Updated: Feb 7
By Katie Craig (Myanmar Indigenous Community Partners)
GCLR support grass roots advocacy efforts and promotes the voices of language advocates around the world by publishing their content on our blog. The views expressed in this post are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Coalition.
Nestled between Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Bangladesh, Myanmar is a confluence of languages and cultures. There are over 130 languages used indigenously in the country, representing 6 different language families.
These languages and their associated ethnic identities have been used to include and exclude – often with violence – for decades.
A Bit of Context
British rule started in what is now known as Myanmar in 1824. Of course at this time Myanmar (formerly Burma) was not a country. The British first subjugated (part of) the Burman Empire, named such because of the dominant language/people - the Burmans/Bamar. Great Britain then gained power other sovereign nations and territories surrounding the Burman Empire.
During British rule, many areas (namely the hill regions) enjoyed much autonomy. Also noteworthy is the fact that the British exacerbated pre-existing ethnic tensions and helped generate new racial/ethnic tensions as they favored some races/ethnicities over others.
This was the state of the country when independence was gained in 1948, a hodge-podge of separate nations brought together in part by outside invaders, lacking a cohesive central government and national identity.
Since 1948, the country has struggled to establish peace, with continuous fighting between the military (who has always maintained de jure, if not de facto, power of the government) and many different armed groups, mostly claiming to represent various ethno-linguistic communities.
Language as a Political Tool
Given this political landscape, with allegiances so often formed on ethno-linguistic lines, language is highly political. Lack of language rights, particularly the right to develop educational opportunities in students’ first language, has been one of the primary grievances of non-Bamar people.
In the past, the Bamar-dominated government prohibited the use of non-Bamar indigenous languages, arresting or murdering those who would work to maintain those languages. It goes without saying that Burmese was the language of instruction in schools (although non-state schools also operated). The prohibition of non-Bamar languages, rather than uniting a people under one language, often bolstered non-Bamar groups to further to disassociate themselves with a Myanmar/Bamar identity.
These sorts of language policies and ideologies were also the impetus, one could argue, for the formation of parallel education systems and other organizations (primarily Language and Culture Committees) all over the country, whose primary mandates are to preserve the language and heritage of their respective community. These systems and organizations are often tightly linked with armed groups.
This is the complex and contentious linguistic and political situation in which civil society, aid groups, and the central government are operating in while undertaking the task of curriculum reform. Which languages should be used in the curriculum? How should multilingualism be approached? What is the goal of a multilingual curriculum? And does this apply to parallel systems and schools?
The Push for MTB-MLE
In light of this, many NGOs and education practitioners have started to push for an MTB-MLE (Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education) system (where students learn their first language first), viewing it as a kind of “silver bullet”, solving the “multilingual issue” and ensuring linguistic equality. In this way, they say, students will achieve greater academic success, there will be greater social cohesion, and the linguistic rights of non-Bamar people will be ensured.
The logic behind MTB-MLE is simple – the curriculum needs to be based on what students already know. In education pedagogy, this is called scaffolding. This is not a new or radical concept. We learn new concepts by building off of what we already know and we make connections with known knowledge in order to understand new knowledge. So, teachers must teach in a way that builds off of what the learner comes to school with (what they already know and can do). Since every student comes to school with their own linguistic repertoire, this repertoire needs to be used as a foundation from which to build new knowledge.
The MTB-MLE model is championed by many as a means to gain proficiency in dominant languages (like Burmese) as well as global languages (like English). The focus in MTB-MLE tends pretty strongly toward language proficiency, rather than language rights.
The basic precept of MTB-MLE, in that it is educationally more advantageous to learn in one’s first language first, is undeniable. However, there are fundamental concepts and structures that still need to be addressed in regards to what language is (and isn’t) as well as how and why languages and language varieties (as well as the people who speak or sign them) are stigmatized and marginalized.
Ignoring these considerations would be to fail, in part, to address how language can provoke social conflict and fail to adequately ensure language rights. Without interrogating the relative status of the many languages of Myanmar (and those who sign and speak them) and the systems and attitudes that underpin their dominance will also work against the stated aims of MTB-MLE: greater academic success and social cohesion.
These considerations are:
Preservation of Hierarchical Structures
Firstly, the MTB-MLE model, as it is usually applied, reinforces a hierarchical structure of languages. The same stigmatizations and inequities will likely be perpetuated if these hierarchies are not addressed. If marginalization of speakers and signers of certain languages persists, nothing has been done to address some of the underlying preconditions of social conflict – and language rights have not truly been addressed.
Standard Language Ideology and Native Speakerism
Linguistic discrimination (and discrimination of those who speak and sign those languages) sometimes stems from the basic assumptions about language that we hold without knowing it. By looking at these assumptions we can see the ways in which languages or language varieties (and those who speak and sign them) are stigmatized or bestowed prestige, in Myanmar and elsewhere.
Promoting “standard” language leaves speakers and signers of so-called “non-standard” varieties disenfranchised and confers power to speakers and signers of “standard” language, cultivating the circumstances in which conflict thrives. It encourages discrimination and it fails to create a supportive classroom for all students, a detriment to their success.
Similarly, the concept of who is and isn’t a “native” speaker can reveal the relative power of a language (and those who speak and sign them).
Without interrogating the ways in which MTB-MLE and other systems may perpetuate stigmatization and exclusion (even under the guise of inclusion), we are working against our stated aims of greater academic success and social cohesion.
Language is not apolitical, especially in Myanmar. Decisions made regarding language in the curriculum must be considered in light of this fact and efforts need to be made in order to not reinforce disparities. Without doing so, language rights will not be achieved.
The discussions brought up here are not complete; there is much more that needs to be addressed and questioned, including the question of why these languages stigmatized and neglected. Simply including languages in the curriculum will not suffice if the underlying systems and ideologies that prop up some languages and language varieties (and the speakers and signers that use them) and marginalize others are not interrogated.
You can learn more about language, linguistics, and Myanmar by following Myanmar Indigenous Community Partners (MICP) on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @MyanmarICP, finding us on our website: myanmaricp.org, and subscribing to our newsletter (you can do that on the website, at the link in our bio on Instagram, or message us with your email on any platform).
You can support us and our work in language rights by sharing – this blog post, our social media channels, and the things that you have learned – with those in your circles. We will have the option to donate soon – keep checking our social media and website!