Ewan Cameron argues that we need to see ethnic languages as resources rather than problems to be overcome.
Language in education is one of the most important and emotive issues currently facing Myanmar with educators from the national government, ethnic-based education systems and civil society debating the specifics of how the country’s many languages should be calibrated in a formal education system.
The National Education Law has, in theory, given minority languages official recognition and opened the door for minority languages to be taught in schools as subject languages. Yet for many this is not enough and the national school system lags decidedly behind the aspiration and the reality of how ethnic groups are teaching languages in their own schools. The UNESCO-promoted MTB-MLE (Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education) system, a program of mother tongue instruction in early education that switches to the national language in secondary, has been advocated as a solution to the problem of how to calibrate ethnic and national languages. Yet while it is preferable to the status quo, an orthodox MTB-MLE may hinder development of ethnic languages and relegate non-Burmese languages to a secondary status. Rather than conceive of ethnic minority languages as a problem, Myanmar should see them as a resource and adapt the institutions of the State to welcome, not cripple, them. First, a clarification of relevant terms:
Medium of Instruction: the language that a subject (e.g. history, science, maths) is taught in. The language the teacher speaks in to address the class and usually the language of textbooks.
Subject language: a language that is taught in school as an individual separate subject, but not used to teach subjects such as science, maths, history.
Classroom language: a language that may be used to assist learners who aren’t native speakers of the medium of instruction.
In the twentieth century, government schools in Myanmar alternated between English and Burmese as the language of instruction. During the colonial period, despite the existence of Burmese vernacular schools, English was seen by many as the pre-eminent language of formal education and Burmese was looked down upon, seen by some as a language suited for love letters rather than academia. In the 1910s, there was discussion of ‘self-rule’ in both India and Burma, yet many British officials believed that the Burmese were not developed enough for such a political responsibility. However, at the same time, the colonial authorities were adamant that classes at university should not be taught in Burmese, thus denying the chance for the language and political thought of the Burmese to develop. In December 1920, Rangoon students went on strike and were joined quickly by ninety other schools across the country. Thus, Burmese language became a constituent part of Bamar nationalism and when groups such as the Dobama Asiayone formed in 1930, their rallying motto was around the trifecta of land, literature and language. U Pe Maung Tin, the first Burmese principal of Yangon University, formed a committee to help develop Burmese for the twentieth century. After independence, Burmese became the only official language of the State and government-led education has favoured Burmese as the medium of instruction, at least until university level, where English and Burmese are both used depending on the subject.
What’s missing from this history is the place of the other languages in education. Burmese may be the only official language of post-independence Myanmar but there are many other languages of the country and parallel education systems that have developed or are developing their own curricula. The Karen Education Department schools teach S’gaw Karen at the primary level before switching to an English curriculum with Karen as a classroom language at the secondary level. Burmese is taught as a subject language throughout. Community schools in Kachinland are developing Jinghpaw language curricula for primary and English for secondary. KIO schools have a more complicated arrangement, teaching in Jinghpaw but with Burmese language textbooks. Since the resumption of fighting between Naypyitaw and Laiza, KIO schools have reportedly been focusing more on English and Jinghpaw and less on Burmese.
MTB-MLE has become a popular policy proposal in recent years, with organisations such as the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) and Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center advocating for its adoption as a way to break the deadlock and advance beyond the Burmese/Bamar-dominated education system. Ashley South and Marie Lall have published numerous, well-researched analyses of language and the political process. One of their assertions is that ethnic education systems act as a proxy for larger sentiments towards the Union. South and Lall thus classify the current Kachin and Karen schools (which have no place for Burmese as a medium of instruction) as ‘separatist’ and advocate instead for a version of MTB-MLE. Faced with a policy that would put ethnic languages in government schools, many people have thrown their support behind it, but we should be clear about what MTB-MLE is. Over the past decade, UNESCO has been promoting MTB-MLE in South-East Asia in the Phillipines and Timor-Leste. According to UNESCO, MTB-MLE is a transitional program with students beginning their formal education learning with their mother tongue as the language of instruction. During primary school, they are gradually introduced to the dominant/national language, which eventually takes over as the language of instruction by the end of primary level. Thus, by the time students enter secondary level education they are able to speak and work in the national language. (The KED system is sometimes described as a ‘strong’ MTB-MLE, but for the purposes of this essay, we will use MTB-MLE to refer to the ‘orthodox’ UNESCO description above where the minority ethnic language is dropped as a medium after primary).
In Myanmar, such a framework has been used by the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC), whose “Mon Model” has been held up as an example to the rest of the country of “best practice”. Mon is used as the language of instruction in primary school, and then students transition into the Burmese language of instruction as they progress into high school, while retaining Mon as a subject language. This system allows Mon students to transfer to Burmese-language universities and thus gives them wider options after matriculation. Seen from one angle then, a MTB-MLE system is a compromise between ethnic groups’ wish for their language to be a key part of formal education and the capability of ethnic minority graduates to have the language ability to live and work in Myanmar.
However, there is a problem with MTB-MLE and its implicit view of ethnic minority languages. In short, the non-Burmese languages of Myanmar are conceived as a problem to be overcome rather than a valuable resource in and of themselves. While MTB-MLE is preferable to the current state of affairs in which minority languages have a minimal presence in primary education, in its orthodox form it still mandates that ethnic minority languages be dropped as a medium of instruction at the secondary and tertiary level, as if those languages were something that the students needed to be weaned off. As linguist Tove Skutnubb-Kangas points out, transitional programs see languages as having instrumental value in guiding students towards the national high status language but do not see the intrinsic value in languages. They may also ensure that ethnic minority languages would not have the impetus to develop their vocabulary and literature to cope with tertiary level language. In short, MTB-MLE could, if not adapted, lead to Burmanization under the guise of expanded choice.
Let us flip our perspective. Instead of seeing ethnic languages as the problem, why not see the State as the problem? To illustrate, consider the case of Finland and its language maintenance system for the minority Swedish-speaking Finns. Children from this group may attend Swedish speaking schools for the entire duration of their schooling life, including universities, while learning Finnish as a second language subject. The Finnish state does not just make concessions in education, but goes further and accommodates itself to the language needs of Swedish speakers; government services, legal situations and healthcare can all be accessed in Swedish if needed. In this system, the state does not require the minority language speakers to alter themselves, but instead the state alters itself to accommodate minority language speakers. Similarly, in the UK, Welsh language speakers are able to speak Welsh at all levels of government. With this outcome, the capabilities argument becomes irrelevant because individuals are empowered to flourish in an ecosystem based on their own language.
Ethnic-based education groups in Myanmar, particularly in Kachin and Karen education, have already started on this course of language maintenance. They have not waited for permission to educate their children in their own language. To frame alternative education as ‘separatist’ risks a certain form of methodological nationalism in which all aspiration must be related to the current incarnation of the nation-state. This is not to say that separatist sentiments do not exist, but rather that the choice of language for schooling is a firstly a cultural one. The calibration of language at alternative ethnic schools is in large part due to the demands of parents who wish their children to be able to reproduce and develop their own linguistic culture. Naw Ku Shee, writing about the KED system, has demonstrated that it is not singularly focused on S’gaw, but a strongly additive program that encourages multilingualism in Burmese and English while maintaining and developing S’gaw. Thus the KED system may prove just as desirable a model as the Mon Model.
In fact, there is already a non-Burmese language in Myanmar that is allowed to be taught as a medium of instruction throughout student’s educational lives: English. There are hundreds of English language private schools throughout Myanmar, and rarely has anyone questioned whether they should exist or not. Imagine the uproar if international schools were told that they could no longer teach English as the medium of instruction past primary. So we must ask the question: Why are schools allowed to teach in English, but not in non-Burmese ethnic languages? It appears to be an issue of political economy rather than adherence to just sociolinguistic principles.
Recently Nicolas Salem-Gervais and Mael Raynaud have made a welcome intervention into the debate with an in-depth series of articles at Tea Circle in which they argue against MTB-MLE for very different reasons. The authors point out that given the variety of languages in Myanmar, an MTB-MLE system would end up disenfranchising speakers of minority languages within a minority. In short, an MTB-MLE system could end up cascading language hierarchy downwards to result in S’gaw-ization, Shanization, and Jingphaw-ization in Karen, Shan and Kachin States respectively. A second prong to their argument is the difficulty of language development standardization for languages that lack formal written forms or technical vocabulary. Standardization may result in a somewhat artificial perpetuation of difference between closely related groups. Instead of developing full curricula in minority languages, the authors advocate instead for the continuation and expansion of the current system of teaching ethnic languages as single subjects. The authors’ research is vital to a deeper understanding of the issues that must be confronted. However, in terms of their conclusion, I am more inclined to agree with educational scholar Thein Lwin who takes a rights-based approach to argue that formal education in mother tongue is an intrinsic right for ethnic minorities and that language is an intrinsically valuable resource in its own right. Thein Lwin’s view is that it may not be realistic for all languages to be mediums of instruction, but that local authorities should be empowered to promote all languages “as far as is practically possible”.
It is certainly true that standardizing a language so it can be used in formal education is a complex task and Salem-Gervais and Maynaud have brought a keen analytical eye to the politics of such a process. That said, while language development is not straightforward by any means, that does not mean it is impossible and the fact that EBEPs are moving forward with language development shows that there is a clear will behind this. In some ways, the struggle of the ethnic groups for language in education mirrors those of the Bamar under British Colonialism a hundred years ago. The British said that Burmese was unsuited for higher levels of learning and there is a risk that both orthodox MTB-MLE (which would transition to Burmese in secondary school) and the current policy of ethnic languages as school subjects make the same claims about the ethnic languages of Myanmar.
There is also a determination and a sense of dignity at stake, indeed, the very future of Myanmar. Independence from colonial rule came in 1948, yet in many respects, this was not a liberation of territory but the handover of the central institutions from the British to the Bamar majority with the guarantee that those institutions would be recognised by the international community. The new Burma centred the Burmese language and claimed that it would be sufficient as the only official language of the State, for a land that stretched from the foothills of Himalayas to the Andaman Sea. This, like territorial Myanmar itself, has always been a fiction. The future of the ethnic groups in this region is hard to predict, but if there is any hope of building a Myanmar that is a truly a unity of diversity, then the State must not force ethnic groups to assimilate, but instead, the State itself should adapt to the linguistic reality of this region.
Language in education will continue to prove a controversial topic and it is certainly not the intent of this essay to argue in favour of any one policy that will solve everything. Indeed, it seems that the only way forward is to listen to communities and empower them to make the language choices that they want for their children and future generations. MTB-MLE may well prove to be a policy that proves popular with some communities. Similarly, schools making space in the timetable for specialist language lessons could be a suitable pragmatism. On the other hand, some communities may wish for more comprehensive curricula for their mother tongues and wish to have it as the school language of instruction not just in primary, but in secondary and beyond. In these cases, such schools should not be forced to dismantle these systems but should be accommodated by the State with the realization that language policy is not just a matter for education.
(Image courtesy of Ewan Cameron)
Allot, A. (1985) “Language Policy and Language Planning in Burma”, in David Bradley (ed.), Language policy, language planning and sociolinguistics in South-East Asia. Pacific Linguistics A-67),. (Canberra: Department of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University), 140.
 Charney, M, A History of Modern Burma, (Cambridge University Press), 34.
 Callahan, M, (2003) Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, (Cornell University Press. Ithaca), 36.
 Shee, N. K., (2018) “Karen Education Department’s multilingual education for language maintenance”, Kasetsart Journal of Social Sciences.
 South, A and Lall, M (2016a) Schooling and Conflict: Ethnic Education and Mother Tongue-based Teaching in Myanmar. Asia Foundation.
 Curaming, R.A. and Kalidjernik, F. (2014). “From Sentimentalism to Pragmatism? Language in Education policy making in Timor-Leste,” in Sercombe, P. and Tupas, R. (eds) Language, Education and Nation-Building. Assimilation and shift in Southeast Asia, (Houndmills. Palgrave and Macmillan).
 Skutnubb-Kangas, T. (2000) Linguistic Genocide in Education—Or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. New Jersey).
Ewan Cameron has been working in and around Myanmar for ten years, as a teacher and writer on education issues.