Linguistic experts called for the safeguarding of ethnic minority languages and for multilingual education in both primary and secondary schools, following a two day seminar in Rangoon.
Local and international experts and other stakeholders attended the seminar, titled “Continuum of the Richness of Languages and Dialects in Myanmar,” from Mar. 25-26.
Salai Bawi Lian Mang, director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, which hosted the seminar, said experts discussed academic papers on linguistics and the language policies of other countries including Singapore, Malaysia, India and countries in Africa.
He said that challenges to preserving ethnic minority languages in the country included a lack of protection for minority languages under current laws and an absence of funding for multilingual education.
He also noted the importance of finding the right balance between learning the national language Burmese and ethnics’ own mother tongues, since without one or the other, employment opportunities and communication across different communities may be affected.
“Our recommendations made after two days of discussion include having a program guaranteeing the continuous uses of ethnics’ languages and dialects; multilingual teaching to young people; and the need for institutional and financial support for multilingual development,” Salai Bawi Lian Mang said.
James A. Matisoff, Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus, at the University of California and one of the seminar’s panelists, voiced support for ethnic groups’ efforts to have their native languages taught in schools.
“Bilingualism/multilingualism is a norm in the society,” he told The Irrawaddy, highlighting Burma’s rich ethnic diversity.
The 77-year-old professor, who is also Principal Investigator with the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary & Thesaurus and speaks fluent Lahu among a raft of other languages, encouraged young children to learn their mother tongues in order to keep them alive. Despite there being some 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, he said, it is estimated that by the year 2100, there will only be 3,000 left.
“I think it is very important… to offer education to the children not only in the national language, but also to some extent in their native language. Children are capable of learning many different languages. It is good for them, for their natural development, and it makes them smarter,” Matisoff said.
“In fact, researchers have shown that it is very good for young children to be exposed to multiple languages when growing up.”
Many of Burma’s minority ethnics speak their own languages at home and in their communities while learning and speaking Burmese at school. But the language barrier is often difficult for young children to overcome.
Under the incumbent government, the teaching of ethnic languages has been permitted, but generally only outside school hours and at the primary school level.
In Mon State, a curriculum that includes Mon language instruction has been taught since mid-2014, making schools in the state the first to teach an ethnic minority language in a government school in more than 50 years.
A key challenge in Burma is encouraging respect for the diversity of spoken languages, said Salai Bawi Lian Mang.
“Diversity is a force for us in building our multi-ethnic country. If we can set strong policies on language, this will act as a driving force in building our democratic nation,” he said.
Linguistic experts from the United States, Japan and Rangoon University were joined at the seminar by ethnic representatives from political parties and armed groups as well as state and division parliamentarians.
“This kind of cooperation we see between scholars and local stakeholders is a step towards regaining the Myanmar greatness of the past,” said Kenneth Van Bik, an ethnic Chin lecturer at the San Jose State University in California, referring to a period when Burma boasted some of the best education levels in Southeast Asia.
Born in Hakha, Chin State, and a proficient speaker of various Chin dialects, Van Bik said that despite the presence of more than 50 ethnic sub-groups in the state, only about a dozen languages were still actually spoken.
“This seminar is only a beginning toward the goal of regaining the past glory of this nation, which has so much potential to offer the world,” he said.