Pan-Ethnic Network Launches to Promote Multilingual Education in Burma

By Samantha Michaels 21 February 2014

RANGOON — A new pan-ethnic education network has formed in Burma to push for education reform that would allow young children to learn in their mother-tongue languages at government schools.

The Myanmar/Burma Indigenous Network for Education (MINE) represents more than 10 ethnic groups around the country and launched on Friday to coincide with International Mother Language Day. The network is calling for classes to be conducted in minority languages for young children, and in Burmese and English later on.

About 40 percent of Burma’s population identifies as an ethnic minority, but all classes at the government’s public schools are currently conducted in Burmese, the language of the ethnic Burman majority. Many ethnic minority students speak other languages at home and say they struggle to understand their teachers.

“Based on our discussions with experts and professionals in the field, we believe that if children can be educated in their mother tongues, they will absorb the information and learn best,” Saw Kapi, a spokesman for MINE and director of the Salween Institute for Public Policy, told The Irrawaddy. “However, as they progress to grades four, five and six, we want to begin introducing a second language, Burmese, and then a third language, in most cases English.”

The pan-ethnic network comprises 22 organizations, including the Mon National Education Committee, the Karen Education Department, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) Education Department, and the Rural Development Foundation of Shan State. Other members represent the Karenni, Wa, Pa-O, Akha, Lahu, Palaung and Naga ethnic groups.

In addition to mother-tongue teaching, the network is calling for more control over curricula at the local level—with lessons on ethnic cultures and histories, as well as texts written in ethnic languages.

“We plan to engage with the Ministry of Education, most likely through the CESR process,” said Saw Kapi, referring to the government’s Comprehensive Education Sector Review. “We will look to meet with a variety of government bodies both at the national and state levels.”

The CESR is a two-year review of the school system to identify priority areas for reform, and is expected to conclude later this year. As part of the review, officials have met with ethnic groups and are considering the possibility of introducing mother-tongue teaching.

But multilingual education comes with a number of challenges, including the need to revise textbooks and perhaps reduce class sizes, which would require more teachers. There might also be problems deciding which of several local languages to teach at a particular school. While a majority of students at a school in Mon State might be ethnic Mon, others might identify with another ethnicity and may not have grown up speaking the Mon language at home.

Solutions may vary for different schools. “We want these decisions to be made at the local level, not the ministerial level,” said Saw Kapi. If 80 percent of students at a particular school are Mon, he said, school administrators might decide to offer three classes—two classes in the Mon language and one class for students who would prefer to learn in Burmese. “But the key is, we do not want the central government or the Ministry of Education telling us what to do and what curriculum to use.”

The pan-ethnic network was formed as a result of an education seminar hosted last week by the Karen Teacher Working Group (KTWG). The seminar was led by Dr. Joseph Lo Bianco, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Melbourne.

Mother-tongue teaching has already been introduced in some parts of Burma, typically in areas outside state control, where ethnic rebel groups have operated during decades of conflict with the government. In these areas, ethnic education groups—including the Mon, Karen and KIO education departments—established their own non-state schools that teach ethnic minority languages and histories in primary school.

“We have our own curriculum before high school, and we teach our Kachin-language literature in every grade,” said Naw Zet of the Kachin National Education Committee, referring to schools in areas of Kachin State that are controlled by the KIO. “We also have summer Kachin literacy classes for the whole community, including children, juniors and adults.”

However, these schools are not recognized as legal by the government and receive no state funding, while students who attend them sometimes struggle to matriculate to government-run universities.

Most schools in the country are run by the government. At some of these schools, teachers may volunteer to promote ethnic languages outside of school hours, but they receive no state funding. Other students study ethnic languages over the summer at monasteries or other religious institutions.

“In the parts of Karen State which are controlled by the Burmese government, there is no Karen language taught [in schools] and no Karen history,” said Naw K’nyaw Paw, secretary of the Karen Women Organization (KWO), another member of MINE. “These schools provide all instruction in Burmese and teach a version of Burmese history which is clearly from their perspective. They are taking one ethnicity and teaching it to Karen children, excluding our culture, language and history.”

She said ethnic groups would be more likely to persuade the government to change the system by banding together as a single network.

“We are all looking to preserve our culture and language. These are central to who we are,” she told The Irrawaddy. “The Burmese government has divided ethnic groups in the past by claiming we all want different things. We want to be abundantly clear that we are united on this central issue facing our communities.”

Multilingual education has been promoted in many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, which according to Unesco is home to about 2,300 different languages. While some countries have adopted mother tongue-based education systems with dozens of languages taught in primary schools, others have adopted smaller, experimental mother-tongue programs. Multilingual education has been widely debated in some countries, such as East Timor, where the government suggested the idea but faced resistance from critics who said the teaching style would be difficult to implement and could threaten national unity.