How Hard Is Burmese to Learn for English Speakers?

Burmese isn’t usually the first choice for someone starting out on their journey to being a polyglot.

With its heavy use of particles and a script that looks like something out of the movie Arrival, you could be forgiven for giving this language a wide berth. Until at least you’ve mastered a few romance languages.

That being said, if you like a challenge or you’ve grown weary of the regularity of Esperanto then you are probably wondering, how hard is Burmese to learn?

The fast answer is that Burmese is pretty hard. The slow answer will take some time to unpack.

  • Vocabulary – Burmese has a lot of loans words from English so this can help speed up your language learning.
  • Grammar – The grammar is subject-object-verb unlike English which therefore takes some getting used to. The grammar relies heavily on particles suffixed onto just about everything to denote subject, object, tense, mood and so on, so get ready to learn a lot of those.
  • Speaking/Listening – Of the 54 sounds in Burmese, only 27 are found in English so you are going to spend a lot of time practising new sounds.
  • Writing/Reading – The script looks indecipherable at first, but with practice it becomes easier to pick apart the base consonant from the vowel and tone markers.

So, that’s your quick summary. To find out more, let’s explore the language further.

So, how hard is Burmese to learn really?

— Vocabulary

Burmese vocabulary is usually monosyllabic or consists of a minor syllable followed by a major syllable. Words longer than two syllables are mostly loan words.

Burmese loans words are primarily from Pali and English and to a lesser extent from Mon, Sanskrit, Hindi, Chinese and Portuguese.

The large number of English loan words can help to speed your learning of Burmese vocabulary.

Basic English Loan Words

  1. Bacteria — ဗက်တီးရီးယား — be’-ti:-ri:-ja:
  2. Beer — ဘီယာ — bi-ja
  3. Democracy — ဒီမိုကရေစီ — di-mou-ka̱rei-si
  4. Dinosaur — ဒိုင်နိုဆော — dain-nou-hso:
  5. Plutonium — ပလူတိုနီယမ် — pa̱lu-tou-ni-jan
  6. Taxi — တက္ကစီ — te’-ka̱si
  7. Television — တယ်လီဗီးရှင်း — te-li-bi:-shin:

— Grammar

In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.

  1. The apple is red — pan:-thi:-ga a-ni-yaun pyi’-te — ga is the subject particle, te is verb present tense particle, yaun is adjective particle
  2. It is John’s appleda-ga. John-ye. pan:-thi: pyi’-te — ye is a possessive particle
  3. I give John the appleja-no-ga pan:-thi:-go John-go pe:-de — de is verb present tense particle, go is the direct object particle, go is also the indirect object particle
  4. We give him the apple ja-no-do-ga pan:-thi:-go thu.-go  pe:-de
  5. He gives it to Johnthu-ga da-go John-go pe:-de 
  6. He doesn’t give it to John — thu-ga da-go John-go ma-pe:-bu — ma before and bu after are the negative verb tense particles
  7. She gives it to himthu-ga da-go thu.-go pe:-de
  8. I gave John the appleja-no-ga pan:-thi:-go John-go pe-hke.-de — hke. is the verb past tense particle
  9. I must give it to himja-no-ga da-go thu.-go pe:ya-me — me is the verb future tense particle, the verb order switches
  10. I want to give it to her ja-no-ga da-go thu.-go pe:chin-de

The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Burmese. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.

Key Features

  • Word Order – Burmese grammar has a subject-object-verb word order.
  • Pronouns – The words I, you and we are different dependent on the gender of the person or people while he and she takes the same word.
  • Nouns – Nouns are the same for both singular and plural but to denote a plural there is a specific suffix particle.
  • Counters/Classifiers – When counting things there is a suffix particle. The order is noun + number + classifier particle.
  • Adjectives – the verb form to be adjective functions as an adjective.
  • Verbs – Verbs don’t change according to tense, mood, or politeness. Instead they have a suffix particle to represent past, present, future and so on.
  • Auxiliary verbs are expressed together but in reverse order.
  • Be – Use the particle ba after nouns and de after adjectives
  • Have – We can use the word shi for have. It is necessary use the particle hma before the thing that is owned and de at the end of the sentence.
  • Negatives – Negatives are expressed with prefix ma before the verb and bu at the end of the sentence.
  • Questions – To form a question you only need place the particle thuh-la at the end of a statement.
  • Direct and Indirect Objects – the order us simple, with direct object then indirect object.

— Speaking/Listening

Burmese has 54 phonemes made up of 33 consonant sounds and 21 vowel sounds. Burmese is also a is a tonal, pitch-register, and syllable-timed language.

Consonants

  • Of the 33 consonants the following 20 are shared with RP English but 13 are not.
  • b, d, ð, d̠ʒ, g, h, j, kʰ, l, m, n, ɲ, pʰ, s, ʃ, tʰ, t̠ʃ, w, z, θ.

Vowels

  • Of the 21 vowels the following 7 are shared with RP English but 14 are not.
  • aɪ, aʊ, e, eɪ, ə, ɪ, ʊ.

Tones

  • Low – long, low, clear voice – ka – ကာ – to shield
  • High – long, high, sometimes breathy voice – ka̤ – ကား – car
  • Creaky – short, high, creaky voice – kaˀ – က – to dance
  • Checked – very short, mid-high, clear voice with final glottal stop – kaʔ – ကတ် – card

Tones in Burmese involve a combination of pitch, loudness, duration and clarity/quality.

— Writing/Reading

The Burmese script was derived from the Mon script which was ultimately derived from the Brahmi script. The alphabet is made up of 33 consonants and 12 vowels.

My hovercraft is full of eels – ကျွန်တော်ရဲ့ လေစီးယာဉ်မှာ ငါးရှင့်တွေအပြည့်ရှိနေပါတယ်။

The red script is the consonant symbol and the blue script is the vowel symbol.

Key Features

  • The script is written from left to right.
  • No spaces are required however in recent years spaces have been included to make the script easier to read.
  • The consonants are represented by a number of symbols positioned in the centre of the syllable.
  • The vowels are represented by one or more symbols above, below, before and after the consonant.

Why Learn Burmese?

There are three key reasons to learn Burmese.

  1. It’s a somewhat niche language, that if learnt to a significant level, shows both dedication and ability in polyglots circles.
  2. You are able to share stories with a people who have gone through so much in the 20th century and continue to take on the challenges of the 21st century.
  3. You can travel to the back and beyond of Myanmar (Burma) without worrying too much.

But, let’s explore this question a little further.

Language Classification

Burmese is a Sino-Tibetan language. It is the official language of Myanmar (Burma) and the Association of South East Asian Nations. It is spoken by 32 million people as a 1st language and 10 million as a 2nd language.

Travel, Culture, History and Economy

Myanmar (Burma) is located in Southeast Asia. It lies on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea coast with Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east.

The country has a number of attractions and is filled with temples, pagodas and historical sites. The major places to visit are Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan. Myanmar also offers some amazing natural sights including isolated beaches, beautiful lakes, rivers and fascinating caves.

The country was ruled by the British from the 19th century until 1948. General Ne Win took control in 1962 and the country suffered from a rapidly deteriorating economy in the 1970s and 80s. In 2011, after a general election, the military junta was dissolved. Since then Myanmar has suffered a great deal from internal conflict and religious clashes.

Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, suffering from decades of poor economic mismanagement. It is hoped that with the new democratically elected government can improve the economy. Both India and China are investing more in the country and some observers believe it has a lot of potential for the future.

Language ROI

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages including Burmese.

They rate Burmese as a category 4 language along with languages like Bengali, Nepali and Turkish. They believe it would 44 weeks (1100 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.

Resources to Learn Burmese

I speak three languages to a fluent level and an ever growing number to a conversational level. The method I use is pretty straight forward and can be tweaked for any language be it Mandarin, Swahili or Burmese.

My hybrid method borrows systems and techniques from a number of sources that I have encountered over the years I have been learning different languages.

In particular, the book Fluent Forever which I thoroughly recommend. You can pick it up on Amazon for pretty cheap these days.

My hybrid method is as follows.

  • Ankidroid Space Repetition — Get hold of a vocabulary frequency list for your language and build vocabulary flashcards and upload them to Ankidroid. Review the cards daily, and build new sets every week. 
  • Graded Reading — Scour the internet for graded reading material in your target language. Buy everything you can find, and then take some time everyday to work your way through the stories. 
  • Speaking Practice with italki.com — Use italki to get very cheap video chat lesson with a native teacher in your target language. The cheaper the better, and don’t mess around with overly formal lesson plans.
  • Writing Practice with lang-8.com — Use Lang 8 to upload pieces of writing everyday to the community. They will correct any errors you have and you can get great native level feedback for free.

That’s basically the entire method. Don’t get bogged down in expensive drawn out language courses. Adopt, apply and even tweak this template and just keep at it!

Sample of Burmese

Sources

  1. https://phoible.org/
  2. https://www.omniglot.com/

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