Jason Bechtel’s Travel Diaries of speaking Kazakh & Burmese
I can tell you from a personal experience that two weeks is not enough to learn “traveler’s” Kazakh. Presumably, someone who already speaks a Turkic language would have gotten a bit further than I had. For me it was just enough time to learn “Hello” (salaamatsiz ba), a few other greetings, and the ability to make short declarative sentences like “That is a green tree.”
Luckily, I was not traveling to Kazakhstan (where Russian, which I also do not speak, is the lingua franca), but to Xinjiang, the far northwest province of China, where Mandarin is the official language. Kazakh is spoken by over a million people in Xinjiang, mostly in the north, but Mandarin and Uyghur are the co-official languages. My Mandarin had reached a passable level, which made the whole trip feasible for a solo traveler on a shoestring budget.
As a target language, Kazakh does not get as much love as some of the major tongues that surround it. But Memrise came to the rescue!
My log entries show that I went for about six days straight, pronouncing sounds I’d never encountered before, learning basic greetings, set phrases, checking my pronunciation, and acquiring the basic vocabulary I would need through Memrise.
I created a couple dozen mems in the process. Here’s a fun one: ““Why” (ү) is there “soil” (сүл) all over that “guy” (гі)? I’ll give him a towel.” [сүлгі (sounds like /sool-gih/) = towel]
After day 6 my log entries are pretty sparse. By the time I encountered my first Kazakh speaker, who would be my guide and host in the Kanas Nature Reserve, literally all I could remember was “Hello” and “That is a green tree.”
Thankfully she spoke Mandarin. But I was embarrassed to say the least and I vowed that I wouldn’t let this happen again.
Next quest: Burmese
Within a month I planned a trip to Myanmar (also known as Burma), and this time I had a whole six weeks before jetting off to learn Burmese!
Again, faced with learning a less popular language and being on a tight budget, I opted for whatever I could get my hands on free of charge. As it would happen, someone had already created a couple of courses on Memrise, complete with audio clips. Brilliant! Clearly the creator had put a lot of time and thought into creating this course. It was obviously made with a traveler in mind, keeping grammar to a minimum and using plenty of English loanwords in its example sentences. This gives the learner the sense that they’re making rapid progress and will be able to actually use the language in scenarios they’re likely to encounter.
I used Memrise every day leading up to and throughout the first week of my trip… But as it turns out, I was not required to speak much Burmese in Burma. Almost everyone spoke to me in English. But finally there came a moment when I was able to use my fledgling Burmese…
It was day ten of a packed itinerary. I was road-weary, nauseated, and trying to navigate my way to Pyin Oo Lwin, for which the advice was to catch a “car share” from Mandalay. The minibus driver wanted to leave me behind at a bus station with a bunch of taxi drivers clamoring for me to hire them.
I told them, “bus ma lo jin ba deh; taxi ma lo jin ba deh” ((I) don’t want a bus; (I) don’t want a taxi.) Just as I was about to give up and walk away, one of the other passengers, a very kind woman from Melbourne, tapped me on the shoulder and showed me on her phone where I could find the car share to Pyin Oo Lwin. We managed to communicate this to the driver and were on our way again.
As the minibus started moving, one of the Chinese travelers in the back of the bus asked me where I wanted to go. I told her “Pyin Oo Lwin” very carefully and clearly, but she still didn’t recognize the name of the place. I switched to Mandarin and explained that it was a place for relaxation about two hours northeast of Mandalay.
My First Polyglot Moment
A few minutes later a Brit sitting to my left asked me incredulously, “So, how many languages do you speak??” It was the first time I’d ever been asked that after an impromptu language demonstration… my first “polyglot moment”. I explained that I’d only learned survival Burmese for this trip, that my German was pretty rusty, and that I’d been living in China for a couple years.
Later, while winding up the steep road out of Mandalay, I was able to eavesdrop a little on a Burmese conversation, just enough to pick out some numbers and some grammatical markers, not even the gist. I fell asleep toward the end of the ride, but not before reviewing some more Burmese, still high on my little triumph.
When he’s not living abroad or traveling, Jason calls San Diego, California home. He’s politically active around civil & human rights and border issues. He does tech stuff, teaches English, and tutors various subjects. He loves sampling diverse and creative food and beer, and is forever in search of the best fish tacos. And, of course, he’s always practicing his languages, learning languages, and planning his next travel adventure. Jason’s currently focusing on Latin American Spanish (his first Romance language!) and dabbling in American Sign Language (ASL). He’s planning to learn Kumeyaay/Kumiai — the indigenous language of the San Diego & Tijuana area — so he can contribute to its revival efforts.
Tweet at me @thelanguagelife