Friday, February 20, 2015

New Policy To Help Children Learn In Their Mother Tongue

21 February is International Mother Language Day, which celebrates language diversity and variety around the world. 

School Children in Southeast Myanmar © Anne Cecile Vialle, UNICEF

With 111 living languages, Myanmar is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. The seven main ethnic language clusters (Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan) are spoken by more than 23 million people and around 32 million people speak the national language, Myanmar.

For children who speak ethnic languages, Mother Tongue Based-Multi-Lingual Education (MTB-MLE), particularly in the early grades, is critical for increasing equitable access to school, improving cognitive development and learning outcomes, and reducing repetition and dropout rates. In Myanmar’s ethnically diverse society, language is also closely connected with identity, culture, and belonging.

“Some ethnic languages and cultures are disappearing, and these groups cannot preserve their literature and education, which worries the groups”. Participant at a policy development workshop in Mon State.
To support inclusive education for all children in Myanmar, the Government of Myanmar is developing a language in education policy, with the technical assistance of UNICEF, Professor Joseph Lo Bianco from the University of Melbourne, and local NGOs including Pyoe Pin and Nyein (Shalom) Foundation. The policy will be developed simultaneously at the national and state levels using a participatory process of facilitated dialogues, consultations and site visits involving a range of language and education stakeholders including government officials, non-state actors, education experts, and civil society.

Process of Policy Development

Last year, policy development began nationally and in Mon State in southeast Myanmar. Many children in Mon State report speaking a language different from Myanmar at home, in particular Mon and Kayin languages. The mandated use of Myanmar as the medium of instruction in state schools has been a significant barrier to learning, particularly affecting those living in poorer and rural areas who have less exposure to the national language. 

Historically, schools run by the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC), which is the education branch of the non-state actor New Mon State Party, and by monasteries have provided lessons in ethnic minority languages.
“When I was young I didn’t understand the teacher and felt bored in Grades 1 and 2, and then in Grade 3 I went to an MNEC school and was taught in Mon.” Participant at the policy development workshop in Mon State.
Mon State also recently passed a bill that allows Mon and other languages to be taught in state schools for the first time in more than 50 years. This change in policy at the state level reflects ongoing national debates around inclusion of MTB-MLE in education sector reform. Development of a comprehensive language in education policy is therefore coming at an opportune time and is planned for expansion to Kayin, Shan and Kachin States in 2015, with potential for adaptation to more States and Regions in the future.

School Children in Southeast Myanmar © Anne Cecile Vialle, UNICEF

A national MTB-MLE working group comprised of Ministry of Education officials, Experts, Development Partners and NGOs is also being convened by UNICEF and Pyoe Pin, and meets regularly in Yangon. Read our blog and watch the Vox Pop video on this group here.

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