Language and Education: A Force For Peace

“Education can be a force for preventing conflict, reconstructing countries after conflict, and building peace”.

Jose Ramos-Horta (Timor Leste), Nobel Peace Prize, 1996. 

For children who speak minority languages, mother-tongue based education, particularly in the early grades, is critical for improving attendance in school as well as learning outcomes. Whether or not children are taught in their mother-tongue is closely linked with opportunities for social, citizenship and economic advancement.

“We know that where the mother tongue is used as the language of instruction or as an important subject children will go to school more readily, they will stay in school longer…it makes a difference to attendance and to learning but also to the child’s sense of self and identity…this will make them more productive citizens, but more subtly they will develop a sense of unity, and that society allows them to belong”.

Joseph Lo Bianco, Professor of Language and Literacy Education, Melbourne University.

Yet, whilst education has the potential to empower societies, what is taught and in which language can be highly politicised. In Myanmar’s ethnically diverse society, language is closely connected with identity, culture, and belonging. Differing views between government, ethnic groups, and other actors on the role of Myanmar and other languages in education can fuel conflict and division. Reaching consensus on language education policies that meet the diverse needs and hopes of all groups can help promote social cohesion and ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to be included in education.

With this in mind, on Thursday, 18 September 2014, over 150 stakeholders including regional guest speakers from Malaysia and Thailand, National and State Parliamentarians, Ministry of Education staff, non-government and ethnic organisations, civil society, UN agencies, development partners and academia, came together for an Education Thematic Working Group (ETWG) meeting on “Sharing Regional and National experiences of Language Education and Social Cohesion”.

The ETWG coordinates a range of actors and organizations working for quality education for all children in Myanmar, and is co-chaired by UNICEF and Save the Children and supported by Partners of the Myanmar Quality Basic Education Programme (QBEP). The aim of this meeting was to provide a platform for sharing best practices, lessons learned and initial findings from work on language and education in Myanmar and in the region.

We learned from Professor Joe Lo Bianco that social cohesion grows when people have trust in each other and in authorities, and about the role inclusive language policy can play in helping build this trust. From Malaysia and Thailand we heard some of the positive steps already taken to promote minority languages. Myanmar’s Ministry of Education explained that all subjects and grades in primary school are taught in Myanmar, in upper secondary, Science and Maths are taught in English, and at University level all subjects are taught in English. We also learned that in the Basic Education Law, currently being drafted, the medium of instruction for basic education will be Myanmar and teachers will also be able to use minority languages as necessary. A language education policy is also being drafted.

The meeting included non-state actors such as the Mon National Education Committee, the Karen Education Department, the Literature and Culture Committees of Shan and Kachin, and the Shalom (Nyein) Foundation, a national NGO. It was interesting to hear how language is used in education in these different parts of Myanmar. For example, we learned that in Mon there are both non-state and government schools and that in Mon primary schools mother tongue based curriculum is used. At the secondary level, students transition to the government curriculum, taught in Myanmar. Such use of mother tongue in basic education has been shown to have a positive impact in Mon state where school enrolment has increased.

With such a diverse range of perspectives represented, the meeting provided an opportunity for opening up dialogue between all stakeholders on multilingual education, especially how it can contribute to social cohesion and better learning outcomes for all children. With such intense interest in the topic, ETWG members supported the idea of setting up a sub-working group on multilingual education to continue this important conversation.

Written by UNICEF and Save the Children

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