Learning Lessons, Finding Meaning

02 Oct 2016

My name is Lydia Mudryj,and I am privileged to be teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL), legal English and a range of law topics to various legal sector participants in Myanmar.

I came to Myanmar in February 2015 through Australian Volunteers International, a not-for-profit organization which is committed to achieving positive economic and social development change around the world.I am seconded tothe UNDP Myanmar Rule of Law and Access to Justice Team,and my work is directly linked to UNDP’s objective of equipping justice sector actors with the knowledge and skills required to better perform their functions.  

Upon my initial arrival in Myanmar, I was based in Taunggyi (Shan State) where I spent six months before moving on to Nay Pyi Taw (capital of Myanmar) for another sevenmonths. As of June 2016, I have been based in Mandalay (Mandalay Region).   In the year and a half that I have been here, I have had the opportunity to not only work in these cities, but also enjoy Myanmar’s diverse way of life and culture.  

During my time here, I have had,and still have,the privilege of teaching a diverse range of students including:prosecutors from the Advocate General Offices (AGOs) in Shan State and Mandalay Region, law lecturers and students from various universities in Shan State and Mandalay, judicial officers from the state/regional high courts, members of bar associations, deputy director generals or directors of departments at the Union Attorney General’s Office (UAGO) and the Office of the Supreme Court (OSCU) in Nay Pyi Taw, junior law officers at the UAGO, andjunior and senior judicial officers from the OSCU.  I am proud to claim the current Union Attorney General as a former student!  He was very dedicated to his learningand I learned from him as much as he did from me.

My training days begin relatively early with preparation for teaching various legal sector trainees. A car picks me from my hotel and drives me to the organization where I will teach.  My students always greet me with huge welcoming smiles and immediately, the frustrations, heat, and inconveniences of some of our classrooms disappear.  Class comprises a mixture of vocabulary building, speaking practise, reading, writing, and grammar lessons.  Much of it interspersed with laughter and a combination of learning on both sides of the teaching table. I learn about the daily working and personal lives of my students,the laws of this country and the new laws being enacted;and they learn about the intricacies and absurdities of the English language and the laws of my country.

I also hold conversational classes withsome of my students; an opportunity to tone it down somewhat from a structured class to more informal, conversational and relaxed sessions outside the walls of offices and classrooms.  These are thetimes I have really come to enjoy as they allow my students the opportunity to ‘take off’ their official attire, relax and just talk.  During these sessions (often times over a shared meal),we get to learn more about each other, our professional experiencesand our other lives outside offices and institutional buildings.  The real benefit of some of these informal “get togethers” is that my students are able to privately ask me questions about the legal systems in Australia and New Zealand, and to learn about laws and concepts which are still foreign in Myanmar.

On the ground, I have found that there are various levels of skill and interest in learning the English language. In Mandalay, there is a constant cry for English language training.  With the establishment of the Rule of Law Centres(a UNDP initiative to increase legal awareness), a consistent request quickly answered by UNDP, is for members of the legal sector to be given the opportunity to receive English language training from native English speakers. This need arises because many of Myanmar’s laws are written in English as a bi-product of Britain’s occupation of Myanmar, and the English common law is still applied where no local laws exist to govern a particular matter.  

The greatest need and interest has been in Nay Pyi Taw where justice officials are increasingly required to engage with international development assistance partners;  or when the demands of their work portfoliosrequire them to travel to other countries in the region (or to other parts of the world) to represent Myanmar.  In Nay Pyi Taw, there were requests for information about law topics of which there has been little or no exposure to date. Examples of the topics I haveaddressed in my classesinclude rule of law, legal aid,  corruption and bribery, judicial ethics, the concepts of discrimination and  impartiality, human rights, human trafficking, conflicts of interest, jury systems, LGBT rights, whistle blowing legislation, the law of evidence, and digital evidence.

I have also found that there is great need for improvement inanalytical and deductive capabilities.  It is important that justice officials are able to confidently argue a point and give an opinion supported by relevant evidence. Some of my students have said that their previous learning at primary, secondary and university levelwas based on the ‘lecturing’ method, or ‘learning by rote’.  This style of teaching left them without opportunities to learn how to analyze information in order to provide correct responses to questions posed;and further limited their ability to understand why the answers are as they are, or how to deduce the correct answers.  My teaching style is interactive and participatory, and I encourage my students to analyze information and share their opinions.

I have found, through my teachings, that the meanings of a lot words are literally ‘lost in translation’. My feeling is that even if the training is being provided on terms such as rule of law, the English language terms being used are unknown or unfamiliar to the students or trainees.  This is the case with interpreting legislation, for example, which is heavily loaded with legal terms and in some cases terms which are now archaic and no longer in use.  This is already difficult for people who have English as their first language but who do not have a legal background; but even more so for people whose first language is not English.  It is critical that justice officials are able to understand legal terms as what might be thought to be a simple misunderstanding, wrong definition, incorrect translation or misguided interpretation could significantly change the meaning and therefore, the impact of the law, decisions, and judgments.  For example, the difference between ‘may’ and ‘must’ greatly changes the way a person understands or interprets a law.

So no day is the same; each is full of surprises and I feel very privileged to be able to share my days with members of the legal sector in Myanmar.  Each of my teaching experiences is unique and rewarding in its own way.My experience in Myanmar thus far, has been one of the highlights of my legal and teaching career.

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