The Biggest Mistake People Make at Language Social Events

come back when you can put up a fight

I have been going to language exchange events for years now (although I’ve been showing up at them less frequently in 2018 due to reasons I cannot disclose quite yet). In some respects it actually teaches me more about human psychology than it does about languages in general.

(It reminds me of the fact that, when I play Interactive Online / .io games, I actually learn more about human psychology rather than strategy as well. I will also never forget the time that someone named his/her character “press ctrl-w to go faster”.)

I’m sorry to have to say this but it really needs to be said: more often than not, seeing people interact at Language Exchange events makes me understand that most people don’t really know how to learn languages very well, for multiple reasons. I’ll go into why shortly.

If you attend a language exchange social event, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor if you want to learn (1) the local language (e.g. if you’re in Iceland, you’ll have many opportunities to learn Icelandic with natives, given as they’ll be the most commonly represented demographic) and (2) English (even if it isn’t the local language).

But concerning someone who wants to learn Mandarin or French and only speak a little bit of that and nothing else but English? You’re going to need to read this…because otherwise you may leave that event broken and discouraged, not also to mention demotivated from ever returning.

Now, you’ve come here for the biggest mistake, so here it is:

The biggest mistake that people make at Language Social Events is not seeking to make gains with their languages when they interact with native speakers.

And EVEN if there are no native speakers of language you want to speak present, feel free to bring some small books along that you can use to play “show and tell”. I did this most recently at an event aimed primarily at learners of Asian Languages (I turned out, not surprisingly, being the only person representing any learner of Southeast Asian Languages. But hey, maybe a Burmese or Lao enthusiast would show and I needed to account for that chance. Besides, I could easily learn about other people’s cultures or even pick up words from languages I haven’t been actively learning).

I had some books on my person and one of them was a Jamaican Patois book. One of my friends who was a Mandarin native speaker didn’t speak Patois and didn’t have any interest in it, but I told him that Chinese languages influenced Jamaican culture in general, showed him the book, read him a few phrases and showed him pictures of Jamaica. That way, I made gains with a language that NO ONE there spoke. I also met someone at a party who was learning Malagasy and HE did very much the same thing to me (despite having no book). I really appreciated it because I have to say I don’t know much about Madagascar at all!

But if you meet native speakers of a language you are actively learning, let me tell you what I most often see versus what you should be doing:

What you should be doing: even if you’re not fluent, ask them to help you put together sentences or even form sentences in your target language while they “feed you words” (they’ll be happy to do this, I’ve done it with English and even with other languages I’m fluent in like Norwegian with other learners). Also ask them to provide details about their language as well as sentences or cultural tidbits that are likely to impress the NEXT native-speaker you meet.

What a lot of people do instead: ask small talk questions only using English. Use a handful of pre-programmed sentences in their target language(s) and spend most of the time using English instead. Use language exchange events as a means to flirt rather than to actually rehearse languages.

The primary key is that you leave having gained something. That something could be cultural know-how, phrases that will help you put together sentences better, or tips on improving your accent. You can even make gains with languages you aren’t actively learning! (I know because I’ve done this with languages like Japanese that I’m not learning at the moment nor do I have any plans to in the immediate future. I’ve also taught people basic phrases in languages like Burmese and Norwegian that they may never see themselves learning at all).

And now one thing I would consider: even if you intend to focus only on one language, I would recommend learning at least a LITTLE bit of a variety of other languages (feel free to do this even if you have no intention to learn them to fluency). This way, you’ll actually be able to start conversations more easily.

If you’re the only one who knows any Khmer, Oromo or Danish, you’ll have people asking you about it even if they have no intention to learn the language themselves. Even if you speak only a LITTLE bit, you can actually be the “local authority” on that language (as I’ve done WAAAAY too often).

You can even use this as a means to learn how to “teach” through an L2 you’ve been working on (and you may discover vocabulary gaps along the way). Most people who show up to these events are curious people and this is even MORE true if it’s a paid event.

A lot of people use English (or English + their native language) 5/6th of the time at language exchange events and wonder why they’re not making gains and why other learners are overtaking them. It isn’t about raw intelligence, it’s about the fact that language learners that put more in get more out. And you have to put effort in from EVERYWHERE in EVERY area of your life if you want the coveted prize of “near-native fluency” or even anything close to it.

Don’t enter without a plan as to what you want and how you’ll get it. Yes, I know you can’t control who will show up (maybe that Finnish speaker will be there, or maybe there won’t be anyone with whom to practice! Who knows?) But you should prepare for a wide range of situations based on what you’ve read about the event series and how you’ve experienced it before in the past.

For most language exchange events in New York City, I’ll expect to use the Romance Languages with regularity. Speakers of Chinese languages, especially Mandarin and Cantonese, will be present with consistency, alongside speakers of Russian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, languages from throughout South Asia and Arabic dialects that will usually lean towards Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Somewhat rarer than that but still frequent are Hebrew, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Persian Languages. Rarer still but showing up about once every two months or so are speakers of Nordic Languages, Turkic Languages of Central Asia (such as Kazakh and Uyghur) and languages of Southeast Asia. The rarest that I’ve encountered are speakers of African Languages, usually from South Africa and Ethiopia. Only once or twice have I encountered speakers of native languages of the Americas. I have never encountered anyone from Oceania at any language exchange event to date.

So think about who you encounter frequently and develop plans for what languages you KNOW you will practice there, what languages you are LIKELY to, and which languages you will probably NOT practice, but would LIKE TO.

Tl;dr always make gains with your L2 whenever you speak to a native speaker. Even if you’re not fluent, you can make those gains. The key is to get SOME progress on your language-learning, and you can always do that.

Have a good weekend!

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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Why Lao is Easy

It seems that it wasn’t long ago I heard someone in my general studies class at my Jewish “middle school” pronounced “Vientiane” as “vee-ent-tee-ane” (it’s pronounced “vee-en-chan”).

Many years later, I fell in love with the Lao language after having encountered it in my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia Phrasebook (which I primarily purchased for Burmese but in 2014 [YEARS before I even deemed it a possibility that I would set foot there] there wasn’t a standalone Burmese language guide that could fit in my pocket).

November led me to great strides in Lao, and today is December 2nd, which is Laos’ National Day (an anniversary of a communist takeover, no less). Given my tradition of writing pieces on national holidays (despite the fact that I sometimes have forgotten a few), it seemed appropriate for me to just take this opportunity to write this piece.

Take a look at the intro for a German-Language Lao Book:

lao easy yaa

“Laotisch – Wort für Wort”

Translation: “Barely anyone believes it at first: Lao is easy to Learn! The new letters seem too hard, the six tones seem barely learnable and the completely different-sounding vocabulary inscrutable. After many years’ time as a resident in Laos, I would, on the contrary, offer this to those interested and wanting to learn it: Lao is, for German-speakers, really quite easily learnable! It’s worth it!”

 

My 30-Day Journey in the Lao Language aligned PERFECTLY with this understanding, despite the fact that I’m not fluent in Lao (yet) and have significant gaps in my vocabulary.

But as far as grammar is concerned, Lao is very simple.

I remember one time that I was leaning on a bar during Language Exchange NYC. A middle-aged woman had told of her troubles with Spanish verb conjugation and asked me what language I was focusing on. I told her about Lao, and she proceeded to tell me exactly “how hard” it would be to learn an Asian language.

I told her that I could literally summarize Lao verbs in ten seconds. So I said this:

 

“Verbs never change.

To indicate past tense, put “ແລວ” (lὲεw) after the verb.

To indicate future tense, but “ຊິ” (sī) or “ຈະ” (já) before the verb.

DONE”

 

No need to plaster your apartment with conjugation tables (as I’ve seen many students of languages like Spanish, French and German do during my college years).

 

Lao has no grammatical gender either, and a lot of the gendered language that Thai (its sister language) has (namely, that men and women will say hello differently) was done away with (yada yada yada, communism). While languages like Thai and Khmer have “pronoun zoos”, Lao’s pronoun system is significantly simplified, making it similar to that of English.

There ARE some honorifics left, but the royal language that still exists in Thai was made illegal by the communist regime.

Some languages like Yiddish have a wealth of possible plural forms (I mentioned Yiddish because it has the most possible, I think, of any language I know of, given that they draw from Germanic, Slavic AND Hebrew sources). Lao doesn’t change any of its nouns, instead using classifier words.

In English, you can say “two coffees” but it would be more proper to say “two cups of coffee”. The “cups” is a classifier words that you use in order to indicate things that come in small drinkable containers. It also has another meaning (classifier words are wont to have other meanings).

 

Much like languages like Spanish, there are two verbs meaning “to be” in Lao, but they are divided along different lines.

One of them is used primarily for objects “ແມ່ນ” (mε̄εn) and another is used primarily for people “ເປັນ” (bpen). Oh, and between nouns and adjectives, you can just leave out a verb altogether! (This would be like saying “it very good”.

 

There were also pieces that reminded me of other languages that I had studied. Much like Bislama, Lao uses the word “to say” in order to mark an indirect statement (like the “that” in “I know that Lao is beautiful”.) Much like languages with strong influence from holy religious languages (Yiddish, Tajik and Burmese also qualify with influence from Hebrew, Arabic and Pali respectively), Lao also has loanwords from … Pali, a holy language of Theravada Buddhism. Pali words are also used in Burmese, Thai and Khmer (despite the fact that these three are spread across THREE different language families).

Because Pali is Indo-European, that meant that I noticed some similarities and cognates to words from the Indo-European family tree (spanning from India to Iceland), not to mention more direct cognates to Burmese (via Pali) which I had previously studied (and am focusing on right now!)

 

Articles in Lao are…compeltely non-existent, as is the case with many languages throughout the world. I’ve also noticed that Lao news broadcasts are significantly spoken more slowly than those in many other Asian languages. I could more readily recognize English loan-words and place names (despite the fact that loan words from European languages are significatly rare except for place names).

 

Above all, the Lao language is fascinating and already I’m starting to use it on YouTube in order to enjoy a wealth of independent films (and I can’t wait for the day in which I’ll be using it to read literature in depth!).

Lao films tend to be interesting because I’ve seen a significant amount of them that work the Hollywood formula in reverse: everything is going fine, and then everything falls apart IN THE WORST WAY POSSIBLE (that doesn’t involve monsters or special effects). Again, I have a lot more of the Lao independent cinema to explore, so there’s that.

To many more years with you!

Lao 30 Day Wow wow wow

In Defense of Learning an English Creole Language

Today is actually a Jewish holiday of sorts, although one with very few religious practices involved. Tu B’av (Jewish Love and Harvest Festival of Sorts, which literally translates to “the 15th of the month of Av”, using a numerical systems in which Hebrew numbers are stand-ins for letters way before the Arabic Numeral system came around) is one of the most auspicious days of the Jewish Calendar, the other being Yom Kippur.

Being generally confused as well as having some issues with illness I thought yesterday was actually that holiday and so I posted this picture to announce that, yes, I will be coming out with a New Polyglot Video, hopefully very soon. If not August, than definitely September.

victory is my destiny

No doubt there are going to be those that are fuming due to the lack of French / Chinese / Italian / Portuguese / Turkish / other global languages, but come on. Too many other polyglot videos featuring those languages exist. Let others have their turn.

And if other people want to downvote my videos just because of leaving out their favorite language or including a minority language and not theirs, then so be it. It just speaks to a greater issue of ruthless pragmatism and conformity in the online Polyglot community.

One of my big memories of the Polyglot Conference in 2015 was hearing a well-known Polyglot whose opinion I respect very much say that he wished that many of his peers would investigate Asian languages other than Mandarin Chinese in more depth. My decision to study Burmese beyond my trip was not only motivated by him (even though I’m not really focusing on it at the moment), but I also got inspired to learn another Asian Language, Lao, because I’m just…generally curious to learn more about the most bombed country in the history of humanity (true story!) Oh, and … uh… snippets of Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil, etc. on the side. But I suck at these. A lot.

Besides, I can communicate with some Thai people with Lao and I prefer smaller languages, something that you knew by now.

Gee, you really love reading my ramblings, don’t you?

So if you looked at the picture above, there were probably very few of you that could recognize every single country in it (by the way, that’s not footage from a future video, that’s just a teaser).

But out of the 27 or so countries featured, there are six (SIX!) English Creole Languages and seven if you include Standard American English.

Let me count them for you:

 

Vanuatu -> Bislama

Papua New Guinea -> Tok Pisin

Solomon Islands -> Pijin

Trinidad and Tobago -> Trinidad English Creole

Sierra Leone -> Krio (Salone Krio)

Belize -> Bileez Kriol (Belizean Creole)

 

I would have become my Bileez Kriol videos a few days ago but I got tied up with a guest in town as well as not getting good sleep and what-have-you. And I haven’t published a new video or a day or two…

By taking on minority languages in my video (such as Breton) as well as English Creoles (like the list above), I know that I will get some very harsh negative responses.

A lot of people feel genuinely threatened by online polyglots in general, and even MORE so if they actually commit themselves to “useless languages”.

And imagine if you’re very proud of your country and your language and your language is a global language, and then this guy comes along having chosen to neglect the study of YOUR language and chosen languages spoken by significantly fewer populations instead. You may feel CRUSHED.

And then there are those that insist that their Creole language is actually a dialect of a European language (and this is especially true in some Caribbean countries, note that I did not say “Carribean Island Countries”, because there are some Caribbean nations [e.g. Guyana] that are not islands).

I could have chosen to leave out Trinidadian English Creole (which I’ve been studying on-and-off for the past few months, even though I got the book in January 2016 as a “you don’t have Lyme Disease anymore!” give), but I’m including it even if it will subject me to ridicule and dislikes.

Here’s the reason why.

 

Creole Cultures Need Legitimacy and Love

 

Some have indeed acquired it, with Haitian Creole being the primary example. Walking around New York City you’ll see signs written in it, especially on public transport. Haitian Creole is also in Google Translate as well, not to mention countless of other avenues to learn it online (Haiti has a fascinating history that actually served to permanently change the face of colonialism and the Atlantic Slave Trade).

However, too often do I encounter with disgust that Creole Languages are “not real” and that people “should never consider learning them”. (in Francophone and Lusophone areas, I’ll have you know, this is overwhelmingly not the case, and sometimes I’ve encountered people who have learned French and Portuguese Creoles from France and Portugal respectively).

The disdain towards Creole Languages seems to be an English-speaking hangup that I’ve primarily encountered in North America (in Australia and New Zealand languages like Tok Pisin are actually highly valued on the job market, even though some of those jobs may get you sent to places where they are spoken with great regularity. True story!)

That being said, I do have some theories as to why some people may be inhibited in learning them and also why learning Creole Languages, for me, is a moral imperative:

For one, there is always the issue of “number of speakers”, which is just plain silly if used by itself. Attracted by the culture of Argentina? A great reason to learn Spanish.  Genuinely concerned by the way Chinese culture is misunderstood in your country? Mandarin may thing for you. “Lots of people speak it, therefore I should learn it”, is just flock-following. I’ve encountered too many people who explicitly list that reason for learning such a language and when they speak these languages, it comes off as stunted and non-genuine. As it should! Because the cultural connection is usually lacking!

And why learn African Languages from the former French colonies when just French will do? Well it seems that China’s language institutions are investing in African languages precisely so that they can have an edge in business against people who think like that.

English Creole languages are spoken in places where Standard English is the language of the government until you actually step inside any of the actual government meetings.

Oh, and my parents needed a Krio translator when they were in up-country Sierra Leone, so especially in the case of African and Pacific Creoles, knowing the standard language is only going to get you so far (even though in some cases it may be wiser to use Standard English, especially in some urban areas in countries like Papua New Guinea).

Another hangup is appropriate usage. Especially if you are a white person, you may be concerned that your speaking a Creole language may be construed as making fun of their culture. Well, appropriate usage can always be discussed with your friends from places like Salone, Melanesia or the Caribbean.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, speaking Tok Pisin with too much English influence and not-too-well can be construed as “Tok Masta”, which is considered highly condescending. And we haven’t even touched on some of the Caribbean Islands in which people see their Creole as a version of English so much so that they deny having any knowledge of a Creole language whatsoever (the situation in some communities like these is very, very odd, although I think Jamaica is a holdout, after all, did you know there is Wikipedia translated into Jamaican? Hey, I’m living in Crown Heights, I should probably order my Jamaican Patois book sooner rather than later. Perhaps after an important milestone, maybe, although I don’t think I’m including Jamaican in my upcoming video…)

Another thing to mention is “opportunities to use it”. Online, tons. Even for developing-world creoles. This is true even if you go onto news sites in places like Vanuatu and see a lot of the news written in English rather than in Bislama. Comments on the articles may not be in English, not also to mention snippets of Creole Languages that are used in articles that are otherwise written in Standard English.

Yet another hangup is yes, it has to be said, undercurrents of white supremacy. An idea that, somehow, the way that these people speak actually isn’t worth your time, even with a lot of black people in the United States feeling increasingly unsafe. And another idea that the language of Europe are more important and have more money attached to them than the languages of any of the places they colonized or languages that came into being because of colonialism (=Creoles).

I want to help people and cultures heal and understand each other. I arrived to Crown Heights and seeing the Trinbagonian flag everywhere (yes, Trinbagonian is a real word!), I took it upon myself to know my community better (after all, I knew plenty about the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Crown Heights prior to moving there!)

Am I going to get comments about usage of Creoles in my video? Most definitely. Some will be negative, no doubt, but I think that there will be many people from places like the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago that will appreciate the fact that I tipped my hat to their cultures when very, VERY few people (or perhaps almost not one) in the polyglot-video-making-world does that.

Already in my video series on YouTube I have caused people to rethink language learning (including many thank-you-notes).

I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can.

Who knows? Maybe I’m the healing the world needs…maybe it’s you!

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8 Important Lessons I Learned Speaking Elementary Burmese in Myanmar for 2 ½ Weeks

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.

 

20170525_165915

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!

 

  1. 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”

WRONG!

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…

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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…

 

  1. 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…

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

Misunderstood? Eh.

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…

 

 

  1. 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.

2016-10-31-19-21-52

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.

myanmarsaga

I expect to see this flag more often in my life even if I don’t ever end up returning to Myanmar at all.