After decades of cultural suppression under military rule, ethnic minority groups met with international experts this week to voice their calls for multilingual education.
“Burmanisation” of ethnic minority groups under the military regime has threatened the existence of ethnic traditions and languages, with forced assimilation a long-held grievance among Myanmar’s ethnic minority population that has led to conflict.
The current Myanmar-language education system is seen as a major obstacle for equality by ethnic minority groups as it disadvantages children who have trouble keeping up with their Myanmar-speaking classmates. Lessons in their own native languages are only allowed after regular classes finish.
More than 300 academics and education, culture and language professionals met this week at the University of Mandalay to discuss the experiences, successes and challenges of multilingual education, language policy and social cohesion.
“Without the right language policy and the right education policy, it is very difficult to see how peace will be sustained and consolidated. If this conference can address ethnic language policy in Myanmar, that will be a big step towards peace building,” said Ashley South, an independent analyst and consultant.
Ethnic representatives expressed their frustration at the lack of funding and a clear policy for the development of ethnic-language education.
“We have maintained our literature and culture on our own, but with a lot of difficulties and problems. We need financial support and a strong policy from the Union government,” said Khun Min Aung, a Pa-O member of the Ethnic Language Committee of the Kayin Literature and Culture Organisation.
One issue is the economy and lack of development. In Myanmar’s borderlands, many young ethnic students learn foreign languages rather than their native language because of the better job opportunities in China and Thailand.
“We struggle to maintain our own language and culture. We want to teach Shan language during school hours in primary schools. Now we can teach it only after regular school hours, but students are learning Chinese rather than Burmese or Shan, as we live near the border,” said Sai Myat Aung, a member of the Shan Literature and Culture Organisation in Muse.
A member of the Mon Literature and Culture Organisation said the Mon and Kayin were experiencing the same problem.
“Business is the main thing in people’s minds. They love their own language, but the lack of opportunities to study it and the scarcity of job opportunities mean that they are more interested in learning a foreign language,” he said.
Mon State is regarded as something of a success story for ethnic language education, with the Mon language taught in primary schools under a new curriculum. In more than 380 schools where the majority of students are Mon, the Mon language has been taught since the 2013-14 school year, according to U Min Aung Zay, a member of the Mon Curriculum Committee.
An earlier survey carried out by the curriculum committee showed that more than 50,000 students at 382 government schools in the state wished to learn Mon. The Mon Education Committee implemented the new curriculum.
In Kayin State a similar plan is being developed and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is providing help to develop the program and print materials. Kayah-language teaching is also starting in Kayah State, where lesson materials are being developed. UNICEF has discussed ethnic language education in both states.
“Some states have already introduced national languages in the class room, but it’s not an easy process,” said Cliff Meyers, head of education at UNICEF Myanmar.
Marie Lall, a professor of education and South Asian studies at UCL Institute of Education in London, said that though native language education is important, policy change needed to go further.
“The first step [to take] is allowing the ethnic mother tongue to be taught in schools but that is not enough, because actually we need to allow children to use their mother tongue as a medium. Myanmar still has quite a long way to go to rectify discrimination [against minority languages],” she said.
Drawing comparisons to Australia where close to 300 languages are being taught, Joseph Lo Bianco, professor of Language and Literacy Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, sees great possibilities for ethnic-language teaching. “Multilingualism can be considered the new literacy of the 21st century, a skill for all people,” he said. In 2011, Mr Lo Bianco was appointed research director of a UNICEF language and peace-building initiative across Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.
“We try to do a language planning process for the whole country, which can produce a good solution for Myanmar’s future. Every language is important. We should cherish every language. That can bring peace and unity,” he said.
U Khine Mye, director general of the Department of Myanmar Education Research under the Ministry of Education, said that the discussions at the conference would support nationwide education reform.
“A high standard of literacy is essential for competing in the labour market, for pursuing higher education, for participating in public life as a citizen. The discussions will support nationwide education reform for children to learn more effectively,” he said.
An agreed language policy draft containing principles, policy aims and implementation plans will be submitted for approval to the government following the Mandalay conference.
The conference was organised by the Ministry of Education and is part of the Language, Education and Social Cohesion (LESC) initiative, supported by UNICEF in partnership with the University of Melbourne.