Stephen and I had a conversation the other day about language in our lives. It is so much of our day to day. He attends private lessons 4.5 hours a week and I attend 3 hours. We each study daily in some way: Stephen reviews flash cards for 30 minutes to an hour depending on the set, and I write three sentences in three languages for review. We rarely go a day without using Burmese, and some days we use some Thai and Karen. We had a conversation last week about the words abortion and miscarriage in Burmese, and what it tells you about the culture. We discussed a word that didn’t exist in English and why it doesn’t; we are even reading articles and books about language and discussing them. Language has become our life.
Meanwhile, our friends and families just communicate. They don’t study another language every day or discuss how to say something in another language. They don’t even know what “language sweats” are, and that is a very real thing.
One thing we have learned is that we learn very differently. There is a specific reason that Stephen does flash cards every day on the computer and I write my sentences out on paper. He is an incredible typer–he can type in Burmese faster than English these days!–and I am the writer. He organizes his notes and I hoard them. Stephen will only speak once he knows it absolutely perfectly, so everyone believes him to be a genius. He speaks in proper grammar, full sentences, and beautiful pronunciation; but he won’t speak until then. I, on the other hand, will spit out words and phrases that receive correction after correction or blank stare after blank stare.
As our teacher tells me, “Stephen is very systematic. You…are not systematic.”
But, alas–while we are studying language very differently, we are learning it–as in, it’s working! Recently, we had a few tests to our skills. For obvious reasons, I’m only sharing (and remembering) the wins.
I went to get a pedicure recently, and most of the staff are Burmese. I usually speak to them in Burmese to be kind, but just little words here and there. After they had gotten started and been chatting to each other for about thirty minutes, I decided I wanted to change the color I had chosen. I thought about it for quite sometime to attempt to say it correctly (although certainly not to Stephen’s perfection) and then said, “I’m sorry. I’d like to change the color. I don’t want this one, but I’d like that one. The red one.” The sweet girl stared at me in disbelief, and then slowly got up to get the red I’d indicated. I think she then reviewed the entirety of she & her friend’s Burmese conversation to see what I might have understood. WIN.
Our drinking water is delivered to the house, and the delivery men are all Burmese. They pull up, ask if we’d like water, and we shout out how many bottles we’d like. Last week they had a new worker with them. When the others spoke to Stephen in Burmese, he looked at them skeptically, assuming Stephen didn’t understand. And then he created his own test. He started asking questions in Burmese, and at each response, would ooh and ahh at Stephen’s sensible responses. WIN.
At a restaurant, Stephen walked up to order four samosas for take-away. Burmese uses classifiers when counting (cats, two animals; teaspoon, 3 spoons), and he used the classifier he thought would be correct, in essence saying, “Samosas, four ku.” The worker corrected him, “Samosas, four loun.” As he put them in the bag, Stephen continued chatting, “Thank you, four loun. I thought it was ku.” The guy then stopped and thought, “Four loun, four ku…Yes, it can be either. You’re right.” WIN. For the record, ku is a classifier for small things or machines; loun is a classifier for round things, electronic devices, and hats. Just so we’re all clear about how great classifiers are. You can also read about Karen classifiers here, because this isn’t our first rodeo.
And last, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen using Burmese while we bake bread, roll out tortillas, and even cooking with the kids. This week–twice!–I was able to listen in on conversations between Pyo Pyo & Nyein Nyein while I was busy doing other tasks. (Unless you’ve learned another language, I can’t really explain how epic this is. Being able to multitask in secondary languages is not to be taken lightly.) While I was coming back and forth getting water for the kids, I heard them discussing the ingredients they were putting into the bread. Nyein Nyein was arguing she had already put salt in, and Pyo Pyo was arguing that she hadn’t finished. Nyein Nyein argued she had put one spoon in, and Pyo Pyo argued that in the French bread recipe she needed one tablespoon, not one teaspoon. Nyein Nyein conceded, but then wasn’t sure what to do now. Should she start over? I casually added that 3 teaspoons was equal to one tablespoon, to which Nyein Nyein looked over and–in essence–rolled her eyes at, thinking I wasn’t making sense (which is fair; I don’t always make sense in Burmese). But I watched her face, as she realized I did make sense: I had understood their conversation and solved the problem. And seamlessly, I might add. The face she then gave me: WIN.
And again, as I took clothes out of the washer, they were discussing where to find the wheat flour. Nyein pointed to the fridge, but we had used that bag; Pyo Pyo said to check here on this shelf. I interjected that it was in the cupboard underneath them. Again, they discussed among themselves to check on the shelf, thinking I didn’t understand what they were talking about, or perhaps that they didn’t know what I was talking about. I made it a complete statement: The wheat flour is in the cabinet underneath. Again, the face: WIN.
Someday, someday, we’ll know this language. Because it is our life.