Rangoon rap

August 25, 1995

I must be one of the few anglophone students of Burmese in the past 30 years not to have had the pleasure of being taught by John Okell. This magnum opus is the reason why. During my six months at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1989-90, occasionally one caught a glimpse of him scurrying into his room with a pile of papers or a couple of crystal-voiced announcers from the BBC Burmese Service called in to contribute to the tapes accompanying this series. The product of his labours is the only modern "Teach Yourself Burmese" guide to cover both colloquial and formal Burmese, as well as the script. Appendix two to book one of the Introduction to the Spoken Language, a comprehensive list of Burmese language learning aids dating back to 1945, demonstrates the gap which Okell aims to fill.

The books have been published at an opportune moment. The government of Burma (Myanmar), the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has opened its doors to foreign investment, and there are more expatriates in Rangoon wanting to learn the language. Experienced Burmese teachers are at a premium. This set, although it may appear expensive - the price reflects the number of accompanying double-sided cassettes which are a compulsory adjunct to the book - costs the same as 20 hours' tuition from an experienced teacher in Rangoon. In addition to foreign investment, the SLORC will, one hopes, open Burma up further to scholars. There are many theses waiting to be written. Next year (1996) has also been designated Myanmar Year of Tourism. Since it will undoubtedly benefit visitors if they can get under the veneer of the country and speak to its inhabitants, they had better start learning Burmese now. Lastly, since 1988 there have been a number of Burma activists outside the country for whom this course should be useful.

The course is designed to be used for self-study, and the early tapes are so detailed as to resemble a face-to-face lesson with Okell himself. However, it could also be used in the classroom or with a tutor, and additional exercises for classroom use are suggested. Books one and two cover much the same ground as Okell's earlier First Steps in Burmese, (still available from SOAS Publications Office at £39.95) but in more detail.

Book one lays the groundwork with basic grammar and pronunciation; the student is reassured that tones in Burmese are no harder than the distinction in English between "a green house" and "a greenhouse". It covers numbers, prices, places, times etc, and tips for making yourself sound more Burmese when you are at a loss for words. There are refresher or review chapters. An appendix of common classroom phrases is included, including the vital "I don't understand". The books are illustrated with photographs taken on Okell's last trip to Burma in 1991, and reassuring snippets from history books revealing the difficulties which the colonialists had in learning the language. There are also annexes on Burmese customs, instructions on the vocabulary to be used when talking to monks, and a full glossary and grammar.

Book two concentrates on dialogues and useful phrases in a number of common situations such as taking a photograph or describing one's family. Each situation is returned to at five levels of increasing complexity in construction and vocabulary. Realising that real-life conversations never resemble what one learns in class, Okell has asked his speakers to add a bit of "free-range" speech, phrases which learners will not recognise, in order to prepare them for their first steps onto the streets of Rangoon.

Throughout the course, and despite the fact that it employs romanised transcriptions in parallel with Burmese script throughout, Okell rightly emphasises the utility of learning the script at the same time as the spoken language. The number of homophones in Burmese, and the difficulty caused by tones, make it very difficult for westerners to learn correctly unless they master the script, even with the best transcription system. The Introduction to the Script, which introduces each letter individually, duplicates and reinforces quite a bit of the grammar and pronunciation contained in the first two books on the spoken language. The latter two books are intended to be used in parallel with the book introducing the script, but they are not fully integrated. As the student meets each letter, new practice vocabulary is introduced.

The Introduction to the Script is illustrated by menus, newspaper cuttings, paper bags and handwriting samples, together with a section on the less-used Pali and Sanskrit letters in Burmese which, while of little use to the average speaker, will help scholars of Buddhism and those of us who were too lazy to learn the letters the first time round. It ends with a "Reading from Life" section in which the student is invited to obtain answers to questions by scanning extracts from newspapers, signboards etc.

The Introduction to the Literary Style, which will be necessary for any scholars wanting to work from Burmese sources, is more advanced than the other three volumes and assumes that they have been covered. It uses dull primary school readers which admonish the children to be well-behaved patriots, interspersed with obituaries and announcements by the SLORC and the National League for Democracy (NLD). The heavy sentences are helpfully deconstructed into their constituent parts. The primers are read out on tape to give the student familiarity with the sound of the formal text which, although predominantly used in writing, is also the style of news broadcasts.

Okell estimates that the four volumes are equivalent to 10-12 weeks of intensive full-time study.

Vicky Bowman served in the British Embassy, Rangoon, from 1990-93.

Burmese: An Introduction to the Spoken Langauge, Script and Literary Style

Author - John Okell
ISBN - 1 877979 41 4; 42 2; 43 0 and 44 9
Publisher - Northern Illinois University Press
Price - $44.00; $48.00; $44.00 and $22.00
Pages - 4; 290; 428 and 257

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