Mother-Tongue Instruction Pushed for Burma’s Schools

By Yen Saning 4 February 2014

RANGOON — A seminar on multilingual education has called for the use of ethnic minorities’ mother tongue as their language of instruction, in combination with allowing local education authorities to draft ethnic language curricula for primary school students who do not belong to Burma’s ethnic Burman majority.

“The attendees agree that children’s mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction in order for ethnic children to be effective in their studies and balance the teaching of national and international language skills,” the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) said in a statement released following the seminar on Saturday.

The two-day seminar was attended by a variety of groups representing ethnic literature and culture preservationists, mother tongue-focused education academics, religious organizations, the government’s Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR) committee, international NGOs, teachers and students. Participants discussed topics on multilingual education that included challenges faced by ethnic minority children under the current education system, language instruction’s links to social cohesion and regional multilingual practices.

“It’s found to be more effective using students’ mother tongue as the language of instruction when teaching the Burmese language in its spoken and written forms,” said Naw Khu Shee, summarizing the findings of her research on teaching of the Burmese language using the Sgaw Karen subgroup’s language among primary school children. “If it’s found to be effective using the mother tongue only as the language of instruction, I’d like to recommend that it would be more effective if the mother tongue is included in the curriculum and exams.”

Currently, Burmese is the language of instruction at schools across the country. Since political reforms that began nearly three years ago, and amid ongoing national reconciliation efforts, a growing call to reinstate ethnic minority languages into classrooms has been met with modest success.

The central government in 2012 allowed the teaching of ethnic minority languages, but only outside of school hours. Those who want language instruction in their mother tongue are also forced to rely on teachers’ volunteerism or other means, with no additional state funding allocated for after-hours instruction.

Critics of the current educational paradigm say it is symptomatic of wider attempts by the country’s Burman majority to suppress the rights and cultural identities of Burma’s ethnic minorities.

Under the democratically elected U Nu government of the 1950s, all schools in Burma’s ethnic areas were permitted to teach ethnic literature in its native tongue to students. However, school curricula were centralized after Gen. Ne Win’s military coup in 1962, and regulations were passed stipulating that all subjects be taught in only one national language—Burmese.

The current government’s ongoing CESR is expected to once again allow a greater degree of autonomy for local education authorities, though what that means for the status of ethnic language instruction remains to be seen.

In presenting his research on language barriers encountered by ethnic children in Burma, Htin Zaw, a social science researcher from the Shalom Foundation, pointed out that children have difficulties understanding unfamiliar topics when the same textbooks are used across Burma’s seven states and seven divisions.

“Texts in Yangon [Rangoon] are the same as texts in Myitkyina and Chin State, where local content is not included,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Min Thein Win, an education liaison officer for World Education, said mother-tongue instruction had an added cultural benefit.

“It can also prevent the extinction of languages,” Min Thein Win told The Irrawaddy. “Children also improve bridging skills in words because of languages. One of the reasons for ethnics’ rebellion is a lack of opportunities to learn their own language well.”

Maw Ko Myar, secretary of a Karrenni committee on that ethnic group’s literature and culture, said “children run away and are afraid of Burmese teachers in rural areas of Karenni State. They are more familiar with teachers who can speak their mother tongue.

“Allowing the teaching of ethnic languages outside of school hours is not enough,” she said, adding that the random assignment of licensed teachers by the Ministry of Education was a “waste of human resources,” as a Karen-speaking teacher might be sent to teach at a school in Kachin State, or a Mon-speaking instructor dispatched to Arakan State.

The use of Burmese as the official language of instruction for schools across Burma was essentially an example of ethnic chauvinism in the education system, according to Thein Lwin of the NNER. “We have to reduce the influence of [Burmese] language and [the ethnic Burman] group to allow the growth of ethnic [minority] languages,” he said.

The NNER has proposed a mother tongue-based, trilingual teaching system with a child’s mother-tongue as first language, Burmese as the second language and English as a third language.

“Mother tongue-based multilingual education can build a bridge between the mother tongue and minority culture, and the government culture and government language,” said Kimmo Kosonen, a lecturer and researcher at Payap University in Thailand.

“The amount of mother tongue instruction that children receive predicts their success in education and learning,” said Kimmo, who is also a senior consultant in multilingual education for SIL International, a US-based NGO that studies languages globally.

Echoing others’ concerns about the local relevance of nationwide curricula, a high school teacher from Chin State said his students struggled to solve math problems where the questions involved ships and trains. The reason for this difficulty? Land-locked and underdeveloped Chin State has neither ships nor trains.

“When children have never seen a train, they don’t know how to calculate the length of a train as asked in the question.”