As Thailand and other regional countries prepare for the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, knowledge of languages could prove a crucial requirement for Deep South residents hoping to take advantage of the emerging opportunities.
Experts say the Malay-speaking population of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has natural advantages when it comes to language learning. But a lack of courses and teachers has proved an obstacle.
Rusneeta Awae is a native of the area who is now studying for a Master's Degree in finance and accounting at Monash University in Australia under a Thai government scholarship. She said students in the three southern border provinces are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning English because relatively few native English speakers come to the area to teach.
"In my experience, we only had two to four hours a week to study English, far fewer than in other parts of Thailand like Bangkok, where they can also attract native-speaking teachers, which I think is very important," she told Khabar Southeast Asia.
Also considered of key importance to the area's prospects is greater knowledge of Standard Malay.
Even though the majority of locals speak a dialect of Malay, it differs considerably from the standardised versions found in Malaysia and Indonesia. Pattani Malay, sometimes also referred to as Yawi, developed in geographic isolation over the centuries. As a result, those brought up with the dialect can have a great deal of difficulty understanding speakers of Standard Malay.
They are also looked down upon by Standard Malay speakers, who regard the Pattani dialect as provincial.
Communication with larger world
Efforts to foster the learning of Standard Malay in the Deep South have been haphazard, says Pattani Senator Worawit Baru, who holds a PhD in Sociolinguistics from the University of Malaysia.
"Some schools with suitable Malay-speaking teachers may offer classes in Malay language, but an idea to introduce a full Malay-language curriculum is still under study by the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre," he said.
Typically, Deep South students spend much of their time at school learning Thai as a second language, while many also attend privately-run "tadika" schools in order to learn the language and traditions of Muslim Malays, he added.
Introduction of an official Malay (Bahasa) language curriculum to schools in the area would go a long way to improve students' ability to communicate effectively with the large Malay-speaking world – including Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia -- as AEC is formally launched in 2015, said Worawit, who chairs a subcommittee on academic and economic relations between the Thai government and the Muslim world.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra recently called for students across Thailand to learn foreign languages and become more familiar with the cultures of ASEAN nations in preparation for the coming milestone.
Be determined, volunteer tells students
One man who is trying to help local students boost their language skills is Mohd Suhaimi Bin Abdulla, a retired civil servant in the Malaysian Foreign Ministry who now helps organise language courses with native-speaking teachers of Bahasa and English through the NGO Salam Dari Patani.
Mohd, who goes by AbeMie Chainarong in Thailand, told Khabar the demand for foreign-language skill remains strong, despite these obstacles.
"The people of the Deep South with limited command of important foreign languages can't go far, can't excel much academically because much of the information is in English, so they are left behind and deprived from gaining more advanced knowledge," he told Khabar.
"But to the people of the Deep South I say: 'Be patient, this is not an insurmountable obstacle for you. Be determined in your quest for knowledge. Never give up and be prepared to go against all odds.'"
Worawit, the senator, said Malay Muslims in the south theoretically are better poised to learn English than many Thai speakers, but are held back by lack of resources.
While the phonetic system of Thai, a tonal language, is markedly different from that of English, that of Malay is closer. Also, Muslims in the Deep South have exposure to Arabic, which shares some phonetic features with Western languages.
"Exposure from reading the Qur'an (in Arabic) and other factors means they are familiar with more of the phonemes used in English, more so than Thai students in general. They have a strong base and I think they like to learn English too, much more than many other subjects.
"If the government leads them in the right way, they should be able to successfully learn several languages at the same time, such as Thai, English and Malay," said Worawit.