Before Myanmar’s independence in 1948 was gained, a significant number of records indicate that almost all Myanmar’s university students used to speak English fluently having taught in English as the medium of instruction during the British colonial era, and the quality of Myanmar’s education was ranked one of the tops in Asia.
However, as of today, the vast majority of the Burmese people still lack adequate English language skills despite the fact that they had studied English as a compulsory subject for eleven years in basic education. Some students are taking English language classes even after getting a degree. It is noticeable that the number of youth who speak English in the country is relatively low compared to other Asia Pacific countries since it was labelled “Very Low Proficiency” on 2018 Global English Proficiency Index. EF English Proficiency Index also reported in 2019 that the country took a significantly lower position of 86 out of 100 countries in terms of English language proficiency.
Driving Forces behind low level of English Language Proficiency in Myanmar
There are a number of conditions that hamper the students from becoming confident speakers of English language. Firstly, a high proportion of English teachers employed in the government’s schools in Myanmar – where massive population of students are educated – are not competent users of English. A report of Australian Journal of Teacher Education on the language competency of English teachers in Myanmar, who participated in EfECT (English for Education College Trainers) teacher training program of the British Council Myanmar, stated that the teachers were weak and had low levels of English. They could not speak fluently in conversational situation, and their English was limited to simple vocabulary – this, in the report, is pointed out as the reason why the teachers use the native Burmese language both inside and outside of classrooms.
Secondly, since English teachers, themselves, lack an efficient level of language proficiency, they are not capable of conducting their classes in English and using English as a medium of instruction – indicated by Gary V. Ireland and Robert Van Benthuyse in their research paper entitled as Contemporary Issues in EFL Education in Myanmar. “Our official language is not English, so we often do not use it. Even in our own classrooms, we do not deliver our lessons in English because we are not confident to use it, and we are more comfortable using our own language”, said a participating teacher of EfECT program, which is also mentioned in Australian Journal of Teacher Education. As a result, the students are not exposed to English-speaking classroom environment and, this, in turn, costs them losing opportunities to speak English.
Thirdly, teachers with a low level of English language proficiency are more likely to employ a conventional teacher-centred pedagogy, which results passive learning and a limited interaction between students and teachers in classrooms, - according to a research on “Teacher Training in Myanmar: Teachers’ Perceptions and Implications” issued by International Journal of Instruction. Accordingly, the English language classrooms in Myanmar’s state schools are not dynamic or vibrant enough to conduce effective language learning.
Fourth, English language teaching pedagogy used in government high schools in Myanmar is found to be exam-oriented, training the students for a mere purpose of achieving good grades in exams through memorization of textbook contents – rather than facilitating the actual development of language skills – as stated in a research on “An Analytical Study of English Teaching Skills of Teachers in Government High Schools in Myanmar” by Ven.Suriya.
In the case of private providers of English language courses, the academic credentials of instructors working at language schools are not properly set up in Myanmar unlike Singapore and Malaysia, where teachers are required to hold a recognized TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualification, in addition to a bachelor’s degree to ensure that the quality of teaching is standardized. “There are many teachers in Myanmar whose English may be defined as lower than ‘competent user’ (IELTS Band Score 6), but are offering both online and in-person classes nationwide”, said an experienced English teacher who prefers his name kept anonymous.
Why Learning English has become more important to the people in Myanmar?
Since English has been a lingua franca used in a wide range of contexts: education, research, business dealings, science, technology and so forth, “being able to communicate in English is perceived as a valuable asset for the academic and professional development of individuals and the nation’s socio-economic growth as a whole” - stated by Dr. Daniel Brooker, Senior International Education Manager from Cambridge Assessment English, in his research. This is particularly relevant to developing countries because English can provide people with access to various sources of information, knowledge and skills needed to conduct knowledge-based economic activities and produce value-added products and services.
As Myanmar is one of the developing countries, where FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) plays an important role as part of economic reforms, it is crucial to have a skilled and English-proficient workforce that can drive sustainable development of the country. However, an enormous number of the Burmese population, having grown up in an aforementioned unfavorable environment for English language acquisition, has not unfortunately achieved a sufficient level of English Language proficiency to thrive in this age of globalization and fast-paced world - risking repercussions on academic growth, employment opportunities, and career advancement. Thus, it is recommended to provide feasible approaches to effective English Language learning for the socio-economic development of Myanmar.
Comparison between 2018 and 2019 Index
EF EPI (2019) has reported that Myanmar experienced almost 2 % soar in the English language proficiency while many Asia countries witnessed a downward trend, compared to the year of 2018. It is somehow the good side of the coin despite low ranking, and we are confident that the ranking will probably improve in the following years if the following recommended strategies are systematically applied to language learning.
What are Effective Strategies for Learning English?
The following strategies can be deemed effective for a successful acquisition of English language proficiency. These learning approaches apply to not only the Burmese students but also wider Burmese population, particularly those who have spent decades on studying English, but still do not reach sufficient level.
1. Expose yourself to the language on a regular basic
According to International TEFL and TESOL training, the more you are exposed to the language, the more learning opportunities you have to get a good grasp of the language and sound natural. Even though you are neither raised in an English-speaking country nor surrounded by either native or non-native English speakers in your environment, you can still make it possible to get exposure to the language: taking advantage of the Internet and technology, you can have access to a variety of free resources designed for learning English, and thus read and listen to as much English language as possible.
Moreover, you can join English speaking clubs in your area, and actively participate in speaking activities whenever opportunity is given. Furthermore, you can write English essays for your school’s or university’s monthly magazine or chat online in English. It would be more effective if you can dedicate to practicing all four skills of the language on a daily basis.
2. Find interesting things in English to watch, read and listen to
British Council recommends learning English through things that interest and excite you in order to succeed in learning. It is true that having an enjoyable learning experience can help you get regular exposure to the language. Watching TV shows or movies, listening to songs and podcasts, and reading books and magazines in English, for example, can be engaging and gripping enough to motivate you to get into the habit of learning English on a regular basis - in such a way that is entertaining.
In addition, as vlogging has become a trend, following English speaking vloggers on Youtube and other social media platforms, would also be an ideal way to level-up your language skills while natural English with different accents can be exposed to. Learning English through these resources can provide you with enormous opportunities to learn real-life language input - authentic and varied language, which can hardly be learned in your classroom, reinforcing natural flow as you produce the language.
3. Enhance Productive Skills through improving Receptive Skills
Reading and listening are referred to as receptive skills, which is also known as passive skills, since the learners receive information (language input) whereas speaking and writing are labelled as productive skills or active skills as it requires learners to produce the language. Although it is true that you need to speak and write in English frequently in order to improve your oral and written communication, it is also crucial to have acquired sufficient language input through reading and listening so that you can gain more fluency and confidence, and sound natural when writing and speaking.
Starting with reading and writing, these two skills are inseparable in learning English: the more one reads, the better they write - having learnt a better vocabulary and recognized the nuances of the language. Because, it is very unlikely to produce a good written work of your own without experience of reading quality pieces.
Likewise, there is no exception to listening and speaking in this case. Practicing listening skills can have a significant impact on your speaking skill. Through listening to various native speakers of English, you can understand what they say in different contexts and how they say it using appropriate vocabulary, and you can, at the same time, learn pronunciation and intonation.
4. Be Active and Take Control of Your Own Learning
British council also highlights the importance of learners’ autonomy in effective language learning. In essence, you should choose to take more responsibility for your own learning - setting your own goals, doing self-study, and seeking opportunities to practice outside the classroom to upgrade your language skills; rather than being completely reliant on teachers for your progress. Since motivation is one of the most fundamental elements for a successful language acquisition, you should always be motivated to devote yourself to learning English and enhance your language proficiency through various ways.
5. Persevere and Stay Passionate
Throughout your learning journey, you need to bear in mind “Rome was not built in a day”- meaning it is very unlikely to develop a very high level of language competencies overnight. It requires you to exert relentless efforts, and maintain perseverance for a considerable period of time to become a fluent language user. You may not therefore reach your targeted level of proficiency unless you are not passionate and committed enough to learning the language for a certain period of time.