For a few months before we left New Zealand I tried to learn Burmese. I bought a book which came with online spoken exercises, and I practiced with my friend San San. "Mingalaba" (Hi), I said. And "Ne kaun ye la" (How are you), and "Da paya ba" (That's a pagoda). Every week I was meant to go over to San San's house to practise, but I was slack and busy and she was tied up with work too, and I didn't do nearly as much homework as I should have.
As I suspected, it's a hard, hard language for an English speaker - even if you decide, as I did, not to worry about the writing, which is curly and beautiful and impossible (see examples of the writing in the photo above of me attempting to speak Burmese).
Let me give four examples of the complications learning Burmese for an English speaker, if only to show just how heroic it is that Burmese native speakers manage to master English:
- First, spoken Burmese has "plain" and "aspirated" consonants, which have quite different pronunciations - for a Burmese person, but cause some problems for others. Unfortunately, confusing the two could be awkward. For example, "āpaq" (plain p) means "quarter, whereas "ā'paq" (aspirate p) means "poison".
- Second, there are three tones (plain, high and creeky), with similar problems. For example, "da than-ba" (plain tone) means "that's iron"' but "da thàn-ba" (high tone) means "that's a louse". Meanwhile "Yá-ba-deh" (creeky tone) means "That's all right", but "Yà-ba-deh" (high tone) means "It's itching".
- Third, Burmese is utterly different grammatically from anything I've ever known. The sentence "Nikki Mandow comes from New Zealand" would be structured: "Nikki Mandow + New Zealand + a word meaning country + from + come + a word expressing politeness person you are talking to + a word saying that the verb is in present or past". So... "Nikki Mandow New Zealand Naing-gan gá la-ba deh."
- And lastly, Burmese has a bundle of sounds that I find hard to say and harder to differentiate. The words "k'un" ("seven" - under certain circumstances) and "kò" (nine) sound just the same to me, no matter how often a Burmese person points out they are totally different.
Anyway, I did a bit more Burmese language learning while we were in Greece - to the detriment of my Greek, which remained at "hello" and "grapes", the latter being a word I learnt and used often during childhood holidays and have for some reason retained. But my Burmese gradually reached the dizzy heights of "Where did U May Nyunt go?" and "Tin Htway went to the museum at three o'clock." I learned to read and write numbers up to several thousand, which is handy, since the smallest Burmese note is 50 kyat (pronounced "chat"), but that denomination is almost worthless. Most things you buy are 1000 kyat or more.
And then we came to Burma. Where most of what I have learnt isn't much use, and where people struggle to understand what I'm saying, even when I think I know the right words. But also where having any sort of language is kind of exciting. While I am totally incapable of holding a conversation, knowing a tiny bit more than the ubiquitous "mingalaba" (which actually means "auspiciousness", but used as hello) that every foreigner knows, has been brilliant. Walking through the market in Dawei during my first week I practised "How are you" and everyone grinned and I could hear people saying "She said 'Ne kaùn yéh là'" as I walked away. I could say "Is that OK?" when I wanted to take a photo, and understand the price of mandarins when I wanted to buy some. My pièce de resistance is "keiq-sá mashi-ba-bù", which means "No problem ". I use that whenever I can and it always gets a laugh.
And I know it's pathetic. I know that we expect visitors to our country to be able to speak English, good English, so they can get around. Actually, we expect Burmese to be able to speak English here so we can get around. But still, I'm happy.
I'm just waiting for when someone asks me about Tin Htway and when he went to the museum. Nirvana.