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SEAP Teacher Profile: Yu Yu Khaing

Yu Yu Khaing

What’s it like to study a Southeast Asian language at Cornell? 

Yu Yu Khaing, lecturer of Burmese

At Cornell, a mix of all kinds of students—both undergraduate and graduate students—study Burmese. In many cases most have never been to Myanmar (Burma), but some have visited briefly or have a family background (“legacy students”) where parents are fluent speakers and thus, they are quite familiar with the pronunciation and basic vocabulary but have little or no exposure to the formal written style. Many students of Burmese strive to be able to do independent research on a topic related to Myanmar (Burma), its history, culture, literature, or other aspects. The country has been quite secluded for decades, so most aspects of it have not been previously explored; thus, there are plenty of topics open for serious study.

The essential building blocks of the Burmese language program at Cornell are the Burmese script and phonemes (sounds), including tones. Attention is given to correct pronunciation and reading the script rather than the English transcription. From the beginning, emphasis is put on natural speaking in day-to-day settings and around familiar topics, as well as writing in a colloquial style. At the intermediate level, the formal style of writing is introduced, and the material is oriented more toward current affairs. For advanced students, the focus shifts toward topics close to students’ fields of research.

Given the relatively small number of students studying Burmese at Cornell, the learning experience is highly personalized and can be tailored to the needs and interests of the individual student, especially at the advanced level. Recently, extensive online materials have been developed, including audio files and exercises.      

After one year of study, students learn to read and write simple texts and to converse about everyday situations such as talking about yourself and your family, food, moving around on foot and by taxi, etc. After two years of study, the students will have a good command of all common grammar structures, be able to produce short essays regarding their daily lives or their chosen field of specialization, and comprehend most written material with the help of a dictionary, even though full comprehension of the cultural and literary contexts may still prove somewhat challenging.

One of the biggest challenges of learning Burmese for English-speaking students is the difficulty they have grasping tones (and remembering which tone a word should have). For Burmese, the tone is an inextricable part of the sound of the word, but for speakers of nontonal languages it is easily seen as an add-on. It is also often hard for students to fully grasp the context of written material. Even though every word can be looked up, it can be hard to get the full meaning of a paragraph.