This isn’t your typical karaoke session. The giggles and shyness a young woman shows before launching into a Thai love ballad might not be out of place among a group of friends anywhere in the country, but the focus here isn’t on vocal prowess or just having fun — and nothing about the venue suggests urban entertainment.
The setting for this singing session is four hours up mountainous dirt roads in Tak province inside the Community Learning Center (CLC) at Khanajue Kee village. This afternoon, the CLC is almost full, with villagers ranging in age from infants to senior citizens. The woman singing, as well as everyone else there, are using karaoke as a way to practice their Thai. Their native tongue is the S’gaw Karen dialect.
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 these 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 (ONIE) just over a year ago. In that time, it has already had success in raising literacy rates and educational engagement among its target group of learners over the age of 15 but no longer full-time students.
“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.
Surapong Chaiwong, Director of Tak’s ONIE
A 2014 study by his office found that 10,187 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 access and only intermittent electrical supply.
About the approximately 200 villagers there, and the thousands of others like them throughout Thailand’s highlands, Surapong says, “The question becomes: How can we get them interested in education?”
To answer that question, Surapong and UNESCO specialists began looking to an unlikely source for learning material — 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.”
The edutainment classes are held mainly in the evenings, when villagers have free time after work 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 (a Thai-dubbed version of the 2014 Planet of the Apes was one of the selections during UNESCO’s visit). The film is stopped at the halfway point 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 (Teacher 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 of them is an alien concept.
Khru Dao (Teacher Dao)
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, targets adult learners, the karaoke class draws community members of all ages.
“Now it’s become a community experience, people look forward to the classes and parents will bring their children to join them,” says Dao.
The classes are among several activities offered at the local CLCs to prepare people to enter into the official government Thai literacy program. Teachers will note the attendance and progress of those registered with the NFE office, but others are welcome to join too.
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 program.
“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 Surapong. “I’ve noticed that as their language skills increase, so does their desire to participate in the community. But that basic level is where it begins and this activity has been successful in helping them get there.”
Story: Noel Boivin, UNESCO Bangkok Media and Communications Officer. Photos: Caroline Baxter Tresise. An earlier version of this article was featured in UNESCO Bangkok’s “UNESCO Stories” series.