Why can’t Myanmar kids learn English? Skip to main content

Why can’t Myanmar kids learn English?


Myanmar students still lack proficiency in the English language after eleven years of study in basic education schools.

According to the EF English Proficiency Index 2017, which measures English language skills in 116 countries, several Asia-Pacific countries rank low or very low.

Except for Indonesia, all ASEAN countries have compulsory classes in English at the primary level. Yet Myanmar students still face challenges when it comes to speaking English, which may hinder their careers and force them to take English classes even after university. Indeed, English skills are an advantage in the labour market, which can contribute to attracting investment and enhancing job opportunities. Furthermore, speaking English allows participation in the world economy, sciences, trade and so on.

“I always get angry when speaking with foreigners in my office. I know what they are saying but I can’t speak,” said Ywel Ywel, 22-years-old.

According to the online employment agency JobNet 2017 survey of 33 human resource managers, directors and over 300 job offers, 97 percent believe that English plays a critical role in career progression within their companies.

“I could not speak English, even after graduation. Lessons in school are useless in real life, so I learnt after getting a degree,” said Thee Su Yee, 32. She has since become fluent from learning in her work environment. She took free English classes for NGO staff and worked in foreign job agencies.

Daw Htoot May, MP for Rakhine State’s constituency 11, submitted a proposal to the Amyothar Hluttaw on November 14 to boost English proficiency in schools. The proposal, supported by several MPs, hopes to modify the curriculum, teaching methods and assessment system according to age by focusing on speaking, listening, reading and writing from Grade 8 on.

“The lack of student effectiveness after 11 years of study is really a waste not only for the individual student but also of the nation’s time and money,” Daw Htoot May said in submitting the proposal in the Amyothar Hluttaw.

“The inefficient teaching of English is a detriment to the student and the nation,” Daw Htoot May said.

“Even though I am a teacher, I can’t debate with foreigners in English,” said U Shin Thant Nyi, a teacher in Ottarathiri township, Nay Pyi Taw, who has six years experience on the job.

The current teaching is inadequate because it relies on memorising sentence structure and grammar patterns, and must change, said Daw May Pearl Thwe, who has 10 years’ teaching experience and attended the Best Practices TESOL program at the SIT Graduate Institute.

“We need classes to be fun and dynamic with a student-centred approach. Currently, classes are taught inefficiently to finish lessons on time. If students are taught to learn grammar and vocabulary by heart, they will forget after sitting for the exam,” she said.

According to Marc Nussaume, CEO of World Street English training school, 11 years of study is enough to become fluent. He supports a change of methods to emphasise speaking skills.

One reason for the failure to teach spoken English is that few teachers take instructor training and the absence of programs related to English lessons, said U Shin Thant Nyi. Speaking lessons are not part of the mandatory basic education curriculum.

“We are not taught by native speakers. Multimedia facilities are also needed,” said U Myo Thein Gyi, minister of education.

U Win Maw Tun, deputy minister for education, said that an English speaking environment would be beneficial, adding that, “Nobody set the rules to use English while communicating in schools, so nobody speaks in English.”

Speaking should be taught as a priority, said Marc Nussaume, because the current curriculum emphasises writing and reading.

Beyond the four basic skills, critical thinking is also paramount to improving English proficiency, as is connecting lessons with real-life situations, said Daw May Pearl Thwe.

Assessments should be carried out after each lesson, rather than monthly, for better follow-up, she adds.

To address the issue, U Myo Thein Gyi said the Education Ministry worked with the British Council to upgrade the English of student teachers in universities and colleges.

The ministry has started implementing the KG+12 (Kindergarten plus 12 years of English learning) curriculum under the national education law enacted in 2014.

The new curriculum, which was designed in cooperation with UNICEF, will be implemented progressively, starting in kindergarten for the 2016-17 academic year and in Grade 1 for 2017-18. The curriculum will be updated as this group of students completes each grade.

The old curriculum, which was designed 30 years ago, will remain valid for the preceding groups.

The curriculum at the primary level is being designed with the aid of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and at the middle and high school level with the help of the Asia Development Bank.

The new curriculum would reform all basic education grades and improving teaching of English, U Win Maw Tun added.



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