5 insightful tips on learning to read, speak and write Burmese

A page out of a Burmese language textbook. FYUNKIE/WIKICOMMONS

As more and more business and tourist visitors flock to Myanmar, The Coconuts Yangon team asked Justin Watkins, senior lecturer in Burmese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, to offer some helpful advice for beginners on learning the daunting language. To get started, he says, don’t think of it as daunting.

1) Learn the alphabet while learning to speak

I don’t think it’s necessary or possible to separate learning to speak Burmese from learning to read and write: I’d encourage everyone who wants to get beyond t’min-sa ye-thauk level (Burmese for ‘eat food, drink water’, i.e. survival level) in Burmese should start learning to read and write at the same time as learning to speak.  Burmese is written with an alphabet which really isn’t so hard to learn, and it is the best way to write down exactly how things should be pronounced. Getting all the consonants, vowels and tones down in some Englishy note form will just create confusion, causing the sorts of problems which might lead to you giving up hope of getting any where.  Using a pen and pencil to practise the writing Burmese will help you remember them and recognise them too; don’t be in a rush to go digital. Burmese writing is beautiful – enjoy it!

2) However, be aware of the difference between spoken and written, or formal, Burmese

What learners will discover once they can read and write is that spoken Burmese is very different from the formal written style of Burmese, which is what you’ll see in most books, magazines, notices and newspapers. The difference between spoken Burmese (which can be written too) and formal written Burmese is one which can be learned fairly quickly once you have found your feet in spoken Burmese.  In essence, all the grammar words and endings are replaced, some words become longer and in general sentences can be long and sprawling.

I’d advise learners to ignore the existence of formal written Burmese for a while until you are fairly confident in speaking the basics; otherwise, you may find yourself mixing the two styles in speech, which will sound quite strange. But eventually, to read the paper, magazines, stories and formal notices, contracts, letters, etc, you’ll need to know how to read formal written Burmese.

3) Stop thinking of Burmese as impossible to learn

The belief that Burmese is ‘difficult’ is completely irrational – and often held by people who actually know nothing about the language. I think it’s much healthier to use the word ‘different’ instead of difficult. You just have to accept that Burmese is probably different from other languages you’ve learned, get organised and take the first step. Actually, what I think goes on in many (of course not all) cases is a sort of internalised Orientalist belief that ‘Asian languages are impossible to learn’.

I think it’s always been the case that relatively few people from outside the country have learned Burmese. Historically, given the colonial past, the pressure has always been on people in Burma to learn English, rather than people from outside to learn Burmese – that’s how colonial powers roll. As a result, there is no established tradition of learning and teaching Burmese as a foreign language, and the opportunities to learn it from an experienced teacher who knows how to teach the language are extremely rare. So maybe that makes the learning experience difficult for many people, because they are learning from someone who doesn’t know how to explain, introduce and teach the language, seeing it from an outsider’s point of view. 

Very often I find myself in a class with adult learners who have signed up for a course, paid the money and come to class, but have brought with them a deep-seated belief that they won’t succeed. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes they are monolingual English speakers who have never really needed another language before and just don’t know what lies ahead. Sometimes it’s people who had a bad language learning experience early in life at school with, say, an unkind French teacher, and so language learning is forever associated with those negative feelings.

Talented linguists who speak half a dozen European languages sometimes switch off when they realise that because Burmese has nothing in common with the languages they know, [and that] they are going to have to build their knowledge from the ground up, instead of getting a large amount of vocabulary for free as would be the case if they were learning another European language. It’s my job to persuade people who want to learn Burmese that they CAN learn if only they allow themselves to. Next, the learner has to decide how much work to put in. 

It’s meaningless to rank languages in difficulty, because most of the outcomes – i.e. ability in the language – depend on factors which have nothing to do with the language at all. Will you learn vocabulary and spelling (boring but pays huge dividends)? Will you make sure you work on the language regularly and use it as often? Will you be organised and keep notes so you don’t forget what you have learned before? Will you be realistic about what you can achieve in the time available and stick at it?

4) Crawl before you walk

Unedited texts or full-speed spoken Burmese is likely to remind learners in the early stages that they have a long way to go. Any learner can enjoy picking out words and phrases you can read or understand. Be aware too, that most printed material is likely to be in formal written Burmese. Best avoided early on. I quite like using photographs of signs for reading practice. For listening practice there are some formulaic phone-in programs on the radio which some learners use. Each caller is asked the same few questions. But don’t waste your time expecting your own ability to improve by listening to or reading things which are far too difficult. 

5) Be curious and unafraid to look stupid

One useful tip is to learn to convert what you want to say into something you can actually say in the Burmese you know, rather than failing because you are trying to say something too complicated. You need to compromise and go with the flow a bit, and don’t worry if things go wrong and you look a bit silly.

I have had many hours of practice with Yangon taxi drivers over the years. They are a captive audience. You can ask them questions about their life and their opinions and practise exchanging information on whatever topic you’ve been learning about in your classes. There is often more time for lengthy conversation in a taxi than in a shop. The gold standard is to find a Burmese friend who doesn’t speak your language so that Burmese remains the language of communication.

As English speakers, we find it difficult to imagine a world where hearing our language spoken non-natively is rare. So many people learn English that we are used to hearing English spoken fluently, well and badly. It’s normal. But for many people in Burma, it’s genuinely unusual to hear the language coming out of the mouth of someone from outside Burma. One of the first things you learn is how to explain why you speak Burmese and how you learnt it. Remember that if you speak Burmese to someone you may well be the first foreign speaker of Burmese that person has met. Use the curiosity this situation generates to interact. Ask questions back if people ask you questions. Be curious.

Editor’s note: If this interview has whetted your appetite and you just can’t wait to start learning Burmese, The School of Oriental and African Studies offers a free introductory tutorial which can be found here.

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