Students learn the Kayah ethnic language at No.3 High School in Loikaw, Karenni State, the last week of June 2017. / Thet Htun Naing / The Irrawaddy
By Nyein nyein July 20, 2017
LOIKAW, KAYAH STATE – Ethnic language teachers prefer programs based on their own languages over textbooks translated from Burmese, educators in Loikaw, Kayah state told The Irrawaddy.
The former quasi-civilian government in 2012 permitted the teaching of ethnic languages as extracurricular subjects in places with a majority of non-Burmese students. Yet the curricula used were and continue to be versions of the original Burmese primary textbooks in these ethnic languages.
In Kayah state, around 120 out of 150 schools teach their own ethnic languages from grades one to three, while Burmese remains the language of the curriculum thereafter.
Four ethnic languages - Kayah, Kayan, Kayaw and Gaybar – are currently taught to some 10,000 students with more than 330 teachers across the state, according to the Kayah State Department of Education. The teaching of the Gaybar language was only added this year, at the level of the first year. Other Karenni ethnicities, including Yin Baw, Yintalay, Gaykho, and Manu Manaw, do not yet have classes.
“Translating Bamar’s textbooks into ethnic languages only allows students about 30% comprehension because they can guess from the pictures. But the text is tough, ”said Maw Hsu Myar, deputy director of the Kayah State Department of Education, responsible for ethnic language development.
She said that each ethnic group tries to develop its own curricula because the translated textbooks “are not effective”. So far, the Kayah language program has been developed and a manual and teacher’s guide should be available in September. But study programs for other ethnic languages like Kayan, Kayaw, and Gaybar still only exist in translated versions.
Under current regulations, the languages of ethnic nationalities are taught one hour a day; in Loikaw, as in many other places in Myanmar, classes are held outside of normal school hours.
Loikaw No.3 Basic Education High School gives Kayah language lessons for about 30-45 minutes at lunchtime, after students and teachers have quickly eaten their food.
“Since there is not enough time on weekdays, we have to teach them every Saturday for about half a day, from 8 am to noon, so that they can catch up with the program,” said Byu Myar. Cho, a teacher who is also a Kayah language teacher at the school. She has been teaching Kayah since 2013.
The high school has two classrooms that teach Kayah and Kayaw languages, with 35 students per class.
If it was possible to designate a session to teach the Kayah language as part of the class schedule, it would “greatly reduce the burden” on students as well as teachers, Byu Myar Cho explained.
“Ethnic students don’t have time to play at lunch break or rest on Saturdays, while other students can. It’s a burden on us now. We want to teach the Kayah language like other subjects, during class time, ”she said.
Teachers must use both languages - Kayah or Kayaw and Burmese – when teaching students, as textbooks are translations.
“The new Kayah program is easier to teach because in Kayah we also have our own alphabet, consonants and vowels. Students should learn from an easy level, starting with the basic Kayah alphabet, ”said Byu Myar Cho.
It is a “policy weakness” that ethnic languages need to be translated from the Burmese language curriculum, said U Thein Naing, ethnic language curriculum consultant and curriculum expert. He worked with the Department of Education for the development of a mother tongue-based multilingual education approach (MTB-MTE). He is also a curriculum consultant for Mon and Kachin states.
U Thein Naing said ethnic language policy should be based on MTB-MTE and the program should be based on ethnicity, as well as locality. The approach recommends that students’ native languages not only be taught as separate subjects, he said, but adopted to teach core curriculum content, such as math, social studies and art.
He urged educators of ethnic nationality to participate in writing new curriculum content and stressed the importance for states to conduct their own research and have the freedom to make decisions to meet their regional needs. “The government must recognize these efforts to build capacity and must support ethnic education departments,” he said.
Khu Phe Nyoe Reh, chairman of the Kayah National Literature and Culture Committee (KNLCC), said the teaching of ethnic languages outside of school hours impedes the progression of students to the next level in that language, despite the fact that they pass to different levels in other subjects.
Although there have been delays so far, Khu Phe Nyoe Reh said he sees the government’s initiatives as a step towards meeting their needs. He hopes that more efforts will be made to teach the languages of ethnic nationalities during normal school hours, to hire more educators and to provide greater support for appropriate teaching materials.