5 Things I Liked about Living in Israel as an American (and 5 Other Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

70 years of Israel! Happy birthday!

There are so many choices for what I could write about for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). No doubt a lot of people would use this day as an opportunity to fortify their own political opinions.

As someone who has lived in five different countries and have been to nearly twenty others, I tend to see countries as “cultural canisters” more than political entities (especially given that I don’t do much work related to government or politics).

I’m not going to write about anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict this time. Today is a day to celebrate all that is Israel and I am very unequivocal about my hope for peace in the future (if not the present) and I don’t need today to prove that.

Today I’m going to open up about my experiences in the Holy Land as a human being, and someone who is very much intrigued, if not obsessed, with the differences between nations and cultures.

Here are some things that I liked and…didn’t like so much…about living in Israel. (I’ve been there three times, 2009, 2012 and 2015, the first time for half a year).

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Didn’t Like So Much: The Country Sometimes Feels like Jewish Teenager Disneyland

 

I can imagine pretty much every Israeli is nodding their head at this point. There is value in getting young people to experience places, especially ones with deep political stories and historical significance and no one can deny that.

With that said, while I have encountered groups of teenagers everywhere in my travels, especially in Western Europe, in Israel I feel that sometimes some of the tour operators may focus too much on “having a good time” perhaps at the expense of truly understanding what Israeli culture and the Israeli mind is all about.

Thankfully with the Paideia Institute I had not only responsible tour guides who asked and answered questions and shared their stories but also responsible tourists as peers—ones who made observations, listened, asked questions and realize that they are there to build bridges and create mutual understanding rather than party, hook up, have fun, etc.

Obviously not ALL of the tourist operators are like this at all, and I’ve had deep conversations with many tourists about their struggles, insights and hopes. But I found myself having to constantly apologize on behalf of my “American compatriots” based on the behavior I saw from other people who held the same passport as mine.

Perhaps this will change with time.

 

Liked: A Lot of Israelis are Very Curious About the World and Have Global Experiences

 

Mention the name of a country you’ve been to to most Israelis and chances are they’ve visited there or know someone who is a permanent resident there. Hebrew is a language I’ve heard spoken in every country I’ve visited so far except for Greenland (English and Polish are the only two I’ve heard spoken in all of them).

Thanks to the fact that “galuti” (exilic) isn’t really considered an insult anymore, many Israelis relish their heritage of being “out of many, one people” (like Jamaica, another place with an interesting Jewish backstory!). Tel-Aviv can feel so globalized to a degree that would put Manhattan to shame.

Also with many Israelis I’ve seen that many of them speak other languages very well not also to mention know tidbits of very surprising ones (e.g. Vietnamese, Finnish, Indonesian, etc.)

Mention your recent trip to and Israel and you’ll have a conversation topic for the next thirty minutes guaranteed. And in a good way.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some Olim Idolized the Idea of Israel to a Fault

To me, Israel was a country with deep Jewish heritage and holy sites and many layers of history. The various groups of Olim all made their mark on the country in addition to the Arab Citizens of Israel as well (not also to mention guest workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Romania, etc. and possibly anyone else I forgot)

It’s a fantastic place to experience, I love it very much and I love talking about it. And then there are some that see it as a glorified fortress to prevent the Jewish people from experiencing a second Holocaust and, sometimes…little beyond that. And sadly I’ve spoken to some staff members at Yad Vashem who see this as the primary function of the state.

As such, their devotion to it can seem a bit on the nationalistic side in which outsiders of any varieties are not only distrusted but also potential double-crossers, especially if they’re not Jewish. And sometimes not being Jewish in Israel, even as a tourist, can be a bit of a liability. (This is what some of my friends have told me. By contrast, my Judaism never really has been a liability in any of the places I’ve visited nor has being visibly foreign in places like Myanmar been a liability either.)

There are elements of some Israeli sub-cultures that can serve to blind people from dialogue, reason and mutual understanding and the fear of a second Holocaust, not also to mention the omnipresence of the Shoah in popular culture there, serves as an engine for it. But I can imagine that when peace comes to the region there won’t be a need for this anymore.

 

Liked: A Healthy Diet Can Usually Be the Path of Least Resistance

Yes, you can get more candy than you can know what to do with in Machaneh Yehuda, but also the omnipresence of vegan foods (Israel does have the highest percentage of vegans in the WORLD!) and chickpea specialties being good local favorites will help you tremendously towards whatever weight loss program you’ve been itching to try.

The falafel is Jerusalem is legendary and once you’ve had it, none other in the world will come close. Never, ever, ever.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: A Mutually-Enforced Barrier Between Israelis and Most Foreign-Born Residents, even Jews, even Olim, and Especially Americans and other Anglophones

 

Perhaps in part because of the “Disneyland for American Teenagers” trope I’ve discussed earlier, I’ve encountered many Israelis (including Yordim = Israelis living outside of “The Land) who somehow see Americans as almost a completely different species upon which they purport themselves the local experts. (To be fair, Israelis probably know American pop culture better than any nationality I’ve encountered, honorable mentions go to Germany and Iceland [both places with histories of American military presence, no big surprise]).

In Hebrew University many of my attempts to socialize were usually stuck among the Anglophones, even when I could manage Hebrew conversations just fine. And even then once or twice I got the line “we should continue in English because I’ve studied your language for more than you’ve studied mine” (I have literally got this treatment NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD!)

Thankfully the majority of Israelis have been encouraging of my Hebrew studies both within and without the Holy Land….as it has been for all of my languages.

 

Liked: Deep Conversations about Meaningful Topics, as opposed to small talk, are Common

 

Ah, yes. In the United States, sometimes conversations will go “so…what do you do…?” Three minutes of platitudes followed by “oh, it was nice meeting you”.

In Israel this NEVER HAPPENS. Whether it go into a direction about religion, politics, cultural differences, American sitcoms (which I know nothing about) or my personal favorite: teach me how to swear in (Yiddish / Swedish / Burmese etc.)

I’ve remember SO, SO many soundbites from Israeli conversations that I’ve literally cited conversations I’ve had with Israelis more than I have from any other nationality!

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Outward “Culture of Insensitivity” Can Be Off-Putting.

 

Yes, Americans care about their “feelings” and “smiling all the time” very often (at least this is what people who have “hyphenated American” identities have also told me and I’d have to agree as a TCK myself). That said, there is a certain outward machismo that not only took me time to get used to but was genuinely STRESSFUL during my first few weeks in Israel.

Usage of loud voices is an acquired taste not also to mention a culture in which confrontation is somewhat reveled in (in contrast to Sweden or Spain in which confrontation can cause people to freeze up in confusion).

Even some American students who have been studying in Israel for YEARS never fully adjust to this reality. It isn’t for everyone, and even some people who see Israel as the most beautiful place on earth where everything is perfect for Jews may encounter the fact that they may never fully grow used to this element of the culture.

 

Liked: The Educational Culture is Something to Marvel At.

 

Oh, yes. Israeli professors treat you like an equal, they respond on point and value every single one of your ideas. If they disagree with you, they do so respectfully. They’ll keep their politics a guarded secret (one friend told me that disclosing your politics as an Israeli professor means that you’ll get permanently banned from the profession, another friend laughed at the idea that any such policy could be meaningfully enforced).

In the United States, I’m sorry to say, a lot of professors sometimes have fragile egos in which they don’t want to consider their students viewpoints and often want to force their viewpoints on others. NEVER, EVER among Israeli professors have I encountered this, not even among Ulpan teachers.

The rest of the world needs to learn something from this idea of “learning as equals”.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: You May Sometimes Be Barely Able to Finish a Sentence in Conversing with Israelis.

 

When I was in Poland, I had tour groups from Britain / Chile / Norway / Iceland / the US / Canada (keep in mind that this was before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2013 and so in 2011 I was really capable of only giving tours in English and Yiddish and not much else. Okay, I could use some Hebrew, Spanish, Russian and Polish but sometimes I’d have to use English in between. )

British teenager groups -> tended to listen to what I said. A bit like me putting on a show for them with puppets.

Israeli family group -> if the British teenager group was like the puppet show, the Israeli family group was like if I would be tackled in the middle of the show, all of the puppets taken from me and then they start making their own show in which I have the occasional comment.

It’s really charming to reminisce on but again, like so many things Israeli, this is an acquired taste, one that many people, even Olim, never fully acquire.

 

Liked: Every Day in Israel Feels Like an Adventure.

 

Between the weather and the fact that few people treat you like strangers, and that people want to talk to you and get to know you, and ask you your opinions about honest topics even if they met you a few minutes ago, Israel feels like an RPG overworld in the best way.

There’s always something new to explore, a conversation to be had, a weather to marvel at, and a place and a people you never truly forget and that will always be in your hearts.

 

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Happy birthday, Israel!

How to Start Learning Lao: Resources and Things to Know

The final day of Pi Mai Lao (ປີໃຫມ່ລາວ or Lao New Year) is also upon us! It is also referred to as “Songkran”, which is essentially the same as the Thai New Year (which also uses the latter term). Thingyan (the Burmese New Year) and Songkran actually have a shared root from Sanskrit (saṁkrānti, which the is a word indicating the transit of the sun from Pisces to Aries).  Oh, and the Cambodians have the same thing too: Choul Chnam Thmey (Enter New Year).

It’s as good as an opportunity as any for you to begin your Lao Journey so let’s get you started!

First off, you should realize that Lao and Thai are siblings. But given that Thailand had the luxury of being the only country in the neighborhood that wasn’t colonized (something which it probably owes for its standing in the world today as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world), you could imagine that it has some differences to Laos. Laos was not only colonized by the French but also has the distinction of being human history’s most bombed country (thanks to Henry Kissinger). Then the Communists took over, changed the flag, many aspects of local culture and, of course, the language.

For those of you who read my article on Yiddish a while back, I mentioned Soviet Yiddish, which changed the orthography of the Yiddish language in a significant manner. Yiddish has words of Hebrew and Aramaic origin but unlike words of European origin in Yiddish they are NOT spelled phonetically, instead being spelled the way they are in Hebrew or Aramaic (which has the vowels as unwritten marks UNDER the words rather than doing what Yiddish does – incorporating various letters as vowel sounds as stand-ins for English letters like a, e, i, o and u). The Soviet changed that system—in which even names for JEWISH HOLIDAYS were spelled phonetically.

There are some theories as to why this choice was made, and the two prominent ones are (1) to detach religious significance from Yiddish and (2) to make it more accessible to learners (and let me tell you, the “having to memorize the pronunciation of each Hebrew-origin word In Yiddish” DOES trip up a LOT of my students).

Now Thai and Lao both have loan words from other languages, most notably Pali (which is an Indo-European Language in which the holy scriptures of Theravada Buddhism are written). But in Lao the same thing happened as with Soviet Yiddish. In Thai, the Pali loan words’ pronunciations don’t always match their written form. The Lao Communist authorities changed that, so that Lao is a “what you see is what you read” variety of language.

To give you an example of a Pali loan word in Lao, the Pathet Lao (the communist faction that took over after the 1975 civil war) is related to the word “Pradesh” which is present in…the names of several states of India! (You see? Pathet? Pradesh?) Now you have an idea!

Laos probably has the reputation along with Myanmar of being the “least touristy” of the Southeast Asian countries, and that’s precisely why it has its appeal.

Laotian expatriate / immigrant communities exist in many areas of the world, especially on the West Coast of the United States (I’ve heard that California does have a need for Lao interpreters).

Also keep in mind that Laotian -> citizen of Laos, as opposed to Lao -> refers to an ethnicity.

Some resources I’ve used to learn Lao (even though I’m not fluent yet), would include some of the following:

The Lonely Planet Book is very good, if it does have a flaw it may be the fact that it is meant for quick usage rather than being too suitable towards in-depth learners. That said, the glossary is EXTREMELY helpful, the tones and the concept of consonant tiers is explained, not also to mention many aspects of local cultures and, very importantly, when Western cultures can clash with Lao ones and how to be aware of and prepare for that.

Very suitable towards getting people to talk as QUICKLY as possible, the various books of the Live Lingua Project are also useful as well. Some people may consider the fact that the Lao alphabet is seldom used in these books as a bit of a flaw (by contrast, the Lonely Planet book and the Seasite NIU Website use the characters with transliteration as often as possible, except with the literature portions).

The books are DEEP and are supposed to get people who work for the Foreign Service or the Peace Corps to get using the language AS QUICKLY AS THEY CAN. So if that’s you, even if you don’t work with these organizations, those books are for you.

Seasite NIU (http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/) is also very helpful complete with dialogues and tone resources and other fun things that you can engage with. Did I mention that everything comes with FULL AUDIO?

I also used that website in my own Lao Learning Series, which you can see here:

 

Also if you’re a Lao native speaker, feel free to provide feedback to my 30 Days of Lao Challenge from this past November (for non-Lao speakers or understanders, turn on CC):

Have YOU learn Lao? How about both Lao and Thai? How close are they in your opinion? How have your experiences learning or using Lao in Laos or elsewhere in the world been? Let us know in the comments!

Some 100% Original Burmese Songs You Should Listen To (and a CONTEST!!!)

Happy Thingyan, everyone! (ျမန္မာ့ႏွစ္သစ္မွာ မဂၤလာအေပါင္းနဲ႕ ျပည့္စုံၾကပါေစ။) 🙂

Anyhow for today’s post in honor of Burmese New Year (which began yesterday and is still in session, let’s share some songs that are 100% original and also 100% Burmese. They are not taken from any variety of outside melodies in any which way whatsoever J

 

If you’ve think you’ve heard this song at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, let me assure you that you probably dreamt it. J

 

No Norwegian-Irish Melodies to listen to here. Move along. J

 

100% Burmese. Definitely not ABBA at all. Nuh uh. No way.

 

Time for you to savor this Ukrain…I mean Russi… I mean Chine…I mean Burmese song. (Don’t get any funny ideas about thinking that it sounds anything like a song from VIA Gra, some Russian-singing girl band that you probably haven’t heard of until now, unless you know more about that real of the world than I do. As I heard in a similar song somewhere, “Stop! Stop! Stop!”)

 

That sinking feeling you may have heard this song from somewhere is just imaginary.

 

Okay, jokes off, I think you get the idea now. I’m very happy about the fact that Burmese Copy songs exist, and they date from the days of the military dictatorship. The Burmese renditions of these songs usually aren’t direction translations, and often more like “transcreations”. That said, the album through which I first discovered the fine art of Burmese Copy Songs is right here:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/greatest-hits/1222130595

Here’s a challenge.

How many of the songs can you recognize? (Even through just the iTunes previews) Not all of them will be originally English songs, some will also be Chinese, Japanese, Russian or even further beyond.

Everyone who helps me identify a song will have the opportunity for me to pick a topic for me to write about OR write a guest post for this blog.

GOOD LUCK!!! (This is probably one of the hardest challenges I’ve issued yet!)

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The Finnish Cases, Explained

Today is Finnish Language Day! I’m going to make this a short post by virtue of the fact that, while I have seen a lot written about this topic, I usually haven’t seen it in “bite-sized” pieces.

So here we go!

First off: Finnish is a Finno-Ugric Language with close relatives in Estonian and, to a lesser degree, in the Sami Languages, and more distantly in Hungarian (not also to mention minority languages of the Russian Federation from which their original source likely was).

These languages have very high numbers of cases in comparison to the Germanic or Slavic Languages, but what few people will tell you is the fact that most of these cases are straight-up prepositions (this is true in all of the Finno-Ugric Languages which I have studied: Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Northern Sami).

Let’s look at how the word “talo” (house) is declined:

 

talo

Wiktionary.org

 

This probably might not mean much to you if you’re an absolute beginner, so let’s help you. I’ll give the singular examples.

 

Nominative (talo) – use this if it is the SUBJECT of the sentence (so “the house is beautiful” = the house is what the sentence is about).

Accusative (talo) – use this if it is the OBJECT of the sentence (so “the dragon ate the house” = the house is what the primary doer of the sentence is doing the thing to, hence it is in the accusative)

Genitive (talon) – use this to indicate OWNERSHIP. The word “talon” by itself would mean “of the house” or “the house’s”.

Partitive (taloa) – used in a lot of ways, but use it with NUMBERS or to indicate SOME OF that thing. Taloja -> some houses (note that I used the plural form). The singular you can use with numbers, like with “lähes 400 taloa” -> “nearly four hundred houses” (400 – neljäsataa, which itself uses a partitive in the word “sataa” -> “hundreds” (in the singular because it, too, is preceded by a number)

 

This is where it gets easier:

Talossa – in the house

Talosta – from the house, about the house (as in “tell me more about yourself”)

Taloon – into the house

Talolla – on the house, upon the house (you also use this to indicate ownership, Finnish says “upon me there is” [minulla on] as opposed to “I have”)

Talolta – from upon the house to off the house (you also use this to indicate “from me” in “do you want something from me?”)

Talolle – to the house (you can also give things to people, hence “minulle” -> to me)

Talona – as a house (you may also see this ending to indicate at a time or date or in older words to indicate “in” hence “kotona” -> at home)

Taloksi – into a house (as in “I turned into a house yesterday”, not sure how that could happen). Like the one above except for this one normally highlights the presence of change or transformation.

Talotta – without a house.

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Any thoughts? Corrections? Requests for future content? Let me know!

What the Irish Language Revival Needs

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh! (Happy St. Patrick’s Day to All of You!)

Having spent my adolescence in New England and the week before my freshman year of college in County Kerry (including walking through areas of the Gaeltacht), Ireland has always had a warm place in my heart (including countless attempts to learn Irish with mixed results and yes, conversations in Irish throughout the year. )

I myself am of Irish-American heritage (although sadly I don’t know which county my ancestry stems from). The Kerry Way and rural Connecticut clearly have similar architectures and layouts, much like rural Sweden and rural Wisconsin seem eerily similar to each other.

My parents, having met in New York City, never found Hiberno-English foreign or even strange. When I began my studies of Irish in 2014 (with the Duolingo course and Transparent Language, for better and for worse, guiding me through the pronunciation), I realized exactly how much influence this language had on English as well as the American brand thereof in particular. (Yiddish also had a similar feeling as well, not also to mention when I studied Italian before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2014).

As an Ashkenazi Jew I realize how the Irish-American and the Jewish-American stories are so SIMILAR. Large diaspora communities and profound influence on American culture as a whole, systematic discrimination throughout the 20th century as well as having ceased to be a minority in many respects (as far as the United States was concerned), having posters of our holy lands throughout our classrooms, mixing our ancestral languages with English, prizing our music and our religious traditions and, of course, the debate about to what degree our victimhood narratives really serve us and cultural intricacies and narratives so deep that most foreigners will never understand how much of a “minefields” our internal politicking really is.

The Irish Language, despite being increasingly accessible with each coming year, is also a point of many, MANY heated debates, including alarmism of “the language is dying!” and some people saying “why keep it alive anyway?” not also to mention countless, COUNTLESS debates with a lot of hurt feelings and confusion.

That said, I think that, contrary to what many scholars think, if there is a future for ANY language, it will likely be in part because of L2 Learners. I think that Irish-Language learners the world over have the possibility to provide the salvation this language needs. The fact that the Duolingo Course, warts and all,  became the SECOND language course to be released from the community (ahead of languages like Russian, Swedish, Japanese and even Mandarin Chinese) and also reached more than FOUR MILLION learners deserves to be celebrated.

The most likely reason, however, that I haven’t become fluent in Irish yet, despite all of this time, is…well, my self-discipline actually.

But I think that if the Irish language were easier to rehearse, then we would NOT have a system in which place in which people learn Irish and school and then forget it.

How many people have you met that learned English and school and then forgot it entirely? That’s because the MEDIA in which English is used are readily available. And in addition to creating Irish-language resources (of which there are plenty), there also need to be a multitude of ways to engage with the language.

Here are some ideas:

ga

  • Cartoon Dubbings (with various degrees of being learner-friendly)

 

Yes, I’ve used TG4 before, but often a lot of the sentences eluded me. I think that if there were the possibility to add subtitles (as, for example, is common and REQUIRED in Norway) and possibly even vocabulary lists (as what the Yiddish Forward does—you can highlight any word to see its English meaning), these TV shows would become VERY accessible and people would flock to learn the language and try it out with cartoon shows.

 

  • A Richness of Music in Many Different Styles

 

No doubt it already exists, somewhere, but often what is readily available when one searches “Ceol as Gaeilge” in YouTube is a number of covers of English-Language pop songs. I’m EXTREMELY grateful for that, but the world of Irish music also needs to expand into re-interpreting old classics in novel ways (much like Faroese music has done), and also venture into realms like Gangsta Rap and Techno (Burmese music got me hooked just because of the sheer variety—also because the albums were about $10 for 100+ songs, but that’s another story).

The music should also come with translated lyrics as well as, yes, you got it, vocabulary lists for learners.

  • Less Alarmism in Journalism Discussing the Irish Language

There IS a threat to the language, and no one is denying that in the slightest. However, playing it up for clicks is not helpful nor does it even motivate most people to learn the language (except for altruists such as myself).

  • More Richness of Learning Materials

 

Believe me, if the Irish Language had material that was even one-fifth of what a language like Spanish or even Turkish had in regards to websites and books and apps to learn it, no one would be fretting about its future.

More games, more interactive materials, more unique ways to engage with the language for ALL levels of learners, and we’d be in for many, many problems solved.

 

  • Fewer People Calling It “Useless”

 

Do I really need to discuss this point any more than I already have on this blog?

 

  • Making People Realize that Irish-Speakers REALLY Want to Help You Learn!

 

This was even referenced on Ros na Rún several times. Only today did I read a post decrying the idea that many Swedes seemed to be discouraging of people wanting to learn their language (I’m addressing this in a point next week—don’t worry, it is VERY encouraging!). With most Irish speakers, you won’t encounter this at all.

 

Much like secular Yiddishists helped me learn Yiddish at every opportunity and in every possible way, Irish speakers have given me very much the same. (I have a feeling that the rest of the world, especially in the west, will be on track for that as English continues to expand in its usage. I don’t mean to imply that languages of Northern Europe will be endangered much like Irish or Yiddish is now, by the way).

 

  • Encouraging Fluent Speakers to Make Their Own Media on YouTube (with possible monetary stipends)

A language like Finnish or German was easy for me to learn in comparison to Irish (despite the grammatical difficulties with both) given how EASILY I could find videos related to pretty much any topic in either. That, and also a lot of very popular videos would have Closed Caption Subtitles in these languages. Irish doesn’t even come close to having that luxury. Or, at least, not yet.

Within the past few years I’ve noticed Welsh-language gaming channels popping up and even some in Irish (although sometimes they fall out of use after some times). We need to get these projects going (and given YouTube’s new monetization guidelines instituted in February 2018, it is more of a battle).

I’ve seen it over and over again with people choosing their languages – the more opportunities they have to use it in some capacity, the more alluring that language is. Every video, post or song in Irish helps!

  • Making More Social Opportunities to Use Irish in Ireland, the other Celtic Nations and in Big Cities Throughout the World.

New York City has a lot of Irish speakers. I know because I’ve met many of them. But sometimes the Meetup groups fall out of usage because their owner can’t pay the fees anymore, or if they do exist they post events about once a year.

With apps like Amikumu and HelloTalk in the fray, it seems that we can create these opportunities. Sometimes we as individual language learners are held back. We don’t need to be scared. The world needs us. Now more than ever!

Have YOU ever learned Irish or any other Celtic Languages? How did it go? Let us know in the comments!

My Valentine to Oceania: History’s FIRST-EVER Polyglot Video to Feature Only Pacific Island Languages!

Earlier today I uploaded this video (I was supposed to upload it on Valentine’s Day but logistics involving my classes and other obligations got in the way). Feel free to turn on the English subtitles using the “CC” button.

In this video I speak five languages from Oceania with NO other languages (not even English) included: Palauan, Tok Pisin, Fijian, Gilbertese / Kiribati and Bislama (with a conclusion in Tongan and Tuvaluan. I haven’t actively studied Tuvaluan for a while but if I’m headed to Fiji later on this year it is something I would like to know more about).

This is the first Oceania-exclusive polyglot video in human history.  

I filmed it using my Samsung device, while standing and without wearing my glasses. One reason I didn’t come off as more cheerful was the fact that my hand was seriously strained in having to hold the camera up the whole time.

I would like to take this time to thank my viewers and readers as well as, in particular, the many residents of Pacific Island countries that have given me feedback and encouragement. (Palau and Kiribati in particular gave me TONS of viewers who provided me constructive criticism and even publicized my material widely!)

Obviously my main focus is going to be on Fijian for the short-term future but the decision to learn languages from Oceania is one of the best decisions of my life.

Fun fact: I actually gave a presentation on Fiji for a Hebrew class I had at JTS (the Jewish Theological Seminary) back in 2014. I related details about Yaqona (kava), chiefly families, the country’s geography and history, and tips for visiting. It was doing research for this presentation that I discovered Tok Pisin, the first language from Oceania that I learned AND the first that I learned to a C2 level. 

Here’s to many more years together, O Languages of the Southern Islands! I appreciate your presence in my life and the fact that I now see the whole universe differently because of you.

All About the Burmese Language

My first Independence-Day Related post of 2018! (Well, discounting the shout-out to Slovakia I gave on New Year’s Day). Today is Burmese Independence Day and I thought it would be a good occasion to write about the language.

A year ago at around this time my parents were floating the idea of visiting Myanmar (Burma) after isolationist policies were relaxed. Interestingly they weren’t the only ones thinking this way—Sammy Samuels of “Myanmar Shalom”, a Jewish-Burmese Tourist Agency (YES, there are Burmese Jews, both in the country proper and abroad, and I’ve met BOTH!) described it as a “gold rush” when we met for the first time in May.

In a mall in Yangon that looked fancier beyond most malls in America, there were photographs of the country’s many minorities with captions about their lifestyles in Burmese and in English. My father told me that the underlying implication was that the wave of investors from China, the West and Myanmar’s immediate neighbors such as India and Thailand would threaten many aspects of local culture that remained unchanged during the years of military dictatorship.

Myanmar’s internal politics are labyrinthine and the ethnic diversity found in the country is similar to the situation that was present in the Americas before European colonization happened. (Fun Fact: Europe is the least linguistically diverse continent!)

It’s been more than half a year since I took off from Yangon and since then I’ve kept up my studies of Burmese on-and-off. It has proved to be one of the most difficult languages I have encountered by virtue of the fact that it is…different. (And Lao, for many reasons, I found significantly easier both to learn and to understand).

Here are some videos that I made about Burmese and my journey learning it last month. Sadly due to some circumstances I wasn’t able to complete the Eurolinguiste 30-Day Challenge but I’m glad I did what I did:

In any case, I turned to Polyglot Polls for potential topics to write about, and I got some topics that I’m not too qualified to write about, such as:

  • Burmese street slang
  • Tai-Kadai loan words in Burmese
  • Mon-Khmer loan words in Burmese

 

IF YOU KNOW about any of these topics in any capacity, PLEASE let me know about them in the comments.

One thing I really have noticed was the fact that, much like with languages like Yiddish, Uyghur and Tajik, Burmese takes a lot of words from a religious language, in the case, Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism’s scriptures.

Burmese native words are one syllable each, and so expressions that have more than one syllable are usually of foreign origin. It goes without saying that words like “telephone” and “Internet” are detectable English loan words, as well as many names for countries and nationalities.

But one of the first things I had to learn in Burmese (as SOON as my visa got approved), was how to ask for only vegetarian food and the word that is used is သက်သတ်လွတ် (θɛʔ.θæʔ.luʔ). There were also some other things that pointed to foreign influence that was Indo-European but clearly not European, like the fact that the word for “name” is နာမည် (næɴmɛ), which is very similar to the English word “name” (it’s a Pali word.

Interestingly I notice that the patterns for liturgical-language loan words throughout the world are quite similar (and my observations tell me that they tend to skew towards nouns and higher registers of language).

But, here are some things you need to know about Burmese, whether you may be starting to learn it or want to learn a little bit or just want to read a list of facts:

  • No grammatical gender.

 

  • You put words at the end of a sentence in order to indicate what tense it is:

 

Tense Markers DONE

These will also be DIFFERENT depending on how formal (or not) the text (or spoken word) is. On inscriptions you’ll usually see formal variants. In phrasebooks, you’ll see informal.

 

 

  • Men and women will speak differently. My first day in Mandalay I went to a bank with my father and the servicewomen opened the door and told me “mingalaba SHIN” (the “shin” at the end is a “polite particle” used by women. For those unaware: it really doesn’t have a meaning, a bit like adding “sir” or “ma’am” at the end of sentences in English. I, as a man, would say “mingalaba khimya” (using a different polite particle). Also! Polite versions of “I” will be gendered as well. ကျွန်တော် (ʨənɔ) for men and ကျွန်မ (ʨəmá) for women.

 

 

  • You will also use classifier words as well. To say “I want coffee + 4” you would say “I want four cups of coffee”. To say “I want paper + 3” you would say “I want three sheets of paper”.

 

Here are some classifier words:

Category Words DONE

  • You can usually omit the subject of the sentence if it is implied. I remember one time I was talking to a Burmese taxi driver about Burmese music and I mentioned Chan Chan (described a musician who made her career off women’s broken hearts, in a sense). He said “very beautiful”, leaving it unclear as to whether it was the music OR the singer that he was talking about. Expect this commonly.

 

  • The tones are probably the trickiest out of any tonal language that I’ve encountered (with Mandarin probably having the easiest system, in my opinion). I’ll link to various sites that can help you better.

 

One website I would recommend is this below: provides a LOT of cultural information and provides steady information where a lot of other sites are lacking. Great for learning the Burmese script as well as tones and the finer points of language:

https://www.asiapearltravels.com/language/intro_burmese.php

Another resource I would recommend for getting a very basic level is Kenneth Wong’s playlist. He has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard in my life:

Concerning books, Lonely Planet is also a good bet (when I first became enthused by Burmese in 2014, WAAAAY before I know that I would end up in the country and I honestly didn’t ever think I would end up there, they didn’t have the standalone Burmese phrasebook but now they do. I have the Southeast Asia one).

Also Reise Know How is pretty much always fantastic if you read German. In case of the Burmese one, the proceeds will go to funding children’s schools in rural Myanmar.

 

And as for USING it:

Burmese is very lively on the internet and when I was in the country I could see why. Even among some of the temples in Bagan which are crowded with homeless people, there were people using smartphones there.

What’s more, the Burmese-American communities are also noteworthy to point out (and the U.S. isn’t the only place that has these expatriate communities). They also have many ethnic minorities of Myanmar represented as well within these communities.

Burmese music is also fantastic especially when you consider the fact that, in some cases, it somewhat resembles Tom Lehrer’s confession as Lobachevsky (“Every chapter I stole from somewhere else”). Tons of Western, Chinese and Russian pop songs are covered in barely legal manners and translated into Burmese. A lot of the lyrics are also readily available embedded as subtitles in the video (so you’ll need the Burmese script for that!).

Some songs I’ve heard rendered into Burmese include “My Heart Will Go On”, ABBA, VIA Gra (Band from Ukraine popular in the Russian-speaking world), “A Million Voices” (that almost won Eurovision 2015), and many songs that I vaguely remember hearing in produce isles in the United States. (Confession: I know pathetically little about American popular music and, to be honest, I like it that way).

Anyhow, I’m happy to answer your questions or receive your expertise.

Above all, know that Asian Languages are not scary as you may make them out to be!

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