Once upon a time I went to a bookstore and I was chanted by the fact that guides to Southeast Asia seemed to be everywhere. In libraries all around Manhattan, as well as in too many store shelves to list, it seems that the region is headed in the same way that Iceland is: the travel destination(s) that everyone talks about and almost everyone dreams of visiting.
(This is true about all of the countries in the region)
That was late 2014, shortly after returning from Germany to the United States.
Years since the day that I saw a Lonely Planet guide on a library shelf, I am pleased to announce that in less than one month I will be setting foot on the Golden Land after a very long journey from…the other Golden Land.
(Fun fact: Yiddish speakers called the United States “Di Goldene Medine” [the Golden Land], which is also a title used for Myanmar/Burma/”That Southeast Asian Country”)
The last few times I tried to play “language tourist” in France (seeing how far I could get with Duolingo alone…hint…DON’T DO THAT!) and Jordan (didn’t put almost any effort into it at all due to things I was going through with school), I failed extraordinarily.
I won’t let it happen this time.
And, of course, I am reminded of the time that my father expected me to know a lot of Spanish as a result of being halfway through Spanish II in high school. On a trip to various cities in Spain, he used my floundering as a validation for “Language learning for adults is impossible” hypothesis. Thanks to what happened in Iceland, he adjusted the goalposts (saying that I was capable of my okay Icelandic because I was exposed to French and Hebrew as a child), and I guess the goalposts are sorta…stuck there for the time being.
If you can get this, then you should be my best friend. Obviously not my picture.
Here’s what I’ve mastered so far:
- Thanks to the “Burmese by Ear” course, the tones are not a problem for me (although when listening to them in singing they become an issue)
- I can ask for the hotel and I can say that I want things and that I want to do things.
- I can address a lot of tourist functions, including asking for food, how much something costs, and, of course, essentials such as basic greetings.
- I got used to the sentence structure (particles at the end indicate grammatical context, such as whether it is a question with or without a question word, or what tense it is)
I feel that my burnout and my laziness are intensifying with age, as is fear. One result of this is that my knowledge of reading the Burmese characters is not as strong as I would like. And I haven’t even got around to the confusion of the various words in Pali that can sometimes be spelled differently in Burmese.
What is Pali?
It’s the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, a bit like the Ancient Hebrew / Quranic Arabic / Biblical Greek of the Buddhists of Southeast Asia (this branch is dominant in Myanmar / Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia).
Liturgical language influences are common to many of the world’s languages, and, as with Yiddish, this phenomenon in Burmese actually creates words that do not conform to normal pronunciation rules.
I’m going to have to read a lot of signs in Burmese and I have less than a month to fully get to reading them well.
Here are my other blindspots:
- Numbers (a bad blindspot to have! Very bad!)
- Understanding of politeness systems.
- Understanding of colloquial vs. formal speech (although I understand this at some level).
- I don’t feel that I can put together very complicated sentences.
- Listening to Burmese music and radio is a complete joke, I can barely understand any of it.
If I were a weaker person, I would chalk up my failures to the fact that “Burmese doesn’t have a lot of learning materials” (in comparison to the most popular languages of that region, which would probably be Thai and Vietnamese).
I won’t do that.
Yes, it might be harder for me on the short term (and that’s where I am headed at the moment), but I can always do something. And something is better than nothing.
I have my work cut out for me at the moment:
- Be able to read signs (esp. street signs. This is important because the transliteration systems are inconsistent across guidebooks and tourist materials!)
- To that end, possibly make cartoons and other drawings, like “Chineasy”, to help OTHER people do the same.
- Know your numbers.
- Rehearse and role-play various situations more often.
- Read more about people like me learning Burmese online, whether for scholarly purposes or travel.
Who knows? Maybe Burmese will end up being one of my favorite languages down the line!
Any advice is highly appreciated!
Have you studied any language for travel purposes? Success stories about that? Share them in the comments!
Definitely not Southeast Asia here