Negotiating language ideologies in learning Putonghua: Myanmar ethnic minority students’ perspectives on multilingual practices in a borderland school

Jia Li, Bin Ai & Jie Zhang (2019). Negotiating language ideologies in learning Putonghua: Myanmar ethnic minority students’ perspectives on multilingual practices in a borderland school, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2019.1678628

Dr Jia Li, Yunnan University, China

Chinese abstract


Summary of article

China and Myanmar share a borderline of over 2,200 kilometers. Like many other borders in the world, the demarcation of the geographical border does not always overlap with the cultural and linguistic borders. Over centuries of historical, economic and cultural development, the China-and-Myanmar border has acquired strategic meanings for both countries and is now becoming the land-bridge of China’s expansion overseas and the main artery of Myanmar’s economy. This article examines how language ideologies shape the educational trajectories of a group of Myanmar ethnic minority students who were born and brought up at Myanmar’s border towns next to Yunnan, the Southwest of China.

The article focuses on their language learning experiences both at Myanmar government schools and Chinese supplementary schools. Due to the mismatch between their home language(s) and class instruction language and the limited distribution of linguistic and educational resources at border regions, Myanmar ethnic minority students with limited proficiency in Burmese language experience exclusionary treatments and stereotypes at Myanmar government schools. Although the majority of our participants did not complete their primary education at Myanmar government schools, they did not simply drop out, look for a job, become a farmer, or help in their families’ businesses. These students did not see their drop-out as an educational failure. Rather they considered that their marginalization in government schools was offset by their empowerment in Chinese supplementary schools. They experienced an enormous contrast between the two educational systems, which reshaped their language learning beliefs and motivations. Their efforts to improve their proficiency in Putonghua may have been self-motivated or in response their parents’ desire to maintain their ethnic Chinese heritage, and were reinforced by the availability of China-related resources at Myanmar’s border. Their beliefs in the importance of learning Putonghua for future transnational mobility and for improving their life prospects contrasted with their experiences of failure in the educational system offered by the Myanmar government in question.

However, the article also points out the contestation and ideological conflict of learning Putonghua at Myanmar-border. In the context of China’s rapid development, tensions and negotiations over what it means to speak and write Putonghua are related to contestation of the authenticity of ‘mother-tongue’ versus ‘non-heritage learners, and over the economic or symbolic capital of Putonghua ad Chinese as a marker of a heritage identity. Given the promotion of Putonghua and the increasing influence of China’s economy in Myanmar, it can be expected that this tension is going to become more pronounced in the future.

Based upon the evidence, the article suggests that Myanmar education system and language policy makers should take into account the dynamic and diverse border realities by considering these ethnic minority students’ learning difficulties ad their diverse backgrounds, rather than simply implementing a centralized language policy. It would benefit borderland students if the Myanmar government allowed for diversity when it distributes educational resources, rather than leaving learning responsibilities to individual students who struggle to bridge the gap between home culture and school culture. The analysis of Myanmar ethnic minority students’ everyday learning trajectories illuminates the interconnections between language ideologies and linguistic practices. By locating their everyday language practices in the wider setting of Myanmar and China’s socio-economic transformation and China’s expansion to Southeast Asia and South Asia, the article contributes to the understanding of grassroots multilingualism and highlights the multiple, conflictual and context-specific aspects of language ideologies as well as proposing a possible solution for this issue in the long term.

Authors’ bio

Dr. Jia Li is an Associate Professor at the School of Foreign Languages of Yunnan University, Kunming, China. Her research concerns multilingualism, language-in-education, and promoting Putonghua as a global language. She can be contacted by email:

Dr. Bin Ai is an Associate Professor at the School of Foreign Studies of Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Shanghai, China. His research interests involve a wide range of topics including intercultural communication, higher education, and applied linguistics. Dr. Ai has published widely in many international peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Jie Zhang is an Associate Professor at the School of Foreign Languages of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, Wuhan, China. Her research interests range from intercultural communication, language policy and planning to language-in-education. Dr. Zhang has published widely in both Chinese and English peer-reviewed journals, and she is on the editorial board of Journal Multilingua.

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