Language Immersion in Myanmar

During the winter break, second-year Southeast Asia Studies student Tianlei Huang studied Burmese at the Decent Myanmar Training School in Yangon, Myanmar – an opportunity supported by Johns Hopkins SAIS’ Southeast Asia program. The intensive 60-hour Burmese language training program was run on a lower intermediate level with a focus on reading and speaking skills. His classes, which were held for three consecutive weeks, was led by a Burmese language instructor at several different foreign embassies in Yangon. The program teaches at the U.S. Embassy and has taught several U.S. ambassadors to Myanmar.

The teaching methods were slightly different from those used in language classes at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Even on the first day of the program, Tianlei was asked to scan and read authentic Burmese news articles with little external reference for new vocabulary and sentence structures. He had a difficult time understanding these articles at first, but he gradually improved his scanning ability; he can now scan an entire Burmese news article in minutes and understand the gist of the information. In terms of speaking, the class focused mainly on “survival Burmese,” such as how to order food in a restaurant, how to ask directions, and other everyday conversational topics, which proved to be very helpful for handling the basic needs that accompany daily life in Myanmar. Tianlei practiced speaking mostly with taxi drivers, who surprisingly liked to talk about politics.

In addition to the language component, Tianlei became further immersed in the culture through traditional Burmese snacks, such as a delicious tea leaf salad that the instructor presented to the class each day. On the weekends, the class took field trips to interesting places in the city, including former UN Secretary General U Thant’s house and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s former Yangong residence.

The language study trip was Tianlei’s first time in Myanmar. As an International Relations student, he felt that it was an invaluable experience for him, and he would love to visit again one day.