The disappointing reality of not needing to speak Burmese to make it big in Burma (MM)

When I first learned Burmese, I didn’t know exactly to what end I would be learning it. I figured I’d learn it to a high degree of fluency (at least B2) and then go into the academic field of Linguistics as a professor. I never actually thought I would wind up working in Burma.

“Excellent,” I thought naïvely. “Since I already learned a lot of Burmese before I came here, I am totally marketable for tons of different jobs!” Alas, while there is some truth in what pretty much every career advisor tells you in the United States about the “bilingual/multilingual advantage,” it really only applies to people living within the United States. It’s a different game here.

In Myanmar, learning English is all the rage, because English is a *MAGICAL INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE* which unlocks the door to all kinds of wonderful opportunities an– Wait… This sounds familiar…

That’s right… Just like American children are fed the belief that speaking another language guarantees more opportunities for you, Burmese children are fed the belief that success is guaranteed if they speak English well. Time to hand a big fat reality check to both groups…

Foreigners living in Burma

I can speak first-hand about the reality of knowing Burmese as a foreigner living in Burma. However, it is only my reality based upon what I have faced. If someone has faced something completely different, please drop a comment.

Look. In terms of whether or not knowing Burmese is helpful, it definitely is. I have gotten myself out of sticky situations, mitigated others’ sticky situations, negotiated better prices, found out things that other foreigners don’t know, and so much more, because I speak Burmese. I am not arguing that speaking Burmese is not advantageous. It certainly, however, is not necessary.

NOTE: I officially denounce what I say in the next few paragraphs. Hana Bui’s book does indeed advise the reader to learn Burmese on pages 149 and 156. I did not carefully read the book and falsely accuse the work of neglecting advice that is demonstrably in the book.

While writing this post, I went to my ever-expanding book collection and pulled off the one book I thought would give some 21st-century commentary on this subject:
When Global Meets Local: How Expatriates Can Suceed in Myanmar, by Hana Bui. While the book offers many tips for expats to be successful (strangely enough, the book assumes the majority of expats reading it will be in a leadership position), one of those tips is not “learn Burmese.” These sections are the closest we get:

  • 1.4. Survival Rule 2
    This section has to deal with the Burmese idea of အားနာ /a.nà/ (အား meaning ‘power’ and နာ meaning ‘hurt’), which she translates as ‘consideration.’ Linguist Dr. Ampika “Ma Ayethu” Rattanapitak, by contrast, argues that အားနာ has to do with a loss of power of the one who is speaking. Like Bui, Rattanapitak also compares Burmese အားနာ to Thai เกรงใจ (kraeng jai: fear + heart), which is a similar metaphorical idea.
    This section is less about learning Burmese and more about being empathetic to foreign concepts of shame and trepidation.
  • 5.2 How to use simple [English] language to make it work
    This section basically talks about how to use simple non-idiomatic English (reminiscent of “Globish,” coined by Nerrière) in order to mitigate conversation.
  • 5.3 How to get the best help from an interpreter
    Basically, Bui states that local Burmese are more comfortable hearing an interpreter speak for the expat worker and are more willing to ask follow-up questions if it is a local interpreter. Bui does not mention how the scenario would turn out if the interpreter were not a local, but I assume Bui believes they local workers would be less comfortable.

To reiterate, this is the only modern book written for expat survival in Burma and it does not advise the reader to learn Burmese. (Yes, it does. Pages 149 and 156) I have spoken to Hana Bui before and I happen to know that she does speak Burmese (although, I don’t know how well, as we’ve only conversed in English). I thus find it odd that she, a foreign expat from Vietnam who speaks Burmese herself, does not address the advantages speaking Burmese could bring to someone in her book.

The harsh reality is while many foreigners living here do speak Burmese at varying levels, many do not. In fact, I have met many foreigners living here that earn a salary of $3,000 USD or more a month who can barely speak any Burmese at all. I believe there are two main reasons for this:

  1. Expats here are not expected to speak Burmese and accommodations are made in their positions so they don’t to ever speak it on the job.
    There is never a language requirement for expat aid workers. Don’t believe me? Look for a job posting at the following link (only international postings, obviously) that says “must speak Burmese.” Don’t come back until you find one. I’ll send a rescue squad after 3 days:
  2. Burmese is not a “popular” international language to learn and is pretty niche.
    It is difficult to attain fluency without actually living in-country. (An exception, like my own situation, is immersing oneself into a diaspora community of Burmese-speakers)

Alas, you have a large community of expats (not just Europeans, Aussies, and Americans, either) — some who have lived here for over a decade — who do not speak much Burmese, if any at all. And they’re totally fine with it! Why? Because many of them are career INGO workers who will get passed from country to country, assignment to assignment, crisis to crisis, and their loyalty is first to their agency, not to the land where they live. Why learn a culture intimately when you know re-assignment is just around the corner?

If you’re wondering why I haven’t addressed an “expat bubble,” by the way, it’s because I know nothing about it. I know I sound pompous and arrogant by saying this, but, there are only a few expats with whom I spend my time. To date, I haven’t attended any of the events that expats like to go to for networking. I’m not against the idea and I’m not saying expat bubbles are bad. When I lived in Chiang Mai, I surrounded myself mostly with people from my Linguistics Department for my entire three years there. I did diversify myself a small bit, which was good. Like many of the people living here, however, I knew that my stay in Thailand was temporary and that I was going to move on. So, I didn’t make a huge effort to learn Thai. I did, however, learn to speak Thai passively, but that’s another story.

Anglophone Burmese and the coveted international job

The term “Anglophone Burmese” may appear a bit awkward and I’m not sure if I’m the first person to use such a term or not, but bear with me: these types of Burmese people exist.

Many Burmese youth who graduate from private schools or Anglophone international schools such as ILBC, ISY, YIS, NELC, AIS, etc., etc., go through a mild form of first language attrition and gradually become more comfortable interacting in English (even with their peers). The Anglophone Burmese youth of Facebook always joke about how their Burmese has become so broken due to their overexposure of English, so the best swearwords they can conjure is a literal translation of “bitch, please” to ခွေးမ ကျေးဇူးပြု၍, which is very unnatural in Burmese.

Dr. Jacqueline Menager attempts to categorize Burmese youth in her PhD dissertation “Myanmar’s new generation: A study of elite young people in Yangon.” The interested may download it HERE, but I will summarize up a part that is relevant to my topic:

Menager first gives some background as to why English became popular after 2012,

With the passage of the Foreign Investment Law in 2012, partnerships with foreign companies became a profitable strategy for wealth defence. As many of the cronies were the subject of international sanctions that prevented their partnership with these foreign companies, their oligarch children played an important part in legitimising their families’ businesses. The increased focus on foreign partnerships gave rise to new essential characteristics for Myanmar businessmen, including English language proficiency and an appreciation of values that were important to foreign companies.

(Menager, pg. 100)

So, English, according to Menager became a “tool of the trade” to gaining business partnerships with foreign companies. It also became a status symbol and identity marker for the elite, as Menager describes the “modern fashionable woman”:

all elite young women were fashionable modern girls: they all wore foreign fashions, spoke English, went on shopping holidays to Bangkok and Singapore, and displayed foreign tastes.

(Menager, pg. 126)

However, it should be stressed, that the majority of the youth in these categories remained in Burma with their wealth. So, the goal is not to learn English, leave Burma, get a job in Silicon Valley, and Western Union your pocket money back to maymay and hpayhpay. The goal is to learn English to land yourself a job at an international arm in Burma. And that’s exactly what happens.

The Anglophone Burmese and the INGO world

Let’s role-play. You’re a well-educated young Burmese person who got good grades (UK: marks) in school and are decently proficient in English. You are now 20-21 years old after having graduated high school at age 16 and university after that. While your grades were good, you did not have enough distinctions (ဂုဏ်ထူး) to become a coveted doctor or engineer. But, you did receive a distinction in English and Burmese language, so you were given the option of studying Burmese at Yangon University, English at Yangon University, or English at Yangon University of Foreign Languages (YUFL), both universities being the best public ones in the country. You opt to study at YUFL, because you’re interested more in English as a vocational pursuit, rather than English literature or Linguistics. You take some classes on Applied Linguistics, however, in case you ever need to teach English professionally, some day.

Time to job hunt!

So, here you are, degree in-hand. You walk down Marlar Avenue on graduation day, as your parents hand you balloons and flowers. After an agonizing round of pictures, you pack up and go home. “Oh, shoot,” you think. “I need to get a job now.”

You grew up most of your life in the city and your family isn’t poor, but you live together with your paternal grandparents and your aunt, whose husband left to become a monk — at least that’s what they told you, anyway. You’re the eldest child out of your siblings and cousins (they are your siblings too, you know) and the responsibility now falls to you, o, college graduate, to win the bread– er… rice — for the family. You were an English major, so you suppose you could work as an English teacher. Quick search on Facebook… Woah. There’s an English teacher on every Yangon block. Some of them have CELTAs and DELTAs and TOEFLs and MAs and MEds from places you’ve never heard of. Can’t compete with that. Maybe getting into translation is your call in life! Quick search on Facebook again… Oh, no… There are tons of translation agencies with full staff and government contracts. They post pictures of their bosses enjoying vacations in Singapore and everything! What are you going to do with your BA in English from YUFL now?

Getting the hook-up

Amalay, I’m dead,” you text to your friend.
“What now?” they ping back.
“I can’t find a job with this stupid English degree I have. How am I supposed to provide for the family now?”
“How good’s your business English?” they ask you.
Hin? Okay, I think. I’ve never really spoken with foreigners before, though.”
“Doesn’t matter,” your friend replies. “Look. We need more local workers here at the office in order for us to get the next World Bank loan. We can only start you off with a contract, but if the boss likes you, it can be renewed. I’ll put in a good word.”
“Oh, Lord! Really? I’m so happy!”
“Calm down. You need to send me your CV first. Passport photo with blue background. Don’t forget.”

Let’s say your friend pulls all the strings he needs to pull. As he said, they just need warm bodies, right? Well, you’re called in for an interview, you go in as nervous as ever, but the nice foreigner who smells like cologne and coffee is very kind to you. You manage to get through the interview and the secretary tells you they’ll be in touch.

Two weeks later, you’re called back. You got it! You head down to the office to discuss your contract. Your title? Assistant Communications Affairs Liason… Whatever that means… But, woah! Your salary is… Is… $700 USD/month for six months with possibility of renewal and raise? You’re so shocked and you almost feel like crying. One month of your salary is more than 5 months of your dad’s. Where do you sign?!

What this means

For many people in Yangon, working for an INGO, even if it’s as a contractor, provides better financial relief in the short term and it looks good on a resume when applying for other international jobs. The only other route, which is only attainable by graduates of a public university, by the way, is a government job.

Government jobs have perks and benefits. You get a pension upon retiring at age 60, the government provides you with a place to live, a work vehicle (once you reach a certain rank), and relevant training. However, government jobs do not pay well, with lower-ranked employees starting out with around 150,000 MMK (approx. $100 USD) a month. Also, you cannot own a private business while working as a government employee, as enforced by anti-corruption measures.

As an employee in a private company, you’re not guaranteed healthcare, benefits, pension, a house, a vehicle, or anything (subject to the contract), but you are allowed to be self-employed, as well, which is an attractive option for many. All-in-all, though, private companies just pay more.

Bringing the rabbit trail back

Remember the link I told you to look into a few paragraphs ago? HERE is the local job postings for INGOs and local NGOs. Go ahead and look at how many postings require the applicant to speak English. It will take you a while if you tried to count them up. Here’s a screenshot from one posting:

A sample of a INGO job posting for a Myanmar local

So, it’s clear. The Burmese job market demands locals who have high English proficiency, but not expats who have high Burmese proficiency. It’s an odd paradox, but it’s unfortunately the way the economy is working at the moment.

I was shocked when I first arrived in country to a lot of broken “heh-loo“s and was surprised to see how taken aback they were by me speaking Burmese. I legitimately thought there would be many other Burmese-speaking foreigners here. I grew up in the context of Latin American countries expecting the gringo or güero to speak in Spanish when visiting the country, just as the resident latino is expected to speak English by many of the U.S. population. That’s not how Burma works, though.

Maybe it will one day.

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