Bilingual books promote early literacy

Promote early literacy

Ruth Ayisi
UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

05 July 2019

When Daw Moe Win and her 3-year-old daughter, Saung Nadi Khaing, arrive at the nursery after a short walk along a dirt path that cuts through lush green vegetation, the sky turns black and the rain pours down. There will be no playing outside on the climbing frame and slide today, but Saung Nadi Khaing does not seem worried.

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Saung Nadi Khain rushes to sit with her friend who has a big story book. Her eyes are wide with excitement as she helps turn the pages, keen to see the next picture. One of the young teachers, Naw Khu Htree Sel, sits on the floor engaging with the children. “Being with young children is so much fun,” says Naw Khu Htree Sel as the children compete for her attention. “They love the books,” she says, trying to be heard above the children’s eager shrieks.

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

The books are not just any big books but are bilingual in both the local ethnic language, Pakangaw Sakaw Karen, and the national language, Myanmar. The stories build language skills while highlighting the culture and environment of the ethnic group.

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Saw Soe Aung, the secretary of the language and culture committee for the Pakangaw Sakaw Karen language, has led the development of the big books in Kayin State. It was the first time he has had the opportunity to develop material for young children, which he sees as key to preserving their language and culture. “Young adults often fail to master the ethnic language in the same way as young children, so before the bilingual big books were introduced I was afraid our language and culture would be lost,” says Saw Soe Aung. He also points out that the committee members have been careful to ensure the content of the big books “promotes social cohesion and diversity”. He adds that the stories mainly involve animals. “I find young children prefer to read about animals than people,” he says, smiling.

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Global evidence has shown minority-language children attending preschools where they learn in their own language perform better than minority-language children in preschools who only learn in the national language.

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Daw Moe Win says seeing the books at her daughter’s preschool was a pleasant surprise. “In my village, all the people speak Pakangaw Sakaw Karen language. We speak it at home. Imagine if my daughter didn’t have this chance to learn to read our language, when she is older and receives a wedding invitation written in our ethnic language, she wouldn’t be able to understand it.” 

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

So far, 25 out of an estimated 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar can enjoy bilingual big story books, thanks to a partnership between the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement and ethnic language and cultural committees, with technical support from UNICEF and with funding from the H&M Foundation.

UNICEF
UNICEF Myanmar/2019/Nyan Zay Htet

Parents or caregivers in Myanmar tend to be unaware of the benefits of early learning for their children. Global evidence points to the importance of early learning, but only 20 per cent of children attend preschool in Myanmar. A World Bank analysis of the long-term benefits of early education found that children who attend preschool stay in school for an average of one year longer, and are more likely to be employed in high-skilled jobs.

Saung Nadi Khaing and her peers are among a small but growing number of ethnic children who will have a strong start to their education and development. Although unaware for now about the cultural and linguistic importance of the bilingual big books, Saung Nadi Khaing is already cultivating a love for books. Her favourite bilingual big book is about a cat. “We have a cat at home,” she says.