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Critics of ethnic languages in government schools lack logic

Writting by Pon Nya Mon – Over the past couple years many scholars, activists, and politicians have been debating on whether or not to allow the teaching of ethnic languages in government schools. It’s been part of many discussions on Burma’s much needed educational reforms.

Critics of ethnic languages in government schools lack logicAll students are required to be taught in Burmese regardless of their ethnic background. Learning other ethnic languages is not permitted in these schools. In order to preserve their mother tongue many ethnic politicians, leaders, and activists are asking for the government to allow ethnic languages to be introduced in government schools in their areas.

Some government officials and activists are against the idea. They claim it will create budget constraints, conflicts in class scheduling, and because the country is so ethnically diverse, the school system won’t be able to accommodate all the languages.

First argument

Government does not have a sufficient budget to support ethnic languages in government schools. During a recent educational reform debate by Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB)’s, a panelist argued that if Mon language is allowed in government schools it would drain the budget because the government can’t hire additional teachers or developing additional text books in Mon language.

There is little doubt teaching ethnic languages would contribute to budget problems. But this does not mean the problem can’t be solved. There are many ways to find additional funding.

The government can increase the education budget. Currently it is only 4.4% of the national budget for 2013, but military gets more than 20%. Since the government has signed cease-fire agreements with many ethnic armed groups, the government can reduce their budget and funnel this into education to fill the shortfall.

Secondly, the government can request funding from foreign donors, especially for curriculum development and basic teachers training. Many foreign governments and international non-government organizations (INGOs) are willing to fund Burma’s education. In fact, millions of dollars have already been funded in education by foreign countries and INGOs over past two years alone. Since promoting ethnic languages is part of national reconciliation, peace process funds such as Myanmar Peace Support Initiative (MSPI) should be utilized.

Thirdly, central government can decentralize education management to fall under the control of state and division governments. Decentralization not only increases efficiency in managing education, but also affords state and division governments more autonomy in addressing their specific educational needs. This leaves room for the central government to reallocate some responsibility to the states and divisions. The central government, however, can remain as a supporting role. For example, the central government can provide basic funding. If states and divisions need additional funding they can raise it themselves. For this to work they must be allowed to to collect taxes and fund raising in their regions.

Second Argument

If ethnic languages are allowed to teach in government schools, it would conflict with the current teaching schedule. So far ethnic languages have been only permitted to be taught outside of regular school hours. A government school administrator in a Mon village argued “if Mon language is taught in our school, it could create conflict with our school schedule”. Burma’s Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, who is ethnically Shan, is also against teaching ethnic languages within school hours, although he never specified his reasons for this. In June 2012, Minister of Education U Mya Aye announced that ethnic languages can only be taught outside of normal schools hours.

There are many cases around the world that show how multiple languages can be successfully taught during school hours. For example, in the US students can learn French, Spanish, Japanese or Russia during regular school hours. In India students are required to learn three languages: English, Hindi, plus one regional language, all taught during with regular classes.

Locally there are more 200 schools operating in Mon and Karen states and Tennaserism Division under the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC). MNEC operates two school systems. One is taught in the students’ mother tongue. The other is a mixed school system with both Burmese and native dialect, no additional school hours required.

A high school principal in Kyar Inn Seik Township, Karen state said teaching Mon in his school during school hours wouldn’t pose a problem. He could find the time for the class if the government allowed it during regular school hours.

The problem in teaching ethnic languages during school hours is not related to a scheduling conflict, it’s more about ineffective management. If school administrators can manage their scheduling there will be enough time in the day. Should extra time be needed, school hours can be extended.

Teaching ethnic languages outside school hours discourages students from learning. Not everyone will want to stay at school after formal classes have ended. Many young people are not inspired to learn their native tongue after it was banned for decades. Unless ethnic languages are formally taught, students are unlikely to stay to attend the classes.

Teaching ethnic languages outside of normal school hours makes them secondary to Burmese. For the sake of national reconciliation, ethnic languages must be treated equally and importantly to the Burmese language.

Third Argument

Teaching ethnic languages in government schools is impossible since there are many different languages or dialects in Burma, and in some areas they also overlap. If new languages are allowed to be taught in government schools, other groups will press for similar demands creating a problem of too many languages being introduced. In other words, it is both impractical and impossible to teach ethnic languages for all groups since the country has 135 ethnic groups.

Although it is true that some areas have overlapping ethnic groups and languages, there are also many areas that do not have overlapping ethnic groups and languages. Most of government schools in rural areas are attended exclusively by one main ethnic group. For example, in Mon state, most of government schools in rural areas are attended exclusively by Mon students. Although Mon populations are overlapped with other ethnic groups at state or city levels, population overlap is rare at village level. For example, in Kyar Inn Seik Kyi Township, Karen state, there are over 30 Mon villages. Most government schools in those villages are attended exclusively by Mon students. Therefore, for those schools, the government does not need to teach all 135 ethnic languages, only Mon and Burmese. In this case Mon can even be used as the main language offered in those schools.

In towns and cities and some rural areas ethnic groups and languages do overlap each other. A government school may be attended by students from two or more ethnic groups. In this case ethnic languages can be taught as optional subjects. If a school has two or more ethnic groups, let’s say 30% of students are Mon and 70% are Burman, Mon can be taught as an optional language subject. Students including Burman students can choose Mon as optional subject if they wish.

During U Nu’s administration ethnic languages were allowed to be taught in government schools during normal schools hours. There is no reason why they cannot be taught now. India has more than one thousand ethnic groups and languages. China has 55 ethnic groups. Both countries offer ethnic languages classes as a regular part of their curriculum. Like Burma these countries have many ethnic groups. Hence, Burma should learn from their experience.

Ethnic leaders want their native tongues taught in schools where they constitute the majority. They aren’t asking to teach ethnic languages in all government schools, and certainly not to teach all of the supposed 135 ethnic dialects in each and every government school as have been purported by critics. Using 135 races as a justification to deny the ethnic rights or the rights of teaching ethnic languages is not a solution to help resolving the long-standing ethnic conflict in Burma.

The critics’ arguments do not address the key issues of the ethnic problem. Teaching native languages in government schools is very important for cultural survival. Over the past sixty years, non-Burman languages culture and history have been suppressed by successive Burman regimes. Many young people don’t know their native language, or anything about their culture and history threatening the survival of non-Burman ethnic identities.
Ethnic languages are in danger of disappearing in this century unless formally introduced in government schools. They must be part of the curriculum to maintain the diverse ethnic identities in the country. This in turn will build unity and harmony among all the groups in Burma. Ethnic languages need to be treated equally to Burmese.
Pon Nya Mon is a Research fellow at the Salween Institute (www.salweeninstitute.org). He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .