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Promoting Mother-Tongue Based – Multilingual Education in Myanmar

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From JPF’s Page – Children at one of 132 Mon National Schools currently operating in Mon State

Teaching children in the language they are born into, that they use with their families and their friends, is globally recognized as the most effective way for early learning to take place.[1] With this issue in mind, on 10 May, the Ethnic Nationalities Affairs Center (ENAC) have launched a policy paper that explores Mother-Tongue Based – Multilingual Education, a method of providing education in more than one language, that is rooted in the mother-tongue.

The paper was launched publicly in order for all stakeholder groups and individual organizations to gain greater insight of options for reform of the education sector, which is an area of concern voiced within the peace negotiations. It is expected that ENAC will continue to use the document as an advocacy tool for engaging policy makers on future reform.

Currently, government schools teach in Myanmar language. Yet it’s tough for young children to grasp new concepts and think critically in words that are also foreign. This approach could be a way to improve academic achievement and critical thinking skills in many marginalized areas of the country.

This paper, which was supported by the Joint Peace Fund, looks at how schools in Mon State are addressing this challenge by implementing their own version of Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education. Currently there are 132 Mon National Schools operating in Mon State using this method. It involves 80 percent of education at primary level being conducted in Mon language. This is then followed by bilingual secondary education that allows children to progress towards university education. These schools are not officially recognized and often lack adequate teacher training, teaching resources and funding, but nevertheless they provide a potential solution to a challenge faced in many areas of Myanmar. Pon Nya Mon, ENAC’s Deputy Executive Director said: “Implementation of Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education is clearly possible as seen elsewhere and in Mon State.”

ENAC’s paper draws on four international case studies from the USA, Switzerland, India and Papua New Guinea, all of which use variations of this method of combing mother tongue with multilingual education. The paper explores different models which going forward, Myanmar might consider: a ‘state/region-based model’, where state/regional governments implement it across the state/region; an ‘ethnic-based model’, where it is used by certain ethnic groups; and a ‘schools-based model’ where individual schools adopt it.

The debate around effective mother tongue education is one of the many challenges facing Myanmar’s peace process, and Zo Tum Hmung, ENAC’s Executive Director, thinks that this approach may be part of the solution. “I believe that the system of mother tongue-based multilingual education can provide support to the peace process and help us progress forward from over six decades of civil war and conflict”.

[1] Article 4 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities proclaims that “states should take appropriate measures so that, wherever possible, persons belonging to minorities may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue.”


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