Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The roads of Mandalay

I recently visited the Union of Myanmar for the first time since the 1990s. Not surprisingly, the quiet streets I wandered through 20 years ago now teem with cars. Poster announcements for Buddhist talks compete for space with billboards advertising imported products.

More foreign tourists are visiting and more hotels being built for them. And as the military government gradually hands over power to democratically elected political parties, new magazines are appearing on newsstands, some of them in English. Yet there doesn’t seem to have been a big increase in the number of people speaking it.

On my previous visits I found that old people were the most likely to speak English as the language was used in schools until 1961. That generation is now dying off. I joined a crowd to watch a game of takraw and many wanted to talk to me, but I don’t speak Myanmar and very few could speak more than a few words of English. English was reintroduced as a compulsory subject in schools in the 1980s and is now the main medium of higher education. So if it is not spoken much I assume that courses that are supposed to be taught in English are actually taught in the Myanmar language.

According to a survey by Dr Thant Sin Aye, the actual practice of most teachers is indeed to use Myanmar, even though the policy at the Institute of Medicine, the Universities of Computer Studies and Arts and Science, and the National Maritime College, is to use English. This makes sense: a study in the Shan State by Nang Moe Kandar Kyi found that 90% of people there could understand Myanmar, even though it was the first language of only 20%. So we have to ask why so many teaching materials are in English.

In fact the use of English texts in higher education is common in many Asian countries, even where students struggle to understand them. In India, the Philippines and increasingly in Malaysia, English dominates higher education. Its use has also grown in countries where it was traditionally not used much as a teaching medium, such as Thailand and Vietnam. One reason is that so much scientific and technical knowledge is published in English only. Translating it would require a great deal of time and money.

However, the Asian countries that use their own national languages throughout higher education tend to be the more economically advanced ones, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Is it economic advancement that enables them to do so? Or is it by using their own languages at high levels that they have become advanced?

At the moment, the increased importance of English in Myanmar – a language once despised by the military government as a relic of British colonialism – seems to be more a matter of prestige and fashion than substance. It is seen as a symbol of development and modernity. But few people use it effectively in their jobs and lives.

One area where English study does seem to be advancing is one of the most traditional: the Buddhist religion. Many monks are keen to study English, as well as Pali or Sanskrit, in order to continue their religious studies in neighbouring countries like India.

Meanwhile the Myanmar language is rapidly changing and developing in response to recently-introduced communication tools such as email and Facebook as the nation emerges from international and isolation.

While Myanmar is the most widely spoken language, there are some 135 languages in the country, with around half of the population having another first language, such as Karen or Shan. Local languages are especially important in areas far from the political centre, which have for decades been controlled by military groups beyond the reach of the national government. As part of a peace-building process with these groups, a new educational policy was developed between 2013 and 2014 to support local languages so that they become the main MOIs (media of instruction) for younger children.

Studies elsewhere show that when communities are able to use their own languages there is a better chance for developing peaceful relations with other communities. Producing materials in all these languages will not be easy, however. Although some of them were once used in schools, the textbooks that survive are too old to be recycled. Many of the languages do not yet have a written form. Even when they do, there may be disagreement over which alphabet and which spelling system is best.

While supporting local languages, the government also expects children to know Myanmar and English. As usual this means that the people furthest from the centres of economic and political power are the ones who need to learn the largest number of languages.