Myanmar Saga: Burmese after 1 Month

Once upon a time I went to a bookstore and I was chanted by the fact that guides to Southeast Asia seemed to be everywhere. In libraries all around Manhattan, as well as in too many store shelves to list, it seems that the region is headed in the same way that Iceland is: the travel destination(s) that everyone talks about and almost everyone dreams of visiting.

(This is true about all of the countries in the region)

That was late 2014, shortly after returning from Germany to the United States.

Years since the day that I saw a Lonely Planet guide on a library shelf, I am pleased to announce that in less than one month I will be setting foot on the Golden Land after a very long journey from…the other Golden Land.

(Fun fact: Yiddish speakers called the United States “Di Goldene Medine” [the Golden Land], which is also a title used for Myanmar/Burma/”That Southeast Asian Country”)

The last few times I tried to play “language tourist” in France (seeing how far I could get with Duolingo alone…hint…DON’T DO THAT!) and Jordan (didn’t put almost any effort into it at all due to things I was going through with school), I failed extraordinarily.

I won’t let it happen this time.

And, of course, I am reminded of the time that my father expected me to know a lot of Spanish as a result of being halfway through Spanish II in high school. On a trip to various cities in Spain, he used my floundering as a validation for “Language learning for adults is impossible” hypothesis. Thanks to what happened in Iceland, he adjusted the goalposts (saying that I was capable of my okay Icelandic because I was exposed to French and Hebrew as a child), and I guess the goalposts are sorta…stuck there for the time being.

ANYHOW. BURMESE.

 

Burmy

If you can get this, then you should be my best friend. Obviously not my picture.

 

SUCCESSES:

Here’s what I’ve mastered so far:

  • Thanks to the “Burmese by Ear” course, the tones are not a problem for me (although when listening to them in singing they become an issue)
  • I can ask for the hotel and I can say that I want things and that I want to do things.
  • I can address a lot of tourist functions, including asking for food, how much something costs, and, of course, essentials such as basic greetings.
  • I got used to the sentence structure (particles at the end indicate grammatical context, such as whether it is a question with or without a question word, or what tense it is)

 

FAILURES:

 

I feel that my burnout and my laziness are intensifying with age, as is fear. One result of this is that my knowledge of reading the Burmese characters is not as strong as I would like. And I haven’t even got around to the confusion of the various words in Pali that can sometimes be spelled differently in Burmese.

What is Pali?

It’s the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, a bit like the Ancient Hebrew / Quranic Arabic / Biblical Greek of the Buddhists of Southeast Asia (this branch is dominant in Myanmar / Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia).

Liturgical language influences are common to many of the world’s languages, and, as with Yiddish, this phenomenon in Burmese actually creates words that do not conform to normal pronunciation rules.

I’m going to have to read a lot of signs in Burmese and I have less than a month to fully get to reading them well.

Here are my other blindspots:

  • Numbers (a bad blindspot to have! Very bad!)
  • Understanding of politeness systems.
  • Understanding of colloquial vs. formal speech (although I understand this at some level).
  • I don’t feel that I can put together very complicated sentences.
  • Listening to Burmese music and radio is a complete joke, I can barely understand any of it.

 

HOPES:

 

If I were a weaker person, I would chalk up my failures to the fact that “Burmese doesn’t have a lot of learning materials” (in comparison to the most popular languages of that region, which would probably be Thai and Vietnamese).

I won’t do that.

Yes, it might be harder for me on the short term (and that’s where I am headed at the moment), but I can always do something. And something is better than nothing.

I have my work cut out for me at the moment:

  • Be able to read signs (esp. street signs. This is important because the transliteration systems are inconsistent across guidebooks and tourist materials!)
  • To that end, possibly make cartoons and other drawings, like “Chineasy”, to help OTHER people do the same.
  • Know your numbers.
  • Rehearse and role-play various situations more often.
  • Read more about people like me learning Burmese online, whether for scholarly purposes or travel.

Who knows? Maybe Burmese will end up being one of my favorite languages down the line!

Any advice is highly appreciated!

Have you studied any language for travel purposes? Success stories about that? Share them in the comments!

grand central

Definitely not Southeast Asia here

My First Adventure at New York City’s Polyglot Bar

My image of the Polyglot Bar NYC that I conjured via the articles written about it was a place that had every major language in the whole world represented among its attendees.

As it turns out, I was fairly surprised to find out that there were about thirty people present, and half of them spoke Yiddish (myself included). There were more Yiddish speakers than speakers of Italian or Portuguese present, actually!

Wonderful. A bit odd. Cute. I really liked it. Will do it again in two weeks.

Some of my reflections:

  1. As a general rule, Americans never gave me the “why did you learn this?” spiel.

 

My name tag listed the languages that I knew and Northern Sami was among them (which I was definitely willing to practice, even though I consider myself quite weak). I was heartily congratulated by someone for having taken on that task. Apparently the only reactions I had from having the very rare languages listed were amazement.

 

There were those that asked me why I had the desire to learn Finnish or Dutch however. I could easily mention my Masters’ Thesis as my motivation to learn Finnish, but for Dutch I was left completely out in the cold. I went to the Netherlands as a tourist, yes, but so do many other people. And I think I’m the only person I know personally who went to the Netherlands as a tourist and learned the local language to an okay degree beforehand (my discipline wasn’t nearly as strong then as it is now…)

 

While in Heidelberg I got the “why did you choose this language?” question quite often…about pretty much anything that wasn’t too commonly studied. While in Europe, I got this from quite a few people:

 

“How did you decide upon that? Did you just wake up one morning and then decide, ‘y’know what? I’m gonna learn Greenlandic!’”

 

Yes, part of me thinks it is cute, but I’m also very grateful that I don’t have to put up with it here. Or, at least, not as much.

 

  1. I was the only speaker of any Scandinavian Language present

 

During my first semester in Heidelberg in which I was Sprachcafe-ing, this was also the case, but in the second year in Heidelberg this almost never happened. Swedish-speaking Germans from the University courses would show up, sometimes the occasional Dane or Norwegian as well (as well as native Swedish speakers, of course).

 

Interestingly I was not the only speaker of a Finno-Ugric Language present. As for Inuit languages, I usually expect to be the only one in the room that has any knowledge of them. Part of me likes it that way, but another part of me would be thrilled if and when it weren’t the case.

 

  1. People really were interested in trying out phrases in other languages

 

An Italian Speaker wanted to know how to say some basic things in Danish. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish similarly got sampled by some of the people I spoke with. (Why is it always the Nordic Languages that have this appeal?)

 

Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect to say “God Morgen!” (Danish, not Norwegian) correctly on your first try. But come to think of it, I would pay good money to hear Danish spoken in an Italian accent…or maybe I should just watch Disney films dubbed into Danish? (Lady and the Tramp comes to mind…)

 

  1. The most enthusiastic small crowd I’ve seen all year!

I almost wrote “the most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen all year”, but then it occurred to me that I was in Germany in July 2014 when they won the FIFA World Cup…so much for that title…

  1. Duolingo really worked wonders for me

 

I actually got laughed at when I told someone that I learned Portuguese from Duolingo (translated from the conversation, to my vague recollection: “That must have taken you an awfully long time, week after week of practicing…”). I was so comfortable with some conversations, one in particular in which I didn’t flinch at all, that I realized that I needed to, in accordance with some advice I had received, get into native learning materials.

 

Therefore, as of this morning, I have quit the Duolingo Portuguese course (because it was a bit of a hassle for me to complete the tree) and will train the language solely with television and conversations from now on. The training wheels are gone!

 

Therefore, two things: (1) My Portuguese is now at a conversational level and (2) I replaced the Portuguese with the New Irish course!

 

Brief aside about Irish: my professor (Viktor Golinets from Heidelberg) told me that Irish had the same sentence structure as Biblical Hebrew. He’s totally right!

 

  1. I didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious about German as I did most of the time when I lived in the country. The confidence difference really showed.

 

If only I trained myself to not be so scared as early as April 2013. But old habits die hard. This lack-of-confidence thing is hopefully dead for good. If it wasn’t before, it certainly is after last night.

 

  1. Sometimes I feel self-conscious with native speakers, but no self-consciousness at all with people whom I did not sense to be native speakers.

 

This will just required a pinch of mental discipline on my behalf.

 

  1. Near the very end, I began mixing up languages because I was a bit tired and overheated. But I’ve noticed something: only within the same families.

 

German and Yiddish were the biggest offenders, but interestingly I never mixed up the West Germanic (German, Yiddish, Dutch) with the North Germanic (Scandinavian).

 

Obviously part of this has to do with the fact that I am a hopeless romantic for languages (and lots of other things, too) and sometimes I just need a bit of focus.

 

But I obviously know what the cure is…

 

Going to the Polyglot Bar a SECOND TIME!

Your Handy Guide to Never Being Answered in English during your European Travels…Ever Again!

Image

Skansen, Stockholm–taken by me, as with all photos on this blog except when otherwise noted.

The feeling of trying to speak the local language and being answered in English has given me more ego-crushing blows than almost anything else on my intellectual journey. I realized in retrospect that a lot of said ego-crushers can be very easily avoided!

And therefore this post is to ensure that you can realize what I did and ensure that you not go through this similar downtime. However, I cannot tell you that it is going to be super-easy…

The most important thing, above all else, is to be convincing. This means that you have to employ the following methods:

(1)    You must speak without hesitation. Using pauses is okay, but you must employ an air of confidence in your speech. Don’t feel like you are shaking upon the words coming out of your mouth. Possibly smile (if it makes you feel better) and deliver your request as firmly as you can, and if you are a tourist, you may want to set aside any anxieties you may have.

 

(2)    Which do you think is more likely to be more convincing:

 

“Excuse me, where is X?”

 

Or…

 

“I arrived to this city a few minutes ago and I think that I’m lost, I want to go to X, do you know where I could find it?”

 

Without question, the second answer (in any language) communicates a willingness to speak the language and not an “I flung open Google Translate for a few minutes on the train while the connection lasted” mentality.

 

Don’t prepare the genuine phrasebook material. Okay, use that as a starting point, but if you want to be answered in the local language you may need to use more complicated sentence structure.

 

Confidence by itself may be enough, and even when I was in Stockholm and still putting on my polygot shoes and getting them to fit, I usually wasn’t answered in English while ordering in Sweden as long as I firm enough. But in those rare cases in which being firm just won’t cut it, using complex sentences definitely will…and surprisingly, I don’t think that it is much work!

 

(3)    One thing that people may tell you that honestly doesn’t matter: even if you are easily identifiable as an English speaker, you can still pull yourself off as a local!

I’ve done this in Stockholm’s Systembolaget every time I was in the store. For those of you who don’t know what Systembolaget is, it is the state-owned alcohol store chain in Sweden—any alcohol higher than 5% may only be sold at one of these chain stores.

 

You need a passport or a valid ID in order to purchase something. I had one of two choices: either my American passport, or my Swedish Residence Card (both indicated that I was a foreigner)

 

Guess how many times I got answered in English after handing over the American passport while using a few words of Swedish? Zero! Even after I got the passport handed back to me!

 

I’m used to saying that there were only two countries that I visited in which I was regularly identified as a foreigner on sight: Israel and the Netherlands. But in these countries, as well as any other, this needs to be stressed: trying to use the local language will only bring you good results!

 

(Interestingly, while I have learned French as a child, I have forgotten it, nor have I visited Paris, although I have heard multiple accounts, from foreigners, of a certain degree of language chauvinism coming from French people. I should say that my French-speaking friends, whom I hold very dear, are supportive of my very slight attempts to mangle their language via oral repetition. I can’t comment on these things as of the time being, but when the time comes, I will definitely write a post on it…)

 

(4)    Another thing that may help is, if you have trouble grasping the local accent, use another accent that is very clearly not English.

 

Back when I was struggling with the German Language (and who doesn’t struggle with the German Language? Or with any other, for that matter…), until around March 2014, I put on a host of Scandinavian accents to disguise the fact that I was not German (I mostly used an Eastern Norwegian accent for this purpose). Interestingly, at times I heard that my accent sounded like that of a native!

 

I do not recommend using this tactic among your friends, however, who may insist that you speak in your normal voice. However, with servicepeople (waiters, flight attendants, etc.) their primary goal is making you feel at home, and they will address you in your language if they feel that will make you the most comfortable.

 

Speaking of flight attendants…

 

(5)    I used this tactic on many flights, especially with Finnair, Lufthansa, and KLM: when the flight attendants address you in English (they do that to everyone), address them in the local language instead. Even if you stutter, you’ll be convincing just by virtue of this. Just don’t mangle your speech too much.

 

During my flight to Helsinki, I used this to pass myself off as a native Finn instantly! Not a single one of the stewardesses spoke English to me during the whole flight, even though I didn’t particularly understand their quick chatter amongst themselves (note: not all Finns are reticent and super-quiet).

 

(6)    If you are with a person who doesn’t speak the local language, and you do (even not very well), it is very easy to convince servicepeople (and others) that you are the local who is guiding them around town. Use this to your advantage if you can.

 

(7)    The rarer your language is, the more likely it is to get others to speak your language with you when you are outside the country that the language is spoken.

 

I don’t think that I speak Dutch particularly well (yet…), but interestingly I felt it was easier for me to get Dutch people to talk a bit with me in their language when I was outside the Netherlands than when I was in it (…them?).

 

(Interestingly, I feel that with Flemings it was the reverse, I’ve been told that my accent indicates that I had learned the language in the Netherlands [I did so in a bunch of places, but not really in the Netherlands nor Belgium]).

 

(8)    You should really keep yourself to using complete sentences, filler words, and a pinch of slang. These make you convincing. Just using incomplete sentences and standard phrasebook material won’t do you well if you want to be convincing. If you are at that point, it is easy to fix it, even just by using Google Translate and a notebook.

 

(9)    If you are in a country with lots of immigrants that learn the local language (Sweden is the example par excellence, as there are immigrants, from various countries, who learn Swedish before even touching the English language), you are in luck, and it is a lot easier for you to be addressed in the local language, because they understand the struggle with learning more than most.

 

(10) The most important lesson of all? Don’t be discouraged! If you are getting answered in English, this is a problem you can fix. Just read through my guide again and take it to heart. These principles hold true everywhere—in Italy, in Belgium, in Malta, and everywhere else I can name, both where English is widely spoken and where it may be a rarity.

 

What are you waiting for? Don’t use the “they’ll just speak English back to you” as an excuse! If you want to learn languages from countries with such reputations, don’t let it stop you! Now get learning!