Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Hacking Burmese: Learning Burmese Essentials Fast

I decided to learn as much Burmese as I could in the two weeks leading up to my upcoming trip to Myanmar / Burma. I’d like to share some of my tips, resources and even my time log stats so far.

As a language, Burmese presents several unique challenges. Yet it’s not an impossible language to get the basics in a few days or, in my case, over about 2 weeks of self-study, which included a large chunk of time actually creating my learning material.

While I cannot claim to have become fluent in Burmese in such a short amount of time, I think Burmese presents a good example of a foreign language that is hackable.

For me, “hacking” foreign languages has become a bit of a part-time obsession these past few months. Through improving my Spanish in Colombia and self- and guided studies of Vietnamese, I’ve begun working on some steps, principles, techniques and concepts for how one can approach the rapid acquisition of a foreign language. For which I’m calling hacking language.

A full definition and explanation of hacking language is bit beyond this post but for me, I define hacking a language as attempting to acquire enough vocabulary and sentence structures so you can get through your first conversation in a foreign tongue. Complete mastery is not the goal of the initial language learning sprint but many of the techniques are the same whether it is short- or long-term language learning .

So why Burmese?

Since I’ve already taken more or less the last two years to travel “full-time,” I’m easily manipulated into going almost anywhere. So, when my brother and his wife suggested meeting up in Myanmar in late December, I agree immediately.

Besides being a new travel place, it also gave me a new opportunity to work on a new language. Even though learning Burmese has never been on my bucket list, I figured why not. I’d succeeded to some extent with Spanish and Vietnamese, so I understood some ways to short circuit the learning process. Why not try some Burmese?

Hacking a Language: My Initial Learning Approach

With my “motivation” in place, I approached learning Burmese like I did with Vietnamese but with a few modifications due to lessons I’d learned previously and based on what materials I had to use.

The steps broke down like this:

  1. Meta-Research About the Language
  2. Choose and Focus on one or two of the best learning resources
  3. Create Flashcards / Course Material
  4. Review via Space Repetition

Rinse and repeat steps 3 and 4.

Let’s take a look at this in a bit more detail as it applies to my Burmese learning.

Hacking Burmese: Meta-Research

For me, learning a foreign language is best started with a few initial “meta” steps:

  1. meta-research: what kind of language is it? what are the characteristics? related languages? pronunciations pitfalls?
  2. meta-research: what learning materials exist for this language? books? websites? apps?
  3. resource gathering, i.e. picking up various books, audio files on that language.

For Burmese, I spent 3 hours and 15 minutes on meta-research. I did nearly two hours of reading and random study on Dec 1st, then a few more shorter sessions on Dec 6th and 9th.

Not only did a read a few articles, I listened to a couple videos about pronunciation. Overall, this gave me enough of an understanding to characterize some basic aspects of the language.

To summarize: The Burmese language is part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. It includes a few special characteristics like a speaking structure with the verb generally falling at the end, meaning markers (like wanting or present/past tense or future tense) going after the verbs and a loose tonal and pitch structure.

The meta-research gave me a chance to scan some of the learning resources I’d found and select one or two to focus on initially. Compared to languages like Chinese or even Vietnamese or Thai, learning Burmese resources are pretty scarce. Even googling “learn Burmese” turned up pretty slim pickings.

In some ways this is a good thing since it allowed me to avoid wasting too much time selecting which resources to use or not and then get on with the actual content creation and learning process.

Fortunately, after checking out some quite old books on Burmese, I found a great and free resource by one of the best scholars and teachers of Burmese, John Okell, an audiobook called Burmese By Ear - Essential Myanmar.

Professor Okell has several books on Burmese, and his free course is a real treasure. Not only does it include audio, the booklet has additional vocabulary and some good pointers about the language and culture.

A Detour: About Hacking a Language

I don’t think there is a “perfect” approach to how you hack or jump start your initial learning of a foreign language. Obviously there are better and worse ways. I think it’s a space in need of more discussion and thought.

When I approached Vietnamese initially, I used the best Memrise courses with audio. It was a pretty haphazard course and definitely taught a lot of vocabulary you don’t need initially.

In any case, I did acquire quite a few words but not many speaking structures, which by this I mean the grammatical ordering of some basic phrases. Most importantly I failed with Vietnamese to properly learn their alphabet and pronunciation system. (I made up for this with a private tutor my first week in Ho Chi Minh City.)

Most importantly, I did manage to learn enough vocabulary to impress the locals, even though failed to get very far in conversations. These gaps and problems convinced me to follow Memrise’s hacking language model and create my own “Hacking Vietnamese” course, which I’m still working on and hope to share completed in the new year.

For Burmese, I didn’t feel the need to follow Memrise’s model since in some ways Professor Okell’s course was also a very clever language hack of its own.

His introductory course was aimed to be all audio but included a text to accompany the learning. In his own “language hack” for Burmese, the course approached initial learning into three stages:

  • Part 1. Foundations: where one works on some basic vocabulary but mostly focuses on various speaking structures for present/past, wanting, and asking questions in different forms.
  • Part 2. First Needs: this section takes those foundational structures and start adding key situation vocabulary
  • Part 3: First Conversation: this section goes beyond just one’s immediate needs and provides vocabulary and language chunks for conversations.

Okell’s course is great in many ways, so instead of trying to build my own based on my previous model, I just used his and built my course and systematic learning around his solid material.

Hacking Burmese: Creating My Memrise Course

Memrise is a pretty interesting learning and course creation platform. While Memrise already includes tons of courses on a wide-range of languages, it’s much more open than most other language sites or software. Some courses are created by the site admin but many more are user created.

In fact, Memrise is more a community platform for building courses and sharing mems than anything else.

I was fortunate to be contacted very early on in their project while I was in China working on my own language learning platform: Language Corner. I’ve followed them closely and I think Memrise is one of the standout educational platforms to be developed in recent years.

In terms of the science, Memrise emphasizes that two things: 1. mems and 2. spaced repetition learning.

By “mems” we mean using visuals, jokes and mneunics that help us to better remember vocabulary. Instead of rote repetition, you take the time to create an image, a pun, story or something so that info “sticks” to your brain. This way your memories are stronger and longer lasting.

Spaced repetition learning is a long-established concept in language and general learning. Quite simply it means you space out your review of new vocabulary so it moves into your long-term memory. For example, if you learn a new word in the morning, then you should review it a few hours later, then a day or so later, a few days, a week, etc. This will reinforce the learning.

For Burmese, I cut up Okell’s Burmese by Ear into audio chunks of each word or phrase. I then created a Memrise course and added a few different sections.

Initially I added some 20 or 30 items and, as I practiced, I added more and more items. Eventually I decided that instead of one big course or even unit by unit courses, I’d divide my Memrise courses along Okell’s 3 Parts.

Since learning the Burmese script was beyond my initial goals, I used Okell’s spelling system and added the various bits and pieces. In the end, I had a course with 14 sections and a total of 150 items.

Viola my course Burmese by Ear: Unit 1 and 2 on Memrise.

For creating my Burmese course, I spent 6 hours and 30 minutes trimming audio files and adding the various items and files to Memrise. I started on Dec 5 and more or less was finished 9 or 10 days later. This definitely was something I did in my spare time.

Rinse and Repeat: Systematic Learning with Flashcards

Once I had a sense of the language and some decent learning material to use, I created my Memrise course. Essentially I could have just used flashcards or some some flashcard program. In the past, flashcards have been my go-to technique for language learning, and I still use a digital version with my Chinese studies (Skritter)

Creating a course or flashcards sometimes feels like a waste of time when you should be learning. I somewhat agree, but I also think the active creation of flashcards or a Memrise course is a kind of learning in itself. This shouldn’t be ignored. The goal of learning should be turning yourself into the driver, instead of waiting for a teacher or someone else to always help you.

Anyways, once I had my memrise course, the learning process was pretty obvious: learn new words by creating mems and review what I had previously learned.

When you get a new word, take some time to create a mem, i.e. a visual or turn of phrase that connects with the sound of the new word. This technique will make the new word more memorable to you. While there are often great mems from the Memrise community, it’s good to create your own since those memories will be inherently stickier for you because you made them yourself.

For example, on my course, I created a couple dozen mems during the learning process. Since many of the sentence structures repeat the same vocabulary, I didn’t need to create too many mems in the later sections.

After you’ve learned new words, Memrise (or whatever flashcard program you use) reminds you to review periodically. Memrise use a a nice metaphor to describe the whole learning process: plant, water, grow.

Initially you take a new words as a seed and plant it with a some visual or story to better remember, then you water or review the word to reinforce learning. As time goes by you’ll water your memory until it’s in your long-term memory bank.

Interestingly compared to the meta-rearch time (3h15) and course creation (6h30), my actual Memrise learning time is quite low at 7 hours and 31 minutes so far. (I’ve posted my full time logs learning Burmese.)

As you can see from the data, I did over 50 study session. There are a few days where I studied for over an hour, but most of the individual study sessions are only a few minutes. There is only one session over 23 minutes and a few at over 10 minutes.

In that time frame, I’ve managed to learn 150 Burmese items, including various vocabulary, phrases and pronunciation.

To break it down one more step, at 451 minutes (7 hours and 31 minutes) of study time, that equals about 3 minutes per item. Not bad.

My Burmese: What’s Next?

I’m going to Burma tomorrow, so my next step is to actually practice with real speakers. There is always a bit of fear with those first conversations, but I’ll do my best. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to report on my actual learning and about the language once I’m there.

Obviously, I’ll need to continue to review my current 150 items. I also plan to listen more to the actual audio from the course.

Beyond that, I’d like to continue building additional courses for later units of “Burmese by Ear” like Units 3-8. If not me, then hopefully someone else will come along to pick up my slack.

From there it’s about sticking to a system: rinse and repeat. Learn new words and review them a few times a day. It’s not rocket science. It’s systematic vocabulary acquisition. It’s hacking language.

More on that soon.