My goal: learn Burmese well enough to get by. Did I succeed? Yes I did! Did I leave fluent in Burmese and being able to talk about philosophy and politics? No, but that’s okay.
More importantly, I did pick up some very important lessons.
Shortly before taking off, I got a message from one of my friends who is a native speaker of another East Asian Language, saying “now we’ll see how our Western polyglot fares with our Eastern languages!”
(Full disclosure: my only other Asian Language up until that point was Hebrew. Even then, there are those that would consider the languages of the Middle East, Central Asia or even most Indo-Aryan Languages as “Western”)
Burmese was VERY different from every other language I’ve studied (although interesting it had grammatical similarities to the Melanesian Creoles like Tok Pisin [of all things], which gave me an advantage, as well as odd similarities to many other languages I can speak as well). It was a challenge. Obviously I would have fared better with languages more similar to those I knew already, but it is what it is and I’m glad that I did it.
Victory. Is my Destiny.
It seems that, after this enchanting experience, I’m likely to want to pick up more languages from outside Europe in the future. That is…if I could even manage the whole maintenance thing or have the heart to actually abandon some of my previous languages…
Anyhow, ‘nuff rambling, more wisdom!
- Just because English isn’t widely spoken where you are, doesn’t mean that your chances of being answered in English are any lower. Actually, you’re probably MORE likely to get answered in English in such a country!
“Burmese people speak terrible English”. That’s what I read once on a Swedish-language travel site. Part of me was surprised (former British colony? Bad English? Really?), part of me wasn’t (all that isolation is probably responsible for that). But I thought, “I don’t need to worry about getting answered in English at all! Yippi”
Actually, looking at it neutrally (and this is taking into account the fact that I am a white person who would, under almost all circumstances, not be mistaken for a Myanmar local), I got answered in English more frequently in Myanmar than in SWEDEN.
(And, looking back on in, Sweden wasn’t really all that bad in that regard, unless I hesitated / made a grievous grammar mistake / did something very un-Swedish. Even with my English-speaking family members nearby and even when I handed the cashier my American passport at Systembolaget, I still got answered in Swedish!)
I did encounter fluent English speakers in Myanmar, but only near high-end places in Yangon (and these were the richest areas of the whole country).
With most Burmese (including these fluent speakers as well as those what spoke elementary English), it seems that they wanted to prove that they knew English (to whatever degree they did). In a place like Sweden or Iceland, with heaps of hackneyed articles being written on why they speak English so well, it seems that most feel no need to prove it.
In Italy and in France (back when my Italian and French was even worse than my Burmese was when I took off), the situation was very comparable to that of Myanmar, with the English of the locals usually being a lot higher than most areas of East Asia.
That said, all hope is not lost, because…
- With the exception of places where global / popular languages are spoken, few foreigners will even attempt the local language. This, already, makes you stand out.
In Myanmar, it is common for local to greet tourists with “Mingalarbar”(မင်္ဂလာပါ).
Some tourists respond in kind (and only once did I hear a group of tourists profess any knowledge of Burmese beyond that, my only interaction with expatriates [who , according to my knowledge, spoke Burmese about as well as I did], was at the “Myanmar Shalom” Expatriate Shabbat. Yes, there are Jews living in Myanmar! More on that some other day.)
But I noticed something whenever I would interact with restaurant staff or locals on the street and there were other tourists nearby. Often they would stare at me with amazement. Locals would also react differently to me, even though I was travelling with people who didn’t even know a lick of Burmese. Even if I had trouble understanding what was spoken back to me, or even if I got answered in English, I still got complimented very heavily.
In Iceland, I also had a very similar reception as well when I spoke Icelandic to locals. This is what knowing the local language does (even if you speak a little bit, which would mean “I can order food in this language and ask how much things costs or ask for directions”). It gives you an aura of enchantment that those who don’t make the attempt and even those who have been speaking the language since birth. This is even truer with languages that are more rarely studied.
- Your Skills Fluctuate as a result of Travel, as well as of the Learning Process
At some points during my Myanmar trip, I was “on a roll”, I was getting all of the tones right, I was not making pronunciation errors, no hesitation and sometimes didn’t even need to peek in my books for a vocabulary refresher!
Sometimes I was too tired and “wasn’t feeling up to it”, and therefore wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic, able or confident. But interestingly, if I had to interact in a language I was consistently good with (like those that I teach), I wouldn’t have had an issue even if I was tired or sick or being eaten by bugs (this didn’t happen to me, thankfully).
Only once or twice was I so “out of it” that I defaulted to English.
But only a few hours later did I use my Burmese skills that actually resulted in me getting free water bottles! (This was at Shwedagon Pagoda, no less!)
You are learning. Until you are consistently good, your skills are going to fluctuate wildly. And even with your native language, your ability to apply grammar or come up with meaningful expressions is going to fluctuate (to a lesser degree). And this is true even if you are a monoglot who only speaks your native language.
- Use What Resources You Have. Obviously for Less Politically Powerful Languages, You’ll Have Less. But Take Your Disadvantages into Account in the Learning Process.
I looked at the Google Translate App in frustration, wondering why on earth I wasn’t able to download the Myanmar / Burmese translation package (the way I was capable of doing with Icelandic).
If I were headed to somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, I would have had my work cut out for me more easily, with more books, more tips and more technological resources to deploy.
My books for learning Burmese, however, weren’t nothing (and I had two that I carried on my person at all times).
One thing I learned to do within the first few days was keep a ready mental note to use the index if I saw a certain situation was coming up. For the Lonely Planet book, this was easier. But for the Kauderwelsch book, I often had to remember page numbers where I encountered certain phrases or use the mini-images at the top of the page in order to serve as a guide to when I would need to use what.
And speaking of books…
- Use your books or your tech resources during your downtime (at the hotel, waiting for a meal, etc.)
Something to note: as of the time of writing there are a lot of people, especially older folk, that will get visibly irritated if you use your phone excessively. Interestingly, they will have no such reaction to you referencing a book (unless you are really engrossed in it).
That said, keep in mind that whenever you are having an “I’m bored” moment, get out your book and look at something you think you may need or otherwise look at something related to a consistent weak point.
For Burmese, one consistent weak point I had was numerical classifiers (fail to use these well enough and this means you’ll get answered in English in a yap). For those who don’t know what a classifier is (they exist in a lot of East Asian Languages across the board), it is a word used to indicate a number of a measurement of something. That something comes in various “flavors”, and you choose what “flavor” depending on what class of thing you are talking about.
So when I was in a hotel or waiting for a meal, and it seemed that conversation was slow or that there was an aura of laziness in the air, I would take out my book, review classifiers, and do so until circumstances required me to do something else.
But just reading the words off the page isn’t going to do much…so you’ll need…
- Memory Devices are your Best Friends. I used (1) similarity to words I already knew in other languages and (2) using the memory palace technique in order to mentally “place” the word where I knew I would use it.
Let’s look at the Burmese classifier list on Wikipedia, shall we? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_numerical_classifiers)
Now, how exactly would I remember the first entry in the list (ကောင် / kàuɴ), a classifer used for animals?
Well, it sounds like “cow” and I would remember a cow falling, but there’s also an “င်” at the end which is pronounced like an “ng” sound. I kept in mind “kong” (whether exactly you may be thinking of King Kong of Hollywood Fame or the Kong Family of the Nintendo Franchise is entirely up to you)
Then, of course, there were my first evenings in a restaurant where I was required to remember words for what I wanted to order. I took in the surroundings and I “placed” the various words on the tables in my mental space. That did the trick.
- Discouragement and “Why Did I Even Try This?” May Come. Resist these feelings and don’t dwell on your mistakes.
You are almost certainly going to be making mistakes on your immersion journey. Back when I was in various European countries from 2011 until 2014, I sometimes dwelled on my mistakes too often. Now I’ve known better.
Answered in English? Bleh.
Didn’t know how to respond in a conversation? Meh.
I usually don’t get too vexed when I’m playing a video game and I lose a life. I expect losing lives to be the natural course of playing a video game. Similarly, I don’t think I should overreact when the same thing happens in language learning.
And this leads to my final lesson…
- Be easy on yourself and take what you can get.
I didn’t leave fluent in Burmese. That’ll take a while yet. What I did get, however, was motivation, practice, and tips for the road forward.
Knowing that one day I will look back on these days when I was making mistakes more frequently, knowing that I would remember “back when I couldn’t speak Burmese all that well”, and that I would probably laugh at it with a smile…fills me with determination.
I know. I said I would knock off the Undertale Jokes. Come to think of it, I think I made the exact same joke some twenty-odd posts ago?
It’s easy to compare yourself to other learners, including those who have lived in the country for a brief while and left fluent (I can only think of a handful of instances, I think Benny Lewis in Brazil was one such occurrence, but obviously learning Portuguese as a Native English speaker is going to be nothing like learning Burmese as a native speaker of … any European Language, actually).
Take what you can. You have plenty of time to get to the rest later (and “the rest” is actually of infinite volume, and this is true for any language). And even if you don’t return, you’ll have the chance to interact with native speakers, wherever you meet them, for the rest of your life.
I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.