Friday, October 7, 2016

The time is right - perspectives on language dialogue from Kachin

By Deirdre Naughton, Education Communications

Kachin State, September 2016 - Daw L Ja Aung Lu teaches grade one pupils in Mogaung Township, Kachin State.  Her day begins even before the pupils make their way through the school gate and into their classrooms.  She reviews her planning notes, reminding herself of her teaching content for the day, and mentally revises the language she will use with her diverse group of pupils.  
Daw L Ja Aung Lu (left) with some of her fellow teachers
©UNICEF Myanmar/ Deirdre Naughton/2016
Daw Lu starts each lesson in Myanmar language, then explains a second time in Chin Po, the mother-tongue of 50 % of her pupils, enabling all the children in her class to understand, and progress their learning together. 



She has been a head teacher in Mogaung Township, Kachin State, for four years, and was appointed after only one year of teaching and performs the dual role of class and head teacher. She has 85 pupils in her school, with ethnic Chin Pho making up 50%, Sawa 30% and the remaining pupils being Shan, Lowo and Hindu.  She speaks Myanmar but also tries her utmost to understand the ethnic languages of the pupils in her care.  She notes that parents know that their children will find it easier to learn if their mother-tongue language is used.  Parents are very supportive of her language approach - using supplementary instruction and facilitating the children’s understanding through Chin Pho. “It’s simple, children don’t want to attend school if they can’t understand.” 

Daw Lu is showing in practice what educational research confirms - that children learn better, faster and more easily in their first language. Language learning research shows that children learn better when they understand the language of instruction – especially in the early grades.  Research shows that children also learn additional languages more easily if they are literate in their own language first.  Lessons learned from the ASEAN region (including Cambodia, Thailand, and Philippines),  show that  Mother Tongue Based- Multi Lingual Education (MTB-MLE) is one of the most appropriate approaches to solve the learning outcome difficulties occurred by language barriers for ethnic children. 

For Daw L Ja Aung Lu, the first lesson on a concept can be taught in Myanmar, but should be followed by an explanation in Chin Po. However, not all teachers in the school necessarily speak Chin Pho, so they can’t teach in this language.  Therefore, after children transition from Daw L Ja Aung Lu’s class into the next class, where Chin Pho is not used by the teachers, “there are more absences after this transition.  The understanding is not there and they do not want to attend,” says Daw Lu. 

According to Daw Lu, a Language Policy will make things change, “If there is a policy in place, even at the youngest level, especially at the kindergarten level, we will be able to explain and use the children’s own language – the language they learnt at home, so that in school, teaching will be more effective and useful for children’s learning.” 

Daw Lu believes that there are critical next steps that can be taken to support the process of language policy development.  “The education department of Kachin State needs to give official recognition to the State language policy.  In relation to children’s right to education, it is often high decision making people who are involved, but it is vital to involve teachers and head teachers for their perspective from the ground and to gain practical insights.” 

Daw Lu has attended Language Dialogue workshops supported by UNICEF in Kachin State twice. In the past she didn’t understand clearly the link between peace, social cohesion and education. Through the dialogues and workshops, she understands now the critical importance of mother-tongue-based multi-lingual education (MTB-MLE).   “If the language policy reflects the reality of communications in schools, it will be a strong policy and this will contribute to peace and unity.  Without a strong policy at State level, we cannot build a successful policy at national level,” she states. Daw Lu believes that a national language policy can only be successfully developed on the foundation of regional and state level policies.

U Hkaing Lim, Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Kachin
©UNICEF Myanmar/ Deirdre Naughton/2016

UNICEF has facilitated dialogues to help in preparing language policies in Kachin and Mon states, supported by the three year Peacebuilding through Education and Advocacy Programme (funded by the Government of the Netherlands and UNICEF).

U Hkaing Lim, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Kachin State, has also been involved in language policy dialogue and believes in the importance of mother-tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) for all children, especially now. “In Myanmar, we have 135 ethnic language groups and for many decades all language and literacy has been ignored. We cannot allow them to disappear. This is my first time involved because I feel the time is right for us to work together on this language issue.”

UNICEF calls on the Government of Myanmar to join with all parties to develop a conflict-sensitive, multi lingual education policy that meets the needs of various ethnic groups, and to gather more data (Language Mapping) on children who speak other languages at home – and on their performance in school. 

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