In November 2019, Ellen Smith, UWS Senior Associate of Partnerships, visited Myanmar to research the language barriers facing some of the ethnic-minority communities we work with. Using her academic background in linguistic studies, Ellen conducted focus groups to understand how we can become more inclusive of those who do not speak the national language. Ellen shared her experience with us. 


Myanmar is a country of immense ethnic and linguistic diversity, with over 100 different languages. Have you thought about how difficult it could be to design an education system that can include speakers across this range of languages? Aside from the design of a suitable education system, what about it’s delivery? 

community school in MyanmarThese are the sort of challenges that UWS faces on a daily basis. Having recently returned from visiting our schools in Myanmar, I gained an appreciation of the complexity of these challenges and the nuances of the language landscape of this fascinating country. Teaching the unreached may sound simple, but the reality is not! UWS’s “raison d’etre” is to work with the most marginalised groups, which encompasses working with tribal communities who speak their own indigenous languages. I visited UWS schools in Palaung and Lahu villages who more often than not have had little to no access to education in the past. As a result, most of the time only a handful of adults from the community speak any Burmese (the Myanmar national language) at all. 

As we continually seek to strengthen the education we provide, we recognise the importance of supporting the child’s mother tongue in their learning journey. We're committed to protecting local languages and cultures, whilst opening up opportunities through teaching the national language. Seeing for myself in Myanmar that children are coming to school speaking no Burmese at all I realised just how vital UWS community teachers are in enabling our students to be able to access the national curriculum. Community teachers are individuals we have recruited from the local area and trained so that they can teach the children using both their mother tongue as well as Burmese. 

Speaking to community members, government and community teachers, UWS Myanmar staff as well as the students themselves, I gleaned a real sense of pride and excitement around the mere presence of the school in the village, let alone how we are striving to improve learning through appropriate language instruction. Those that I spoke to were brimming with enthusiasm for their children to learn Burmese so that they may be future leaders of their own communities able to communicate externally with others, whilst benefitting the prosperity of everyone in the community. So how best to enable the learning in Burmese in the most responsible, sustainable and beneficial way? 

Beyond academic advantages, we know that supporting children in their mother tongue brings benefits more widely to their overall wellbeing. We embrace a holistic approach to education that supports the whole child and their ongoing welfare, which strengthens our reasoning for embedding the use of mother tongue instruction in UWS schools. Doing so in fact aids the children’s learning of Burmese.

Thanks to the generosity of our supporters around the world we continue to improve the quality of the education we are delivering to indigenous language speakers, so that they too can access education and future opportunities just as others can.

Our work in Myanmar