Burmese and The Secret of Tonal Languages
Most Burmese people who come into daily contact with foreigners speak English to some degree. A casual visitor may even remark that "everyone" in Myamar speaks English. As is so often the case, this is patently untrue. The English language is very prevalent throughout the country, it was after all a British colony and English is apparently being learned by every student, young and old. But, that being said, it is highly unlikely that your average shop assistant, barber, rickshaw driver or street vendor knows any English beyond "hello" and "goodbye".
Though I tried my Burmese out at the hotel's front desk, it was on the street that I really made use of it. To be honest, I found Burmese pronunciation to be extremely difficult. I remember trying to rattle off some sentences and being answered bylittle more than bemused smiles. I seemed to be getting my message across less than half the time. Then one day I went to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda Complex in central Yangon. There I met a monk, a very intelligent man, who was learning English. Like a well worn path our conversation finally came around to an examination of our respective languages. It was then that the monk told me the secret to learning and speaking tonal languages, and believe me, it applies to them all. The secret is this: when all the words in a sentence use the neutral tone (i.e., your natural voice) the result is completely monotonous; the voice does not waver up or down to nuance words or create questions as it would in English. It is flat and atonal. By slipping a toned word in amongst the neutrals it's possible to hear how the tones really worked. Burmese pronunciation is difficult and I still made a lot of errors but from that day forth I started making a lot more sense.
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