Guest Column

Language Diversity in Myanmar—A Blessing in Disguise?

By Joanna Dolinska 1 August 2017

My father told me a story that happened to two of his friends on a tram in Warsaw in the 1980s. Both men were from the Podlasie region in northeast Poland and were having a conversation in their local dialect, which is a mixture of Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian. At some point one of the passengers nearby whispered loudly to his neighbor: “Can you hear them? They must be Russian!”

The nearby passenger’s comment is somewhat understandable, because Poland is predominantly a monolingual country and a potential dialect might raise a few eyebrows. Those who speak a dialect always speak the official language of the country, which is Polish. Dialects are not taught at schools, though they sometimes serve as the first language for children in the countryside (at least in some parts of the Podlasie region). In Myanmar, however, it is a well-known fact that citizens speak various languages on an everyday basis and not all local-language speakers are proficient in the official language of Myanmar. As has been suggested in the Myanmar Country Report: Language, Education and Social Cohesion (LESC) Initiative, local-language speakers’ proficiency reflects “highly variable rates of knowledge of its standard forms and literacy”. It is worth emphasizing that more often than not, in the Myanmar context, we talk about a variety of languages rather than just a variety of dialects. It is not a subtle difference. Local languages in Myanmar are usually not inter-intelligible, for example, Kachin language speakers will not understand the representatives of the Shan linguistic community.

This language variety in Myanmar has been reflected in the country’s legislation as well. Article 21 of the Constitution of the Union of Burma from 1974 stipulated that all national races have the right to develop their language, provided that the exercise of this right will not be in conflict with the public interest. The official language at that time was called Burmese. The constitution also mentioned that Burmese language shall be used in the administration of justice. While the use of ethnic languages was possible, in such cases, the support of interpreters would be required. It seems that at that time, there was no strong focus on providing education in the ethnic languages. As Article 152 suggests, “Burmese is the common language. Languages of the other national races may also be taught.” So, they can, but they don’t have to.

With further research, it becomes obvious that the use of ethnic languages in any public sphere was discouraged. As long as it is accepted that the central organs of the state need to communicate in one language, Article 198 of the same constitution might sound surprising—the use of ethnic languages was also discouraged between the organs of the state at the lowest level. Only “if necessary,” could the ethnic languages be used. When thinking about the practical aspect of this law, it seems only natural that lower level officials in the far regions of Shan or Kachin states would speak their mother tongues in such contexts. Even though the constitution from 1974 (and any constitution, in fact) is a far cry from a poetical text, we can read between the lines nonetheless—local languages were merely tolerated in the public sphere and their use was accepted only “if necessary.” The Constitution from 2008 seems to put more responsibility on the state to support the cultivation of ethnic languages. Article 22 mentions that the Union shall assist “to develop language (…) of the National races (…).”

The results of the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census show the ethnic and religious variety of Myanmar, yet language is not directly addressed in the questionnaire. It is merely touched upon in question no. 19: “Can (Name) read and write in any language?” where literacy is understood as the ability to read and write in any language. Only in this respect does the questionnaire suggest that there might be more than one language spoken in Myanmar. Nevertheless, from a technical perspective, language variety did play an important role in the preparation of the census. The choice of persons who conducted the national census, recruited (mainly teachers recruited by the Ministry of Education and Township Census Committees) was dictated by their knowledge of local languages and communities. In order to ensure the data quality and gain certainty that the meaning of the census was understood, publicity materials were also translated into a variety of local languages. Despite good intentions, conducting the census in various linguistic communities was not free of challenges. While language identification and diversity even within a community/ethnic group led to problems of final categorization/classification of the ethnicity, not all teachers were proficient in local languages, which resulted in the fact that some replies might have gotten “lost in translation.”

Having briefly presented the language policy in Myanmar, I would like to take a step further and throw some light on how its results are represented in the everyday life. It is undeniable that language variety in Myanmar has a direct impact on the educational sector, and in the long-term perspective, on the quality of life of Myanmar citizens. Those who speak Myanmar are usually more likely to succeed in their education. As the quotation below suggests, language is a factor that impacts the overall educational outcomes:

There are multiple and complex, and often context-specific, reasons for children dropping out of school at primary and secondary levels, of which poverty, language difficulties, disability and “lack of interest” are the most common.

This powerful sentence comes from the National Education Strategic Plan 2016-2021 (NESP) which (published in 2017) is a ground-breaking document that introduces a series of serious changes to the Myanmar education system and is supposed to restructure the educational sector within 5 years, with its full implementation in 2030. Also, the Thematic Report on Education (Census Report Volume 4-H) from the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census suggests that a ‘language barrier’ is a significant factor that causes children from minority groups to drop out of school, especially during the transition from primary to lower secondary school, as well as from lower to upper secondary school. A positive sign is that the NESP encourages the teaching of ethnic languages and their use as the language of instruction. Moreover, it mentions the need to develop the “local curriculum” and textbooks in the local languages at the level of the basic education, which is a big step forward in shaping the inclusive national language policy. Authors of these local languages textbooks are also supposed to receive training on curriculum development.

Fortunately, in addition to the government initiated reports and roadmaps, grassroots initiatives that encourage a better language policy appear in Myanmar as well. For example Myanmar/Burma Indigenous Network for Education was established in 2014 in order to promote the rights to use the native languages as the means of instruction and it unites 22 organizations from Myanmar. There are also voices suggesting the decentralization of the educational system that could give local authorities influence on the curriculum and the language of instruction at schools, as suggested in the Myanmar Country Report. Language, Education and Social Cohesion (LESC) Initiative. Given the efforts of the current government to acknowledge ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, yet with a strong focus on the central role of the Union government in Naypyitaw, this initiative sounds highly unlikely.

Language can be an instrument of exclusion, as the examples from the educational sector have shown. Nevertheless, there is also a possibility that an inclusive approach towards national languages, stimulated by the Myanmar government and locally supported, might contribute to establishing peace in the ethnic -based conflicts in Myanmar. By offering more space to local languages at school, minority children will gain confidence that their language, culture and values matter and are respected. The strength of Myanmar lies in its richness and diversity. It is true that the language situation is complex, but bilingual education in the traditionally non-Myanmar speaking areas is a good introduction to learning foreign languages. On the other hand, learning about minority languages and their users teaches respect and tolerance that can also be transferred on the international level in the future, when kids grow up. Managing a complicated language policy only adds to the challenges that the new Myanmar government is currently facing. Nevertheless, it is a positive sign that language diversity has been addressed as one of the priority topics in the groundbreaking educational reform initiated within the NESP. In the times of democratic reforms and opening up of the country, Myanmar citizens dream of equal opportunities abroad. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the current government took the right path in creating equal opportunities in the Myanmar schooling system. After all, equality also begins at home.

Joanna Dolińska is a PhD student from the University of Warsaw researching Altaic languages. This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Myanmar.