MYITKYINA— For the first time in 40 years, ethnic languages are going to be taught in schools in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Starting next June, students from different ethnic communities will be able learn their mother tongue not only at home, but also in the classroom.
When the military junta led by General Ne Win came to power in 1962, Burmese became the official national language, and teaching ethnic languages in schools was banned under the "national language policy."
In the outskirts of Myitkyina, in the northern state of Kachin, there is a summer school where children are learning Burmese. Ji Pan, 8, says she struggles with the language at school. "My friends and I can't follow the school lessons because we don't understand Burmese," she says. "Then the teacher beats us. So many of us stopped going to school."
Human rights groups say that 60% 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 Burmans — often called Burmese — being the dominant group.
The Mon Language, Literature and Cultural Organization has been holding free language classes for more than a decade. Employee Nai Maung Toe says there are many benefits to learning local languages.
"Learning your own language can maintain your culture and literature," he says. "It's very important for ethnic people to learn about their languages and preserve their cultural identity. Otherwise, ethnic groups will disappear from the world."
Sixteen-year-old Chan Kakao is from the Mon ethnic group, and he usually studies his mother tongue at summer school. "It's better to teach our language at state schools," he says. "If we only learn our ethnic language during the summer holidays, it's only for a month. But at school, we learn for about nine 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.
Still, ethnic language classes will only be held outside school hours, and Nai Maung Toe says this won't be very effective. "Children study from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon," he says. "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 depressed 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."
If every ethnic group is able to preserve their culture, Nai Maung Toe believes this will help unite the country. "We should have equality," he says. "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."