindergarten 2, oral and written Thai and Patani Malay in Thai-based script from Primary 1 to Primary 3, continuing with the Thai curriculum plus Patani Malay as well as standard Malay in both Jawi (Arabic) and Rumi (romanised) scripts up to Primary 6. The results are improved learning outcomes as well as positive social impact. The chapter by Rusdee shows that Thai/Malay bilinguals already successfully combine their two languages together in code- mixing, in a finely-graded way: more Thai in the workplace, less in daily life and very little within social activities of the Thai-Malay community. The code switches occur at every level of linguistic structure; mostly at the sentence level in the workplace, more often sentence-internally in daily life, and more at the lexical level during in-group social activities. The final chapter by Uniansasmita describes an in-depth survey of language attitudes within the Patani Malay community, particularly concerning feelings about the use of different available orthographies for Malay. This chapter also provides primary data and illustrations ← 20 | 21 → for actual script use in the community. The alternatives are the Jawi Arabic-based script as taught in Islamic settings, a new Thai-based script developed by Prof Suwilai in co-operation with local Patani Malay colleagues, and Rumi or romanization as widely used in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Some of the problems in using Jawi accurately and consistently in a Patani Malay setting are frankly discussed, though due to community wishes this will continue in use for some purposes in the Deep South of Thailand. There are also issues in using Rumi, as Patani Malay has many differences from Malaysian standard Malay. While it might seem unnecessary to outsiders to keep Patani Malay separate from Malay elsewhere by using a distinctive Thai-based script, this has provided a bridge for Patani Malay children to have better success in Thai schools and later life in Thailand, as well as helping to develop local harmony in this long-conflicted area. The initial four trial schools have now expanded to sixteen and may eventually spread more widely.

In summary, this volume provides a framework and model for making further progress in revitalizing Thailand’s indigenous languages, and gives us a number of fascinating case studies of the process of doing so.


Bradley, David 1978. Identity: The Persistence of Minority Groups. In McKinnon, John / Wanat Bhruksasri (eds) Highlanders of Thailand. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 46–55.

Bradley, David 1985. Traditional Minorities and Language Education in Thailand. In Bradley, David (ed.) Language Policy, Language Planning and Sociolinguistics in South-East Asia. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics A-67, 87–102.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (July)
language revitalization endangered languages indigenous languages languages of Southeast Asia ethnologists
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 326 pp., 73 fig. b/w, 14 tables, 4 graph.

Biographical notes

Suwilai Premsrirat (Volume editor) David Hirsh (Volume editor)

Suwilai Premsrirat is Professor of Linguistics and founding director of the Resource Center for Documentation, Revitalization and Maintenance of Endangered Languages and Cultures at Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University, Thailand. David Hirsh is Associate Professor of TESOL at the University of Sydney, and co-editor of the University of Sydney Papers in TESOL.


Title: Language Revitalization