White Boy Learning Burmese

The journey of an average white guy trying to learn a non-Indo-European language

What is English to Me…


So, this may come as a surprise to everyone, but I don’t think very highly of English.  I’ll never forget what one of my professors said in class, because I’ve felt the same way the whole life and have never found the words to express the emotion.

Although English is my mother-tongue, I did not choose to speak in English.  It was forced upon me by my culture, whether I wanted to speak it, or not.

Forced upon me…  What strong words to describe the situation.  But it’s the way I feel.  I didn’t choose to speak English.  I didn’t choose to think in the way my culture thinks (I did choose my religion, though, I will clarify that), and because of the culture and language I was born into, I am forever imprinted with its mark.

I suppose this wouldn’t be as big of an issue to me if I were born in a non-English-speaking culture.  If I were born as a German-speaker, I’d be fine with learning English.  But because I was born in America, the imperialistic ideas of English, while not as enforced as those ideas used to be, are still lodged in the back of one’s mind.  In no other country I’ve ever traveled to, has anyone ever taken offense when I speak in a language they don’t understand.  They just assume that what I’m saying is none of their business, and I can’t communicate what I want to say effectively in their language.  However, in America, if I speak something other than English, I’m suddenly being offensive.  “THIS IS ‘MURICUH!  SPEAK ‘ANGLISH!” is a very familiar term associated worldwide with Americans.  That and the joke, “if you speak three languages, you’re tri-lingual; if you speak two language, you’re bi-lingual; and if you only speak one language, you must be an American.”  Americans are so self-righteous when it comes to English.  Probably because English’s global power is expressed in so many different ways.  In movies, like Transporter, or whatever, one can note that whenever something takes place in a foreign country, the people in that country have the magical ability to speak in English.  No matter their social class or educational level.  That, of course, is unrealistic.  But, not so much anymore, but in older movies I’ve seen, those foreigners who don’t speak English tended to be depicted as idiots.  English, due to the media, has been given a great sense of power.

Fans of English

Due to this power, depending on the country and situation, people have different opinions of those “monolingual idiots” who speak English.  In the Philippines, English is revered as the new Latin.  I think of their pidgin language of “Taglish” kind of like a game called “How Many English Words Can I Fit Into My Sentences Without The Sentence Totally Sounding English, Yet, Still Making The Sentence English Enough to Sound Totally Impressive, Even Though The English I’m Speaking Makes No Sense Whatsoever.”  For example, check out a pinoy’s Facebook page and you might see a status like this:

Out na me.

This grammatically incorrect Taglish statement is an Anglicized rendition of “Out na ako”, [lit. out now I] which is the Taglish way of saying “I’m logging out” or “I’m outta here”.  It makes no grammatical sense whatsoever, it’s not real English nor real Tagalog, but it’s revered as cool, because it contains English.

Not Really Fans of English

Take that situation and compare it to Germany.  In Germany, all schoolchildren (in public school, anyway) are required to learn English starting from the third grade on.  The German radio stations hardly ever play German music, because there is so much English-language music placed into the playlists.  So much vocabulary in German is based upon the English language (the German word for marketing is das Marketing, for example).  Yet, there is a huge push for the Germanization of the German language.  This Germanization is described pretty well (in German) in Wolf Schneider’s book Speak German: Warum Deutsch Manchmal Besser Ist [Speak German:  Why German is Sometimes Better].  Although there is a wide influx of English through the media and technology, there is a constant effort in Germany and other countries to come up with native words to avoid having to use the English term.

In Summation:

I do believe that English is a useful language.  Just this last week, when I attended a Karen-speaking Baptist church, I figured I’d be able to speak with the majority of those I encountered in Burmese, realizing that some would not speak much Burmese, due to the lack of exposure or need.  However, there were some adults that did not speak Burmese all that well and asked me politely to talk with them in English, since they understood that better.  I recall also when I was in Germany and chatted with a Bosnian man in English on the Deutsche-Banh, because he didn’t speak that much German.  So, of course, I do realize how lucky I am that I natively speak such a widely used language.  The difference between me and the majority of American English-speakers, is that I do speak other languages and don’t expect accommodation.  Although those Karen people would have liked it much better if I spoke to them in Karen (hey, I know at least ten words!), they still respected the fact I was able to step out of my comfort zone and try to meet the majority of them halfway by speaking to them in Burmese.  I don’t totally hate English, but the environment I and the rest of the youth in my generation and the generations below me is a mono-lingual environment, and I do hope one day, that we will take the model of other countries and introduce a mandatory second language requirement in American schools.


6 thoughts on “What is English to Me…

  1. I can understand your reaction. When I traveled to places where I didn’t know the language (eg Finland), I had to speak English and I was depressed. I so much prefer to speak the local language, and I feel like a shmuck when I can’t. I love the mental exercise, and I love to connect with others in new ways. The nice thing is I’ll never be stuck somewhere without a way to communicate what I need, since I’m a native speaker of English. Germans and Chinese and everyone have to work so hard to learn what is second nature to me.

  2. I thought American students are required to take second language classes at their schools. When I was in the US, I had to take Spanish classes at the junior high school.

    • Taking a class and learning the language are two completely different things. Most American kids forget most– if not all of the content they learn from those classes, which basically amounts up to a lot of wasted time, in the end. However, if American kids were convinced of the usefulness of learning a second language and taken out of the mindset that it “is too hard”, perhaps we could join the rest of the world in multilingualism.

  3. Fascinating to hear your thoughts on English! I was born and raised in Burma, and a bit of a bibliophile when growing up. I devoured Burmese writing, from popular mystery novels to the classics. But I also chose to learn English because I fell in love with the language after reading illustrated copies of Treasure Island and King Arthur. To me, English is not the dreaded Colonial Tongue; it’s the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and George Bernard Shaw. I now make a living as a writer, so I appreciate English’s expansive vocabulary, which allows me to say the same thing ten different ways, depending on the mood or tone I want to strike. Learning language requires a certain aptitude. Some have it; others don’t. (You certainly have an ear and also a great gift for picking up foreign languages.) So perhaps it’s not realistic to expect the majority of folks to master two, three, or four languages. When I travel to foreign countries, I always make an effort to learn the basic greetings so I can initiate contact with the locals in their own tongue. But I have to admit I can’t possibly master every language to the extent that I can have substantive conversations with native speakers. So I’m rather thankful that English serves as a good compromise in most places around the world. I wish you all the best with your Burmese study!

  4. Hi there… it’s impressive how well you pick up the language. Personally I have a few languages under my belt. But this particular language stumps me. I was wonder if you would mind translating this short phrase for me? please..?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s