Thursday, September 21, 2017

Myanmar debates axing English from universities

After decades of decay and imposed neglect under military rule, universities are slowly rebuilding, sometimes in new partnerships with foreign institutions. One of the most sweeping changes being debated is whether to formally abandon English and bring back Myanmar as the language of instruction.

A teacher leads a class at Victoria College, a private institute in Yangon. (Yu Yu/The Myanmar Times)A teacher leads a class at Victoria College, a private institute in Yangon. (Yu Yu/The Myanmar Times)

Since independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has switched back and forth in its language policy. In a nationalistic backlash against former colonial rule, General Ne Win ordered universities to abandon English and adopt Myanmar as the medium of instruction in 1964. But in the late 1980s the dictator changed tack and sidelined Myanmar. It is widely believed he was furious that his daughter, Daw Sandar Win, had failed to gain entry to a British medical school due to her poor English-language skills.

Whatever the reasons for the policy change, it was a decision that met with little opposition from the country’s elite. It has remained in place since, despite evidence suggesting the policy has failed badly to improve education outcomes.

Yet some elite remain in favour of English. Speaking at a February 14 workshop in Yangon on “Language choice in higher education – challenges and opportunities”, Justin Watkins of SOAS, University of London, recalls asking Oxford-educated Daw Aung San Suu Kyi what language she thought Myanmar universities should use.

“Oh, I think English, don’t you?” he quoted the opposition leader, who recently appointed herself head of the National League for Democracy’s education committee, as replying.

“There is a definite assumption that English is best without thinking why that might be,” Mr Watkins commented.

But that perception is changing. Educationalists argue that Myanmar should embrace more flexibility in use of language – and not just at university, but from primary school onwards. More research is emerging to demonstrate that a thorough grounding in a mother tongue is essential for all-round educational development.

U Khin Aye, member of the Myanmar Language Commission, said because university teachers and students lacked sufficient knowledge of English rote-learning of notes pushed by lecturers was the only way to pass exams.

Students’ knowledge of their own mother tongue suffered too, he told the workshop, which was hosted by the British Academy and the École française d’Extrême-Orient.

While English is the official language of instruction, what happens in practice is another matter.

Robert Winter, teacher and administrator at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, said the reality is that a lot of Myanmar is spoken in class, and a combination of both languages works well. “It is artificial and absurd for Burmese teachers to speak to Burmese students in a foreign language,” he said, noting that even university rectors have poor levels of English.

The National Education Law, passed by parliament last September, opens the door to a possible sea-change in policy by allowing education at primary level in the languages of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities.

The new law would also hand more autonomy to universities. They could, after a period of transition, decide which language of instruction to use on a subject by subject basis.

“It is an enormous change,” Daw Yin Yin Nwe, an education reform adviser to President U Thein Sein, told The Myanmar Times.

She used the example of a university faculty in Shan State deciding to teach in Shan language as a possible future outcome.

While the National Education Law has been the subject of repeated protests by student leaders – largely over the issues of autonomy, freedom of student unions and budget levels – Daw Yin Yin Nwe said the changes they were demanding could not occur overnight.

“The law allows for the autonomy of universities to manage themselves. But there has to be a transitional stage,” she said.

Detailed implementation of the law will be laid out in by-laws still to be considered by parliament.

One proposed amendment to emerge from four-way talks between representatives of the government, parliament, students and civil society would allow the mother tongue to be the sole language of instruction at early-childhood levels, with Myanmar and English introduced gradually as second and third languages.

Language policy, together with funding, is seen as vital to addressing high drop-out rates – fewer than half of all Myanmar children complete primary school – and poor education standards generally.

Myanmar is not the only Asian country to have grappled with the issue of language as a relic of its colonial past.

Malaysia too has tacked back and forth. Saran Kaur Gill, professor at the National University of Malaysia, explained at the workshop that after independence from Britain in 1957 the government decided to reduce drastically the role of English and adopt Malay, the national language, in universities.

The process took many years and much funding as Malay, a language without a strong scientific tradition, was “modernised”, with half a million new words adopted.

However, in 2002 then-prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad abruptly ruled that English should be brought back in teaching science and mathematics from primary school onward. That decision was reversed seven years later.

Both Malaysia and Thailand, which has kept Thai as the language of instruction in public schools, have seen a boom in private English-language institutions. Bangkok has about 120 international schools compared with just three 30 years ago. Myanmar’s opening up is fuelling a similar trend.

Kirk Person, a Bangkok-based director at Sil, a Christian non-profit organisation, described as “very encouraging” the provision allowing education in schools in local ethnic languages.

He recommended that Myanmar develop mother-tongue primary school education and later use Myanmar as the main language of instruction, with English introduced as a subject in secondary schools. “English is not a magic bullet,” he said.