Speak Burmese in ten lessons, in ten minutes. It’s that easy.
Well, it’s that easy to get started.
Most tourists in Myanmar get as far as hello and thankyou. It’s a good place to start but it’s not very hard to go a bit further, to put the basic building blocks in place and before you know where you are you’re getting the hang of it and getting a great reaction from the people you meet.
I’m not a language teacher. I’m just sharing the way I got started. A way that I know has worked for people I’ve shared it with.
If you’re coming to Myanmar for longer than a holiday, if you want to learn the language properly then you will need better resources than this (there’s a link at the bottom of this page) and to learn to read and write. That’s a challenge – to begin with and for a while – but great fun.
Even if you are just here on holiday you can easily learn to write the numbers and recognise some place names.
These ten lessons can be covered in ten minutes and can be all it takes to get started with a bunch of basic words and phrases and a little bit of structural understanding. From there you can add basic vocabulary – nouns, verbs and adjectives – and before you know it there’s a lot you can say and a few things you start to recognise when you hear them.
You’re not on your own … 50 million willing locals will help you to improve. Get one of them to show you the alphabet.
Lesson 1. Burmese words are made up of lots of short syllables. You need to work out how you think words sound and how you want to write them down. This here is just the way I do it. I use accents as in French, put in brackets to show swallowed sounds and overline ‘flat’ sounds if I need to avoid confusion. You need to sort of slightly sing rather than flatly speak Burmese. It’s tonal most simply in that the emphasis needs to be on the right part of a word. If you say things exactly as written here in my made up phonetics you won’t sound quite correct but you will be in the ballpark. Listen out for locals saying these things. Most guesthouse reception staff will be happy to run through this lesson with you. Bear in mind there are regional accents. What worked for you in Mandalay may not work in Yangon.
Here are those couple of things everyone needs all the time. Maybe you already know them. Certainly you will hear them a lot.
Min Gā Lar Ba means ‘hello’.
Ché Zu Tin Par Day means ‘thank you very much’ and is more polite than the more simple Ché Zu Bé or Ché Zu Ba.
Lesson 2. Asking – and recognising – questions is a useful skill. You don’t need to know how to ask all the what, where, who, how, which and when questions from the off – that can come later – but you can’t go far without asking these few questions.
There are a few questions all visitors need to ask often. But only two types of question.
1. ‘Do you have a room?’ Is Acan She La. Literally it means Room. Have. Yes or No? Similarly Ein Dah Shi La means do you have a toilet. All yes or no questions end in La
2. Whereas Information questions you can recognise because they end in Lay. Bé Lau Lay means ‘how much?’ Literally it’s How much. Information question. Say Shi Mé, Bé Lau Lay or Bé Lau Cha Lay in a tea shop and you are asking for the bill. Literally it means ‘let’s clean up’. (To get the table cleared of dirty plates and glasses without paying try Sa Bwe Shin Meh.)
So Acan Bé Lauq Lay means how much is the room. Though if the context is not quite right someone might think you are asking how many rooms they have so be more specific. Say Acan Ka Bé Lau Lay. Literally it’s Room. Charge. How much. Information question. Ka Bé Lau Lay also works for ticket prices.
In a different situation, say in a shop you might say Paysan Bé Lau Lay meaning Money. How much?
Ein Dah Bay hMā Lay means ‘where is the toilet?’ Literally it’s toilet. Where. At Information question. A useful question even though the answer is always “Out the back” or “In the kitchen”. Once you can ask where the toilet is you can ask where anything is. Bu Da Bay Mā Lay means ‘where is the station?’ And so on.
Should you hear Nā Mé Bé Lo Kaw Lay you know it’s an information question. It means ‘what is your name?’
I always answer Cha Naw Nā Mé Stephen almost meaning ‘I name Stephen’. If I were female I would say Camaw Na Mé Stephanie.
Lesson 3. Answering questions and getting answers to questions.
1. There are only two possible answers to a Yes / No question. Yes or No. Positive or Negative. We asked Acan She La. Either there is a room or there is not.
Acan She Day is a positive response. She Day is the verb to have. Literally it’s Room. Have. Any verb with Day after it means it’s happening. Game on. Day is a very important positive sound. It crops up again later.
2. If there is no room you will get a negative response, most simply Acan Ma She Bu. Literally Room. Not have. It’s easy to think of the Ma and the Bu acting like ne and pas in French.
More likely you will hear Acan Ma She Bar Bu. The extra Bar is the same as in Min Ga Lar Bar. It’s a very common way of adding politeness, respect and courtesy to something you are saying. Or hearing. Once you recognise it you will hear it all the time and get a feel for where to use it yourself.
Lesson 4. That positive Day sound also sits on the end of adjectives as a statement of the affirmative.
Kaun Day means ‘good’. Hla Day means ‘beautiful’. Bu Day means ‘hot’. Ay Day means ‘cold’. And so on.
Maw Lā means ‘are you tired?’ Tired. Yes or No? And Maw Day means ‘tired’ or ‘yes, I’m tired’. Tired. Affirmative.
A common greeting is Nay Kaun La. Literally Health. Good. Yes or No? The answer hoped for is Nay Kaun Bar Day. Literally Health. Good. Polite word. Affirmative.
There is actually a third way of asking a question. It’s by asking for agreement. In English we could say ‘hot, isn’t it?’ In Burmese we can say Bu Day Naw in the same way. And answer with Bu Day.
Lesson 5. Other than in questions verbs always go at the end of sentences.
Lé Pay Yay Tauq Day means ‘I am drinking a cup of tea’. Tauq Day is the verb to drink. Literally Tea. Water. Drinking. The q is not fully pronounced. It’s swallowed instead to give a sharp ending. A glottal stop.
Sar Day is the verb to eat. T’min Sar Day. Literally Rice I’m eating.
Lesson 6. Burmese is very contextual. So long as we know when we are talking about often we don’t have to worry too much about the tense. Sometimes using another tense is easy and obvious. Particularly when talking about things we are about to do. When used, tenses are added to the verb.
Another common greeting is Bé Thwa Me Lay. One answer might be Yangon Ko Thwa May. Thwa Day is the verb to go. Literally Yangon. To. I will go.
A waiter might ask Ba Tauq De Lay. ‘What are you drinking or Ba Tauq Me Lay. ‘What will you drink?’
He might ask Ba Sar De Lay. ‘What are you eating’. Ba Sar Me Lay. ‘What will you eat?
Lesson 7. Learning to recognise numbers spoken (and written) is a lot easier than it might seem. Try it. Anyone can teach you them. It’s all about listening hard. Five (and fish) is pronounced Nga a sound made in the throat, the tongue does not touch the roof of the mouth. Say Na instead with the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and you are saying one, two, three, four, ear. The ng sound you are looking for is the same as the ng sound in the middle of singer. It’s a really good idea to learn how to say it if you’re going to Ngapali beach.
Lesson 8. There are other sounds in Burmese that are not found in European languages. There is a sound between p and b. A sound between t and d. And a sound between g and k. This includes some of the examples above. Unfortunately just as in English some letters and sounds change, vocalise, depending the letters they are next to, words they are used with. You are not here to learn the language. Give it a go with what you’ve got and listen out for where your sound may not be quite right.
Lesson 9. Burmese uses counting words all over the place. It’s actually fun to learn them. Lé Pay Yay Te Kweh means one cup of tea. Literally Tea. One cup. Yay Than Te Bumeans one bottle of water. Literally Water. Clean. One plastic Bottle. Kalay Bé Né Yau Shi Lay means how many children do you have? Literally Children How many. People counting word. Information question. And so on.
It might sound complicated but not much more than slices of bread, pints of beer etc. On the subject of which See Beer Nauq Hne Kweh Pay Ba means please get me two more draught beers.
Lesson 10. Learn to say Bamar Zā-Gā Né-Né Piaw Da Té. It means ‘I speak a little Burmese’. You do.
The small Lonely Planet phrasebook is definitely worth getting.
Nance Cunningham and Aung Soe Min at Pansodan Gallery in Yangon publish a great dictionary that sells for $10.
There are a number of handy apps that some people find useful, particularly for pronunciation.
Justin Watkins of SOAS at the University of London is a great teacher. This is an excellent article he wrote for Coconuts Yangon about how to approach learning Burmese.
And this is a link to the fantastic Burmese by Ear written by the brilliant John Okell also of SOAS.