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Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Languages of South East Asia at SOAS: Burmese (Myanmar)

Burma (Myanmar) sits at the crossroads between South-East, East and South Asia, bordering India and Bangladesh to the west, and China, Laos and Thailand to the east. Burmese is the national language and the language of the ethnic Burmans who make up the majority of the population of over 50 million. Other ethnic groups speak some 85 languages between them, but Burmese is the language of education and the media, of business and administration, and of communication between various ethnic groups. Burmese is related to Tibetan and very distantly related to Chinese. Burmese grammar and syntax are quite unlike European languages, and the language is written using the beautiful and distinctive Burmese script. Learning Burmese guarantees a warm welcome in Burma, a country which captivates visitors despite its problems, and is an essential tool for anyone interested in understanding the country. More advanced students have access to a rich modern and traditional literature

If you would like to learn Burmese contact Dr Justin Watkins (jw2@soas.ac.uk) Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Degree Programmes

Degree Course Options

Language Centre

  • Burmese Language Courses

Other Resources

Please Note: Not all courses and programmes are available every year

Burmese (Myanmar) language and literature

Burma was officially renamed Myanmar in 1989, but the change of name has not yet been universally adopted. The country is perhaps best known today as the home of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent 1989-1995 and 2000-2002 under house arrest.

Burma is bordered by India and Bangladesh on the west, and by China, Laos and Thailand on the east. Until 1885 it was ruled by kings who lived in great style and splendour, fervently supporting Buddhism and the arts, and from time to time pursuing wars against their neighbours. The monarchy was followed by a period as a British colony, then, in 1948, by independence and a period of parliamentary democracy. In 1962 the army took over the government and discouraged visits by foreigners, giving Burma a reputation for inaccessibility. The present administration, though still military, is holding talks designed to pave the way for multiparty democracy and is actively encouraging foreign business and tourism.

Currently Burma has a population of around 42 million, and Burmese is the language of the largest ethnic group (the "Burmans") in this total. Other ethnic groups - Karen, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Wa and others - each have their own language or languages, but all recognize Burmese as the national language of the country. It is the language of education and the media, of business and administration, and of communication between ethnic groups.

Burmese is related to Tibetan, and has a grammar and syntax quite unlike those of western languages. Features that loom large for beginners are that it has its own script, and that it is a tone language.

At first sight the script may look confusing, but systematically graded tuition enables students to read it without great difficulty after a few weeks. Tone, for Burmese, means that a word pronounced on a high pitch means something quite different from the same word pronounced on a low pitch. For example, the word that sounds like taung means "basket" if spoken with a high pitch and "mountain" if spoken with a low pitch. Although change of pitch, as a device to differentiate words, is unfamiliar to speakers of English, after a period of sensitive listening and regular practice students find that tone is no longer a serious obstacle to mastering the language. English does have a similar feature, though it is used for a different purpose: compare the difference in pitch between the English words "greenhouse" and "green house".

Students find that the study of Burmese, as well as guaranteeing a warm welcome in a society that captivates most visitors to the country, enables them to see language and culture in an intriguingly different perspective.

Further reading:
  • Burma: a socialist nation of South East Asia by D Steinberg: 1982, Boulder, Col., Westview Press, 150pp. Covers geography, ethnic groups, society, religion, arts etc; strongest on recent history.
  • The Collins illustrated guide to Burma by Caroline Courtauld: 1988, London etc, Collins, 207 pp. Beautiful pictures.
  • Burma (a volume in The Insight Guides Series) ed. Hans Johannes Hoefer: 1st 1981, subsequently revised and updated several times, Apa Productions (Hong Kong) Ltd, 332 pp.
  • Culture shock! Burma by Saw Myat Yin: 1994, London, Kuperard, 207 pp. A sensitive guide to Burmese values and lifestyles.
  • Also see the SOAS Burmese Language Resources