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Conversation with a Burmese Language Specialist

My guest this week is lecturer, author and Burmese language expert Thuzar Winn.

Together with her husband Detlef Eckert she wrote the book, 'Burmese: A Gateway To An Intriguing Language,' which was published in 2015.

Here we discuss one of my favorite questions: Does language shape culture?

Does an individual's mindset take any influence from the words they speak?



Can you tell me a little bit about your background? So where did you grow up and where did you get educated?

I grew up in Yangon, Myanmar and I was educated in Yangon although during my childhood my parents had to move around some small towns to do their work as medical doctors.

So in my childhood I was in the countryside of Myanmar basically. When I started my matriculation -- my high school then we moved back to Yangon. And from that time onwards I had been in Yangon. I went to Yangon University and did my bachelor and master degrees there.

What subject?

English - because I was interested in languages.

Do you remember when did you first discover your interest in languages?

Actually since my childhood, I have been interested in both Burmese and English. So these are my favorite subjects. Mainly because I love literature, so I love reading any literary works in any language.

In my childhood I started reading Burmese stories and novels or even cartoons, comics, all kinds of literary works. When I started to know English, then I started to read English literature as well. My parents also encouraged me a lot to read in both languages. My dream was to become an author although I just became a teacher!

Can you tell me, when did you leave Myanmar and why?

That was in fact around 2005 because by that time my parents were working in Malaysia in some medical universities. They were actually, by then, medical lecturers. I wanted to mainly explore a different country. In 2006 I got a job in an Australian University based in Malaysia.

And where are you currently?

I'm based in Belgium.

How did you end up in Belgium?

In my last year in Malaysia, it was 2011. I met my husband and then when I got married in the beginning, I was still in malaysia because I was still working. He was working in Europe so it was a distant relationship so then later we decided to move together - for me to move to Europe to be with him.



Excellent! And then you guys wrote this book together. Can you can you tell us about the book?

Actually when we started to be here in Europe, we planned a few trips to Myanmar. The first one was in 2012. Then, we explored a lot of places in Myanmar, mainly Bagan, Inle in Shan state and then some places in Rakhine state and also in the Peninsular region.

So then my husband was quite inspired to learn Burmese because of me. Although we just speak English between us, when he was in Myanmar when he was mingling around with my family, my relatives and my friends there, he started to get very much interested and curious about the language.

He tried to read some books to learn Burmese. Then he studied with some phrase books and explored the books by John Okell. He practiced with Burmese by Ear by John Okell - I think you know it? He’s a very famous Burmese linguist. But somehow he didn't get much [out of it]. He didn't get anywhere very much, it was not really easy for him and then, all of a sudden, he got an idea.

He said, ‘Okay, how about writing a book in a friendly style, a casual, informal kind of manner?’ So yeah, talking about the language and unfolding complexity of the language to a foreign learner who's not so familiar with this kind of Asian language. So from there he started to write a few things about Burmese and then I added some other things because I know the language and some Burmese linguistics, so we started that way.

Normally he's someone who takes the initiative, so he would describe some Burmese words around the basic features, then I would add a bit more sophisticated things about Burmese, so this way we kept on going, writing this book together. We became quite ambitious and we really wanted to make it effective for beginners, mainly to give the ideas of pronunciation features in Burmese.

In your experience what kind of people are most interested in learning Burmese?

The majority who take this challenge to learn Burmese would be those expatriates in Myanmar. Also the NGO employees and who are working together with Myanmar teams. And there are a few who do some business in Myanmar, who need to talk to the local people. Those people will be also interested to do at least some basic Burmese courses. And diplomats - I don't know. They would be interested in Myanmar culture but to take a language course maybe for them a bit too much.

Now that you mention culture, that is where my interest is. Do you think language shapes culture? We know that the Burmese culture is very different to European culture - how much of that is because of the language?

Actually I would say language shapes culture and culture shapes language as well. I would say that it's vice versa.

For instance in Burmese, we have the saying we have a phrase like အားနာတယ် which comes from our culture. How would you translate that? It's like um... ‘I feel bad.’ It could mean, ‘I feel bad to bother you this way,’ or, ‘I'm embarrassed to say this or that,’ or, ‘I'm embarrassed to cause this trouble to you.’ You know, so there's a few underlying meanings of this အားနာတယ်. It comes from our culture because the Burmese people, we really find it difficult to ask someone to do something for us unless it's really urgent or necessary. Otherwise you will not bother people.

You know when we attend a conference or we’re listening to a presentation, normally the western participants have a lot of questions you know at the end or even sometimes in the middle. So they would feel free to ask questions but the Burmese participants would think, ‘Okay, so if I ask too many questions to that person then that would make the situation a bit difficult or it would cause a a lot of inconvenience to the other person.’ You know, so they think that way and then they would feel အားနာတယ်.

So if Burmese people have this in their culture to hold back and to not ask questions then don't you think that that is something we can change through language by getting them to notice a thing like အားနာတယ်? For example would you teach that to a western student? Would you teach them to use this phrase because then you're encouraging them to adopt a new behavior that's not useful.


Listen to the full conversation on the podcast.

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