Me and My Language

By Yen Saning 6 February 2015

I am very comfortable talking in the Myanmar language—but don’t ask me to do so with my mom. It just doesn’t feel right unless we speak in Mon, which is after all, my mother tongue.

When I’m in the company of my 86-year-old grandmother, there is no choice. My grandma speaks only Mon.

In many ways it was she I have to thank for the rewarding if complicated feelings that I—like many speakers of minority languages—have about language today.

As a very young child growing up in Thanbyuzayat, my hometown in Mon State, I spoke only Mon with my family. But by the time I reached preschool I had picked up some Myanmar from neighbors. Thanbyuzayat was originally a Mon town, but the Myanmar language was all around us. The administrative officials and school teachers were mainly ethnic Bamar, and a growing population of Myanmar-speaking migrants was arriving from the upper part of the country.

Perhaps the rising use of the Myanmar language around us was one reason my grandmother arranged for me to attend summer courses at a nearby monastery to learn Mon reading and writing, which she had never learned herself. My grandma cannot read Mon and can write just a tiny bit of Myanmar script.

“I want you to read me the sutras in Mon,” she used to say, telling me this would help her memorize the old texts.

There was always a certain atmosphere around our Mon classes. The monks told us that teaching the language was restricted, and that our classes were “unofficial,” whatever that meant. We children just knew we were not supposed to talk about the classes openly. We could also see that there was barely any budget for the course and that the monks had to find the money somehow for our free textbooks.

Eventually the course, and my writing instruction, ended when I was aged 10, due to lack of support from an abbot. By then I had studied just three textbooks. I had started to become interested in the Mon script, but there was no more opportunity to learn.

Like most people from ethnic minorities in Myanmar, The Irrawaddy’s reporter Yen Snaing, who is ethnic Mon, has complicated feelings about her mother tongue.

I had also realized very early on that I would have to focus on the Myanmar language if I wanted to communicate more widely. At school, all the teachers spoke Myanmar. I can still chant the nursery rhymes I learned there.

As I grew older, I haunted the local book rental stores, devouring cartoon books, weekly journals, illustrated stories and translated stories from the West, all in the Myanmar language.

I still had my fluent Mon, but even within my family, it was being used less. Some of my cousins had a Myanmar-speaking parent and Myanmar-speaking nannies. Most of them, and their children, now speak only in Myanmar. My mom says that if my siblings and I had not grown up speaking Mon as toddlers, we too would not be able to speak the language now.

That seems true, and I am happy that I learned Mon from an early age—but now I am also feeling a bit ashamed that I can’t read or write it. In some ways, in this Internet age, I am orphaned from my mother tongue.

History Lessons

As I began to make my way in adult life, for a time in Thailand and now in Yangon where I speak and work mainly in Myanmar and English (which I began to learn at around age 11), I found myself trying to fill in what increasingly looked like gaps in my knowledge.

I realized that from my school textbooks I had learned about neither my culture nor my history. Mon stories did not feature in my school life—how come?

I did learn that the ethnic Bamar won every war they fought with ethnicities like the Shan, the Mon, and China-based groups.

And I learned about Myanmar’s fight for independence from the British. But where were the Mon freedom fighters who were a part of that struggle? They were not in the books, or if they were, they were not identified as Mon.

As an adult, I felt I had to unlearn much of the prejudiced or partial history I had learned from the textbooks, and teach myself from other sources.

I found pride in learning that the Mon were almost certainly the first nationality in this country to believe in Buddhism and were among the first “civilizations” in Southeast Asia. You could say that Bagan would likely not be full of pagodas were it not for the Mon, and that the country today would likely not be majority Buddhist had the Thaton kingdom not existed.

Scholars still debate much of our country’s history and we all have a lot to learn.

But today so much of old Mon culture and tradition has become blended into mainstream Bamar culture that even the Bamar don’t realize it.

Take Yangon’s famous Sule Pagoda. In Mon, Sule is pronounced “Jule,” a Mon word meaning “place of rest.” The pagoda reputedly got its name after the legendary Mon King Okalappa stopped there on the way to what is now the site of the Shwedagon Pagoda, where he was bringing relics of the Buddha. There are many places with names that have a meaning in Mon but not in Myanmar.

Nai Ngwe Thein, a former state education officer, told me that university students doing graduate Myanmar-language study have to study Mon in order to read the country’s old stone inscriptions. “In a sense if you don’t know the Mon language, you don’t know all the Myanmar language,” he said.

Talking the Talk

Living in Yangon now, I feel lucky to be a Mon speaker. Thanks to friends I have made at a Mon conversation club, I have found a space where I can practice and use the language again. I feel proud to speak Mon and wear Mon traditional dress within the Bamar-dominant society in which I now live. And I feel proud of my Mon name, which is something I have to try to live up to; it means cultured, or well-mannered.

I feel there is something special about being a Mon and speaking my own language with its long history and which has meanings that don’t exist in any other language.

One gripe: I don’t like when Bamar people make fun of Mon people speaking the Myanmar language in a Mon accent. I know that speakers of dominant languages around the world often act in this way toward those with “regional” or “country” accents or tongues. But I sometimes wonder if Bamar are not just jealous that we speak an extra language!

I have never felt animosity toward Myanmar people over the imbalances that exist in relation to this country’s history, languages and cultures. I don’t want to accuse anyone of anything.

But a bit of rebalancing and recognition would be appreciated. I am sure that people from other ethnicities feel similarly. I just think we should value the beauty, richness and historical depth of all our ethnic cultures and languages.

The Future

Many people in Mon State are now afraid that their children will not value the language, or be able to speak it, given the huge exposure they have to Myanmar, which many young people also see as more useful. Even my sister has to make an effort to speak Mon to her one-year-old child as they are surrounded by Myanmar-speakers.

I am not sure how many Mon speakers we have within the roughly two-million population of the state. I do know we have very few people who can write the language well, and most of those are monks.

Myanmar is the language of governance and official life in the state. Most signposts are in Myanmar, though there are now a few in Mon also. Public announcements are generally in Myanmar. Even when people go about on the weekly request for religious donations, fewer now use Mon.

But it has been inspiring to find out that language and education experts both here and around the world have shown the great benefits of children learning first through their home language or mother tongue—and that this viewpoint is now dominant.

Kimmo Kosonen, a Finnish senior language consultant at Payap University and SIL International, said educators now understand that children who do not learn in their home language often struggle to reach their full potential.

U Harry Htin Zaw, a researcher with the Shalom Foundation, said children should be allowed to learn in their first language. “If we don’t recognize their language, we might be giving a message to the child that ‘your language is not important.’ The child might feel belittled,” he said.

Ethnic children who have to learn in Myanmar have extra difficulties, U Htin Zaw said. “A Bamar child may struggle with a subject when she or he starts school, while an ethnic child may have subject and language difficulties.”

Nai Ngwe Thein, a former state education officer, told me that when he worked in Kachin State in the mid-1990s, there was a high school dropout rate due to children not understanding lessons in the Myanmar language.

Myanmar’s education system is now undergoing reforms, but as yet there is very little implementation of mother tongue-based multilingual education. I hope this changes soon, because I think this is one way to ensure equal treatment and opportunities for all citizens and cultures.

That’s my dream; in my mind’s eye I see a time when every ethnic child will be able to come home from school and read their own culture’s nursery rhymes, poetry and stories to their parents.

I dream that I may read the Buddhist sutras in Mon to my grandma before she dies. I fear I cannot really make this happen. But even if it doesn’t, I know that she and I both treasure our talks together in our own language, in what little time we have.

I might speak English at the office and Myanmar on the streets, but when I want to truly express the person I really am, only Mon will do.

International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21 promotes linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. It was first announced by UNESCO in 1999.

This story first appeared in the February 2015 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.