For the first time in 40 years, ethnic languages are being taught in schools in Burma.
Starting this June, students from different ethnic communities will be able learn their mother tongue not only at home, but also in the classroom.
Under the military dictatorship, the teaching of ethnic languages was banned and only Burmese was allowed.
These Kachin children are learning Burmese in a summer school in the outskirts of Myitkyina, Kachin state.
8-year-old Ji Pan says she struggles with the language at school.
“My friends and I can’t follow up the school lessons because we don’t understand Burmese. Then the teacher beats us. So many of us stopped going to school.”
Human rights group say that 60 percent of children across the country don’t finish primary school because of the language barrier.... and it’s even worse in ethnic areas.
Burma has eight major ethnic groups, with Burman - frequently called Burmese - being the dominant group.
When the military junta led by General Ne Win came to power, Burmese became the official national language.
And under the “national language policy”, teaching ethnic languages in schools was banned.
The Mon Language, Literature and Cultural Organisation has been holding free language classes for more than a decade.
Nai Maung Toe from the organisation says there are many benefits to learning local languages.
“Learning your own language can maintain your culture and literature. It’s very important for ethnic people to learn about their languages and preserve their cultural identity. Otherwise our ethnic group will disappear from the world.”
16-year-old Chan Kakao is from the Mon ethnic group. He usually learns his mother tongue at summer school during the holidays.
“It’s better to teach our language at state schools. If we only learn our ethnic language during the summer holidays, it’s only for a month. But at school, we learn for about 9 months a year. It’s more effective that way.”
But earlier this year, the government launched a new education plan, more in-line with international standards.
This includes developing ethnic languages in schools and allowing a greater expression of ethnic identity in public... as the government tries to improve its image by demonstrating its respect for the different ethnic groups in Burma.
But ethnic language classes will only be held outside school hours.
Nai Maung Toe says this won’t be very effective.
“Children are studying from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. If we teach the local language after 3, it’s too much for them. It’s like torturing them. We need to teach local languages within the regular time slot.”
He thinks it’s important for ethnic languages to be included in the curriculum.
“When they go to school, they have to use another language, mostly Burmese. They’re forced to learn the new language. Sometimes they get depresed or afraid of the language. And one of the reasons that many children drop out of primary school is language. They don’t understand the lesson and they can’t catch up with other children.”
And, if every ethnic group is able to preserve their culture, Nai Maung Toe believes this will help to unite the country.
“We should have equality. We should not be discriminated against because of our ethnic identity. The basic principle of equality should start by allowing the teaching of ethnic languages at school because we all are citizens of the union.”
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