Squeezed between majority Myanmar and encroaching Chinese, the Shan language is dying. But Shan speakers in the border trading post of Muse are fighting the decline, organising classes and instilling pride in their literature, history and culture.
Sai Myat Aung, secretary of the Shan Literature and Culture Committee, said Muse, with its 450,000 population, could be the scene of the language’s last stand unless something is done.
“Anyone who wants a job in this town has to learn Chinese. At this rate, our native language will disappear,” he said.
Since 1990, the committee has been running Shan language classes, and now numbers 155 students who have passed matriculation. But the teachers are unpaid and can teach only in the evenings.
“We speak only Shan at home, and with other Shan speakers. Some Shan who can’t speak our language are ashamed and want to study. They also wear our traditional clothing, and carry Shan bags,” he said.
In Shan State there are only two local-language newspapers, Shan Ping and Shan Than Taw Sint. The language was banned in 1989, and purged from school textbooks, speeding its decline.
Local companies, 80 percent of which are owned by Chinese, offer speaking and writing classes in Mandarin for Myanmar citizens wishing to work in the town.
“Almost all the children in Muse attend Chinese classes from 6am to 8am. They go to school between 9am to 3pm, and have more Chinese classes from 3:30pm to 6pm. From 7pm to 9pm, they have extra tuition in school courses. It doesn’t leave much time to study Shan,” said Sai Toom Khao, joint secretary of the committee. Committee volunteers run summer schools and Sunday school, which also teach traditional arts like arranging fruit and flowers.
They mark the Shan New Year with Shan poetry and essay readings, Shan traditional bands ,and flower and fruit decoration competitions.
“The literature classes have aroused interest in the surrounding villages. Some of the parents send their children to study,” said Sai Toom Kham, who said the language presented few local variations in pronunciation, tonality and spelling.
In an effort to promote the language more widely, young Shan are organising literary discussion groups and speech competitions at churches and monasteries. The prospect of a new government next year has spurred hopes of curricular changes across the country that would encourage ethnic language study.
Sai Lao Hlaing Pan, a volunteer Shan teacher since 2007, said he was encouraged at the interest shown by Shan youth not only in the language, but also in traditional songs, poems, and culture.
“Most of the old Shan people are not educated, even if they can write and read a little. But they can make poems and songs to sing while they work, plucking tea leaves,” said Sai Lao Hlaing Pan, who teaches after work in the evenings.
“In the past, we travelled to small villages and taught by candlelight. Things are better now, and more of the students want to teach the language themselves,” he said.
Nang Nwan Nwant Kham, bound for Mandalay University with four distinctions, says she is proud to be a Shan with a great literary history.
“I have spoken Shan since my childhood – it’s the only language we speak at home. I’ve studied literature at the monastery. The history is so interesting,” she said.