White Boy Learning Burmese

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

You Wanna Learn Burmese, Too?



So, it’s Summer and I have no more excuses as to why I haven’t posted anything (in English or Burmese), and while I’m getting annoyed by how much English I’m using, this post is dedicated to you, my beloved Westerners, English-speakers, Asian-o-philes, Whities, etc.

So, I recently e-mailed a guy who is studying Chinese in China (lucky!) and had told me that he’s considered learning Burmese.  Not a strange request in these times.  This is what I told him:

I am thrilled that you also want to learn Burmese, and learning Chinese should have given you a good ear for paying attention to the tonal system, but I would like to advise you of a few things about Burmese first, so you’re aware.  Many people come up to me, my pastor, my tutor, and so forth saying that they want to learn Burmese now, because of the growing interest in Burma with the democratic change and whatnot (I like to think of myself as a hipster, because I started learning Burmese before it was cool, hehe  ); however many of these people end up backing out because they say it’s too hard, there aren’t enough resources, “those people” can learn English faster than I can Burmese, blah blah blah, excuses excuses excuses.  Let me tell you about some of the difficulties I faced when first learning Burmese:

  • Resources —  There are only a few select textbooks/ books/ CDs/ Dictionaries that I would recommend, and you can see them all on my site actually, in the “BOOKS” section.  With Burma being just one small country and its language being confined just to there, it’s been difficult to create updated learning materials, since access to the country has been restricted.  Hopefully with the increase in tourism, resources for learning Burmese will get better.
  • Pronunciation —  I’m not talking just about the accent itself, all language learners have that issue.  Rather, there are certain words within Burmese that aren’t pronounced at all like they are spelled.  The word for “loving-kindness”, for example, is spelled (Mayt-taa), but pronounced (myit-taa).  Likewise with bicycle (Hsa-bii:)=(Hse’-bein:).  Nobody tells you about these words.  You just have to say them one day, face the confused glances you get, realize you’ve been saying it wrong, write the word, and have the native correct you.
  • Script —  This shouldn’t be a problem for you, since the glyphs of Chinese range in the thousands and Burmese glyphs are a mere 32 consonants and 10 vowels.  However, it does throw a lot of people off.
  • Syntax — This will be your biggest problem.  Chinese is easier than Burmese for an English-speaker to learn, because the basic syntax of a transitive sentence is the same between Chinese and English (SVO).  However, Burmese is (SOV).  The cat eats the mouse becomes (Cat SUBm mouse OBJm eat VERBm).

One good online acquaintance of mine, Miss Chan Myae Khine, a young Burmese woman currently living in Singapore, writes English beautifully and expresses her beautiful English on this blog (follow her, please, she will not disappoint, as I have with my tardiness to post!).  She has one post entitled “Are You Dare to learn Burmese?”, in which she basically addresses the same issue I do, but with more emphasis on the language itself.  My goal is to challenge the commitment of the learner.  My friend in China is self-studying Mandarin at the moment, and he also lives in China, which gives him a great chance to practice.  However, as I stated in my email, it’s a lot easier for him to learn Chinese due to the many resources and his current location.  But at least he is committed!  I want you, dear reader, to examine yourself for a moment.  Did you take a foreign language in high school?  Let’s assume you did.  How committed were you?  If you were very committed and studied outside of class, and used the language, etc. then, welcome aboard, the transition will be very rough, but not so bad for you.  If you didn’t give a rat’s behind about Spanish 101, barely spoke Spanish in class, let alone outside, and out no effort into your study, what makes you think Burmese (or nay other language, for that matter) will be any different?  Of course, it was high school, but a person’s habits are (unfortunately) not transformed over night.

Also, I am very fortunate to live where I do (with a large concentration of Burmese and minorities of Burma) and many people who are willing to help me learn.  I have a tutor with whom I meet weekly, and if he ever backs out, I have phone numbers of at least three other people I know I could call for help, although maybe not as frequent as my current teacher’s help.  I have a great Pastor who has worked with the Burmese long enough to gain their trust and build up his own resources which have helped me immensely, although he doesn’t have much time to study himself, due to his many commitments.  My pastor told me himself that he’s had many people walk up to him, say they want to learn Burmese, he tells them what they can do, and they usually just give up; but not me.  That truly meant a lot to me when he said it, because although at times it feels like a lot of work, most of the time it does not, and I think I don’t always comprehend exactly what I’m doing.  But I think it’s because I’ve met so many people and have had so many great opportunities due to this journey.  The most important aspect for you to realize, fellow Westerners, is that you’re taking on more than just a language.  You’re taking on a people and a history.  If you have no respect for that, they will have no respect for you and your efforts will fail.


9 thoughts on “You Wanna Learn Burmese, Too?

  1. I’m flattered. 😀

    And even if you cannot be the only unique one who is learning Burmese anymore, you can still be the bridge for new comers as an initial learner. 🙂

    • မှန်ုလိုက်တာပေါ့။ တခြားလူတွေဟာ မြန်မာဘာသာကိုလေ့လာတာ မဖြစ်စေချင်တာ မဟုတ်ပါဘူးနော်။ ဒါပေမယ့် သူတို့အားလုံးထင်ကြတာကလွယ်လွယ်ဖြစ်မယ်။ ပြီးတော့အဲဒါ့မဟုတ်သား။ အနာဂတ်မှာ မြန်မာယဥ်ကျေးမှုအရမ်းကြော်ကြားမယ်လို့ထင်တယ်လို့ ဒီ postကိုရေးထားတယ်။

  2. ဘာသာစကားတစ္ခုသင္ရတာ တကယ္မလြယ္ဘူး။ မေဗဒါေတာင္ ဂ်ပန္စကားသင္ေနျပီး Commitment သိပ္မရွိေတာ့ မတက္ျဖစ္ေနတယ္… ဆက္ၾကိဳးစားအံုးမွ…

  3. ဆက္ၾကိဳးစားပါ ကိုဝင္းဟိန္း

  4. i wish to learn English from u. help me? and i will teach u Burma language.

  5. Hello, some questions I have…
    Are you now living in Myanmar? In Yangon?
    My name is Manuel, I’m from Spain an I am now in Myanmar. I whould like (i really need) to start studying Burmese. Can you suggest me any place to do it? University or school or any language center in Yangon? And in Mandalay?
    I got Gene Mesher’s (horrible, inadequate, barely acceptable, mediocre -as you said-) book “Burmese for Beginners” cause I didn’t find anything else into book stores. I trying to start doing something with it, but I prefer proper course and teacher. At least can be useful to learn writings.
    Burmese is not my first non-indoeuropean language, I’ve being living before some years in Japan and Vietnam and I spoke (JP better than VN) both languages. I hope this can help in my study of Burmese.
    Very good blog, I hope you’ll continue with it!

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