Communities Online
Digital Books: Preserving Culture and Improving Literacy
Posted By On September 20, 2017
S’gaw Karen children read online storybooks in their mother tongue

The village of Khun Tae lies along a rutted, dirt road, high in the mountains of Northern Thailand. An expansion of the electrical grid and widening cellular coverage in the region have brought new opportunities to this once-secluded village of the S’gaw Karen people, but it has also created new societal pressures.

Even though the S’gaw Karen are part of Thailand’s largest minority ethnic group, the Karen, they are still grappling with how to maintain their unique cultural and linguistic identity in the face of pressure to integrate into mainstream Thai institutions. One way the people of Khun Tae have taken up this challenge is to become strong advocates for their children to be taught to read in their mother tongue, the S’gaw Karen language. Yet, even as the community of Khun Tae advocates for this effective form of education, it’s a challenge to bring it to practice. Like thousands of minority-language communities across developing Asia, Khun Tae villagers are not provided with mother tongue-based materials at school, and very few publishers see an economic incentive in catering to a community of 200,000 Thai Karen within a country of nearly 69 million. As a result, S’gaw Karen children have few opportunities to read in their community’s mother tongue.

In this context, online modes of collaboration and sharing can be especially powerful, and platform-driven use cases are already emerging. This summer, S’gaw Karen volunteers in Northern Thailand, as well as groups in CambodiaIndonesia, and Nepal, used a new online platform developed for The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program to translate dozens of open-access books into their native languages and publish them online for free. The platform, called Let’s Read!, is built around a simple interface and open-source software frameworks, and finished books are available to access for free either online, through an Android reader app, or as downloadable PDF and EPUB files (the global standard for ebooks). Within days, volunteers with no prior translation experience can connect with each other through an online interface, collaboratively create new language editions of children’s storybooks, and share them with their community. Thousands of pages have been translated using this tool, and more than 200 new translations have been published in Nepali, Khmer, Indonesian, Thai, and S’gaw Karen.

Today, Thailand is in the midst of a digital transformation, with rising smartphone ownership, expanding mobile network coverage, and an ambitious government plan to extend high-speed broadband coverage to every one of the nation’s 79,000 villages. Villages like Khun Tae and other communities like it will continue to advocate for resources that will help their children succeed in this changing world. But particularly for remote and underserved communities, these resources will have to be available online.


A version of this post originally appeared on The Asia Foundation’s blog, In Asia.

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Image credit: Nipaporn Arthit, Foundation for Applied Linguists.