So we have lived in Mae Sot for four years now. It’s in Thailand, but on the border of Burma. The culture of the town is very strongly Burmese, with Thai, Western, and Chinese influences.
We initially were working with the Karen people of Burma. We worked with the Karen in America and at Partners, and we were excited to learn Karen.
But our neighborhood–as a very rough estimate–is about 40% Karen, 50% Burmese, and 10% other ethnicities. However, most of the Karen in our neighborhood do not speak Karen since they have not lived in primarily Karen areas most of their lives. Burmese is the common language: most Karen people speak Karen & Burmese, most Burmese people only speak Burmese.
We have picked up very minimal Thai: greetings, thank yous, apologies, prices, and food items. And the oh-so-important, No problem.
A little while back, as we were getting more and more involved in our community, we decided to tag team. We are a little bit slow on the language learning, so I continued in Karen and Stephen began studying Burmese. He has a foundation in Karen, but now is much more advanced in Burmese. He can read, write, and type easily, and is expanding his vocabulary and learning grammar. He was also complimented by his teacher that he’s the hardest working student he’s ever had!
I have continued in Karen for awhile now, and to be honest, I’m getting it. We have four or five Karen translators in the neighborhood that I use Karen with and they translate to Burmese, and we have learned to make our way. I can make my way around most conversations at least enough to use questions or roundabout descriptions to get to where we need to go. I probably communicate as an elementary student.
So fluent? No, I wouldn’t jump to that. However, we realized I have reached a small dilemma: the Karen translators we use aren’t really so great at their Karen either. Unless I am around regular Karen speakers, I can’t continue to improve: I tend to know more Karen than those in our neighborhood.
We had a choice: I could continue studying Karen outside of the community, and it would be of use outside of the community. Or I can continue to use it as I do–at the Karen clinic, for translation in the community, and various Karen places around town–and begin learning Burmese to use more readily in the community.
We chose Option #2.
So this week, I went back to the start and spent five hours in lessons learning the Burmese alphabet–consonants, vowels, tones, final consonants, consonant clusters, and special combinations–so I can attempt to memorize them while we’re stateside.
While Burmese and Karen have relatively little in common, they look very similar.
So all the little swirls I memorized to mean this now need to be relearned to mean that, while still meaning this, and really, in the back of my mind I know full well that’s just a O! Or a backwards 3. Or, one of the Burmese letters I think looks very much like a drawing of a uterus.
The good news: As a relatively unambitious non-goal-setter, I have only three things on my bucket list; and two of them are learning Karen & Burmese before I am thirty. I am on my way to this!
The bad news: languages have the potential to make you insane. I am not really sure what my brain is capable of, but languages seem to protest logic.
More good news: as we have been making this decision and considering if I really do know enough Karen to remain comfortable with it alongside Burmese study, God sent some great little opportunities my way to encourage me. In the past week or so, two doctors at the Karen clinic have chatted with me for awhile about what Stephen and I do, how long we’ve lived here, & what languages we’ve studied; and then told me I was doing great at Karen and it was a good idea to start learning Burmese. I have also been called to at the clinic, “Teacher, you’re the one who speaks Karen, right?”
And lastly, in the market last week, I walked into a shop as a nearby seller called out in Karen to the owner, “A white woman is coming in!” I turned to the owner and casually asked in Karen, “Oh! You speak Karen?” She blushed and smiled over at the other seller, who was also blushing. I love being able to catch people in their comments when they don’t expect it!
Anyway, here goes nothing but a full realization that this is way beyond our abilities. Language is a mess, and we need all the prayers and hope we can get! Please do keep praying for understanding, memorization, recall, and patience to keep studying for both Stephen & I!