Bagan, Myanmar: Notes on Learning Burmese…
Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Bagan, Myanmar: Notes on Learning Burmese…

Naing Naing , my son-in-law, offers Burmese lessons online as well as tours in Bagan, Myanmar.

So it looks like we’ll be spending quite a lot of time in Myanmar which means that it could be helpful to learn Burmese. The language, so far, has not been totally impossible to learn, at least the 27 words or so that I know right now. It’s a tonal language, but the tones have proven to be less straightforward than those in the Mandarin language. Some Burmese language systems say that there are three tones, others say there are four (the so-called “creaky tone” has given me all kinds of fits, though now I feel like I ‘get it’).

Right at this moment, I have three men in my house trying to install and air conditioner. They’re pointing a flashlight at me as I sit on the couch writing this. They’re speaking quickly, but I can hear some of the particle words–the “deh’s” and the “ba’s” along with the puffy “h’s” that start some of their consonant sounds. At this stage of things, I’m congratulating myself for these feats. I can hear the words, but I don’t know yet what they all mean.

Learning Burmese from a Book

So far, I’ve had very little success learning Burmese from a book. There is no standardized system in place for deciphering the phonetics of the language, so each book lists the pronunciation of words according to a different Latin presentation. Needless to say, this leads to confusion. And on top of all that, as a newbie, I still need to hear someone pronounce each word for me at least 100 times before I can really hear it and say it.

I’m lucky that my son-in-law speaks Burmese. In fact, he teaches Burmese online, but it’s not really fair for me to ask him to educate me on the language at every meeting, so I’m trying to learn what I can from the other people around us. Luckily, Burmese people are incredibly friendly and mostly shocked when he say words to them in Burmese. They get excited that we’re trying the language so that motivates all of us to keep working at it. Today, Lydian and I went to go buy some longyi (skirts) in an effort to stay cool and the woman at the Pboo Pboo Fabric shop next door to the Yadanarmar spoke broken English to supplement our broken Burmese which was super-helpful and affirming. Lydian said, “ta-cha: a-yown” and the woman said “other color. Lydi and I looked at each other and smiled and we would’ve high-fived if it had seemed appropriate to do that (it did not).

John and I learned to say “soup” at The Moon vegan restaurant near our house. It sounds (roughly…very roughly), like Hey Jude with some subtleties in the pronunciation. Rather than “Hey Jude” it sounds actually like hey(n) tchoo where you shape your mouth like you’re going to say the “n” in parenthesis, but then you don’t say it, sort of like you’d do in French. But again, I need someone to say this word to me over and over again before I’ll really know it. Besides the pronunciation of each word, there is also a tonal quality that has to be memorized.

The creaky tone, as I mentioned previously, was initially a big mystery to me. Some teachers don’t teach the creaky tone perhaps because it resembles so closely the glottal stop. Indeed, I can’t really tell the difference between the two. In Arabic, we learned all about glottal stops, so Lydi and I developed an appreciation of them and how they work, but to our English ears, they still don’t stand out. The glottal stop is something we do in English, mostly out of laziness or as a result of dialect. Like when we say the word “right”, but instead of pronouncing the “t” with the tongue on the teeth, we stop the “i” vowel sound in the back of the throat. Glottal stops are essentially the same thing, but in some languages, they’re just a little more forceful and dramatic than our English glottal stops because the glottal stop is an essential part of the pronunciation of the word and without it, the word doesn’t make sense or it has a different meaning.

Burmese Language Tones

Naing Naing explained the Burmese tones to us in the following way when he was teaching us the language:

The high tone (often delineated with a colon at the end of the word : )  is pronounced by projecting the word the way you would if you were shouting to someone across the street. It would be long and at a higher tone than the same word spoken to a person right in front of you. Of course, he wasn’t saying that we should yell syllables that have a high tone, but rather that high-tone words should be spoken higher and longer than syllables given other tones.

Low tone syllables are spoken the way we would pronounce it normally in the English language.

Glottal stops (often delineated with an apostrophe at the end of the word ‘ ) are performed by stopping the air in the back of the throat (as I explained above).

The creaky tone is sometimes omitted from Burmese language systems, but it’s similar to a glottal stop. As I understand it (according to the rudiments I’ve picked up so far), the creaky tone is performed by doing a slight glottal stop that then makes the sound of a door creaking. It only takes a millisecond to make the creaky tone and it goes higher to lower in tone. For the most part, it seems that a glottal stop and the creaky tone are similar and perhaps the same, but I’m still investigating this. 

So far, people have understood much of what I have to say because it’s contextual. For example, Naing Naing always advises against saying the syllable “lo’” (glottal stop lo) because it can mean several things, depending on the tone with “f#ck” as one of the possibilities. Unfortunately, this is also the word for “want” when used as lo chin deh. Naing Naing told me at a restaurant the other day to always say da lo’ chin deh so that people knew that the “lo” that comes after the “da” is probably not an obscenity.

Online Burmese Instructors

It isn’t easy to find online Burmese lessons. And even in Bagan, it can be nearly impossible to find in-person Burmese lessons or a Burmese language school, but Naing Naing does give lessons online ([email protected]). The people in Bagan are extremely friendly though and they give impromptu lessons in Burmese everywhere you go. This is a good way to get started on the language if you’re new at it, but starting with some online Burmese language lessons is probably the most desirable way to learn because it gives you a head-start. Then, it’s possible to polish your language skills when you’re in the country. 

Burmese Language Schools

Though there are some Burmese language schools in Yangon and Mandalay, a lot of tourists like the atmosphere in Bagan and would prefer to learn Burmese there. But there are no Burmese language schools in Bagan yet. A compromise is to learn Burmese online with a live instructor like Naing Naing while staying in Bagan. The locals are friendly and easy to communicate with so there are plenty of opportunities to practice your skills. There aren’t very many online Burmese instructors currently available, but I suppose that will change over time as the Burmese people realize the demand. Naing Naing has only a few more time slots open for students because there are so few Burmese language instructors available online right now.

Contact Naing Naing for Burmese Language Instruction

As I mentioned above, Naing Naing stays pretty busy as a Burmese language instructor, but he regularly has new time-slots open up and he likes to meet new students. Anyone can contact him directly at [email protected] for more information about cost which depends on the number of lessons you purchase. He offers a 30 minute trial lesson for first time students.  After that, the cost per lesson is between $7 to $12/hour depending on the number of lessons purchased.

Related Links:

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