For the first time in more than 40 years, students in Burma will soon be able to learn their ethnic languages in government-run schools.
The country’s quasi-civilian government has launched a new education plan to bring teaching more in line with international standards and starting in June next year, the teaching of ethnic languages will be allowed in state schools.
“We don’t understand Burmese”, said Ji Pan, an eight-year-old student whose mother tongue is Kachin.
“Then the teacher beats us, so many people stopped going to school.”
As many as 60 percent of children in Burma fail to graduate because of language barriers, according to the exile-based rights group Canadian Friends of Burma
Nai Maung Toe from the Mon Language Literature and Cultural Organisation tells a similar story.
“They’re forced to learn the language. Sometimes they get depressed or afraid of the language. And one of the reasons that many children drop out of primary school is language,” he said.
Under the country’s former military dictatorships that ruled Burma for more than four decades, only the teaching of Burmese was allowed in state schools.
Chan Kakao, a student from the Mon ethnic group, said he had only been allowed to study his own language during the holidays.
“If we only learn our ethnic language during the summer, it will only be for a month. At school, we learn for nine months a year. It is more effective”, he said.
Even with the new changes, most classes will still be taught in the Burmese language, but after 3pm select classes will be offered in ethnic languages.
However, Nai Maung Toe said he believed ethnic languages be integrated into school’s standard curriculum.
“Children are studying from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon,” said Nai Maung Toe. “If we teach the local languages after 3pm, it is too much for them. It is like torturing them.”
He added there would be significant benefits to integrating ethnic languages into the mainstream teaching.
“Learning your own language can maintain your culture and literature,” he said. “Otherwise our ethnic group will disappear from the world.”