Burmese Reflections

Chaungtha Language Exchange

One of the sounds we will remember from Burma, besides the ubiquitous rumble of generators producing electricity when the power lines are dead, is the sound of what many Burmese call ‘parrot learning’. It’s the call-and-response  choirs of primary school kids repeating their teachers' words. It’s the monotonous monologue of a high-school student reading aloud to memorise every word on every page for an upcoming exam. Knowledge and education became recurring themes during our stay.

After some initial days of introducing ourselves to artists in Rangoon we went southwest on a six hour bus ride to Chaungtha, a fishing village by the Bay of Bengal. We spent a lot of time with the villagers and this was the first time we encountered complaints about the educational system, complaints we later heard voiced and whispered throughout the country. One of our friends refused to go to the university because he thought it was such a humiliation to proper learning.

After the September demonstrations the university semester didn’t start until 21 January, not in early December as scheduled. Teachers didn’t know what date classes would resume. Many government officials, including those who teach foreign languages, have to sign an agreement not to interact with foreigners. When language students want to practice pronunciation at the phonetics lab, they might find that the extra ration of petrol, distributed to keep the generator going during power cuts, has been sold on the black market.

A large percentage of the university students have classes only for ten days per year. They are called distance students. In theory it’s good for those who have a long way to go to the universities in a country with unreliable infrastructure. In practice we have met an overwhelmingly many who have course books in English, but who cannot answer the questions “Where are we now?” and “When will we arrive?”. You have to wonder how much of the education they are able to grasp and turn into something they are able to use after the exam. Many of the students we met were wondering what to do with their degree, other than to use it as a title.

At the same time ambitious young people strive to go abroad to study. Christians in the Kachin state dream about the Philippines while most others hope for Singapore and Japan. Europe and other parts of the West are hardly worth dreaming of. Parents with money and insight send their children to private English classes. Most teachers also give private tutoring during evenings and in the weekends.

There are also networks of forward-looking people who are organised non-hierarchically, trying to create their own information sources such as libraries and web sites to help one another, and others, to a deeper and wider knowledge. Since unauthorised gatherings are technically illegal it is always risky to organise outside the educational system.
This is what we’ve encountered and it made us think about simple, yet radical, questions such as “What do you want to learn?” and “What knowledge do you have that you can share?” It is a challenging task to take responsibility for your own learning process and at the same time share what you know.

We did an experiment in Chaungtha. Six nights in a row we gathered with  three Burmese people around a small whiteboard. They wanted to learn English and we wanted to learn Burmese, so we took turns in being teacher and student. At the end we all signed a diploma both as teachers and students. We didn’t improve our language skills enormously, but we had tried out a way of meeting, engaging in a dialogue, exchanging ideas, knowledge and insights. On a small scale we practiced participation and exercised articulating one’s own opinions.