RANGOON — As a student in Mandalay, Thida Win would wake up early every morning, before sunrise, to cram in two hours of Chinese language and history study before classes started at her public school. She and her parents were born in Burma, but her grandfather migrated to the country from China in the 1950s, and she wanted to speak his language.
She couldn’t learn Chinese at her public school, a government-run institution where instructors taught in the national language, Burmese, as they do in all public schools in the country. So she paid 60,000 kyats (US$60) per semester to enroll in a private Chinese school in the city.
“I would go in the morning from 6 to 8, and then I would go to Burmese school,” says the student, now 20 years old and pursuing a college degree in the United States. Recalling her childhood, she says some of her ethnic Kachin friends in Kachin State complained that they could not understand their teachers, as they were raised speaking the Kachin language at home. “I think they should teach in ethnic languages too. If we only learn in Burmese, we will forget our cultural languages.”
Burma is a country of great diversity, with more than eight major ethnic groups officially recognized by the government and over 100 subgroups, many of which speak their own languages. In ethnic minority states, children often become familiar with Burmese language at school while learning to read and write their mother tongue languages elsewhere, including at religious centers such as monasteries over the summer. In some cases, teachers at public schools can offer lessons in ethnic minority languages outside of school hours.
This education policy to instruct in only Burmese is controversial in Burma, following decades of fighting between the government—which is dominated by the majority Burman ethnic group—and ethnic minority rebel groups in several states. As the government attempts to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire, some ethnic education groups are urging it to change its education policy and allow schools to offer ethnic language classes during school hours. Others have gone a step further, recommending that children have the option to learn mathematics, literature and other subjects in their mother tongues, to promote better understanding.
As the country transitions from nearly half a century of military rule, these ethnic education groups may now have a platform to officially voice their concerns. The input of parents, teachers, school administrators and other educators around the country is being sought as part of a government-led review of the public school system, which began in February last year and seeks to identify priority areas for reform.
The review is known as the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR) and includes assistance from more than 20 international development partners, including from Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. Consultants involved in the process say it could potentially lead to major changes, such as a revision to outdated curricula, larger discretionary budgets for schools, and perhaps more freedom for teachers to instruct in ethnic languages.
“We are trying to promote mother-tongue teaching so students can understand basic education,” says Mi Kun Chan Non, a former teacher and adviser to the Mon National Education Committee. “We have discussed among ethnic groups how we can propose mother-tongue teaching to the CESR.”
Mother-tongue teaching has emerged as a key concept at schools internationally, including in the Asia Pacific, which is home to about 2,300 of the world’s 7,000 languages according to Unesco. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines last year adopted a mother tongue-based multilingual education system, with 19 languages taught in primary schools. In East Timor, the idea has been widely debated, with support from the education ministry but resistance from some who say the teaching style would be difficult to implement and could threaten national unity. Thailand’s government has worked with the UN agency for children to promote multilingual education, while Cambodia, Indonesia, China and Vietnam have established experimental programs.
In Papua New Guinea, the most linguistically diverse country in the world, the government in 1995 initiated a system of teaching in local languages for the first three years of formal schooling. Schools began offering classes in hundreds of the country’s more than 800 spoken languages. But the program lacked support from some parents, who wanted their children to learn in English, according to Julian Watson, a British and Irish education consultant who has worked in Papua New Guinea and more than 20 other countries.
Textbooks were another challenge. Blank books were produced, with room for teachers to write information in the appropriate languages. “Coming up with different books in different languages can be expensive,” Watson says.
In Cambodia, the government has tried a different approach. Hoping to lower the dropout rate and increase understanding in schools, it pays to hire teachers’ assistants from different ethnic groups who can work in the classroom during the first three years of primary education. While the main teachers instruct in Khmer, the assistants can help ethnic minority students understand the lessons in their own languages. “That’s proven relatively successful,” says Watson, who also worked in Cambodia and says the dropout rate has decreased significantly since the new system was implemented.
Today Watson is based in Rangoon. He was hired as an independent consultant to coordinate between the Burma government and international development partners in the education review, and he says a report will be finished by the end of this year with options for possible reform. These options will be discussed early next year by teachers, parents and other stakeholders, and a costed education sector development plan will likely be ready by the end of June.
Watson says recent academic studies have shown a number of benefits to mother-tongue teaching. “It’s more or less proven that if a child learns to read and write in its mother tongue first, the child will learn another language very much quicker,” he says.
“It’s a shorter road. If you want a non-Myanmar-speaking child to speak, read and write in Myanmar language, it’s quicker to make it literate in its own language and then move to Myanmar language, rather than going straight to Myanmar language.”
Still, multilingual teaching is far from easy, he adds, citing practical problems including deciding which of several local languages to teach at a particular school. While many students in Shan State grew up speaking the Shan language, for example, others spoke the Mon language with their families. “You might have eight languages being spoken in a school,” Watson says. “Are you going to teach eight languages? Can you afford to teach eight languages?”
Smaller class sizes might be necessary, which would require more teachers. A majority of education budgets in many countries around the world goes to teachers’ pay, says Watson, “so the moment you reduce class sizes, you rocket your education costs.”
“It’s massively costly in terms of materials and everything else,” he says of multilingual education, though he adds, “That’s not a reason not to do it.”
If Burma were to adopt some form of mother-tongue teaching in public schools, textbooks would likely require revision. In primary school, a series of textbooks known as the Myanmar Readers helps promote literacy, with letters of the alphabet and short rhymes, as well as longer stories for memorization.
“Nowhere in the Myanmar Readers is there any suggestion that anyone in Burma speaks any language other than Burmese,” says Brooke Treadwell, a US-based education researcher who has studied the textbooks extensively. “They selectively show what diversity they want to highlight.”
“I guess that’s true of textbooks in all countries,” she adds. “The Myanmar Readers are filled with grandmothers and children, students and teachers, all different characters, and although they are from different ethnic minority groups, all of them speak fluent Burmese. None mention speaking anything else other than Burmese.”
Some ethnic education groups have developed their own textbooks in ethnic languages, however. These books are not part of the public school curricula but are used in some conflict zones where ethnic groups established distinct education systems outside the government’s school system.
The Karen Education Department incorporates ethnic Karen culture and language into a curricula that is used in more than 1,200 schools, for example. In Mon State, the rebel New Mon State Party administers a network of more than 150 schools, where students learn in the Mon language during primary school. A mix of the Mon language and Burmese is used during middle school.
Min Yarzar Mon, a 24-year-old student from Mon State, did not attend one of these schools. He went to one of the government’s more than 41,000 basic education schools, and he wished his teachers taught in the Mon language. “When I was really young, it was hard for me to speak Burmese because all my family and my cousins were Mon, so we did not speak Burmese.”
His understanding improved over the years, especially after moving to Rangoon, where he is now pursuing a higher education degree. “I’ve been living here for four years and communicating so much with Burmese people, so it’s getting easier. But even now, when I speak Burmese some people still don’t understand my accent—I speak Burmese with a Mon accent.”
As a child he studied the Mon language at a monastery over the summer, and he says some ethnic Mon teachers offered lessons outside of school hours. But many of his friends never acquired proper literacy in their native tongues. “Later they did not want to try to write in Mon. They didn’t want to read in Mon, because Mon is hard to understand,” he says. ‘It’s still very hard for me. I can speak very well, I can read, but I can’t write very well.”