A priority for the next months is learning Pali language. At the same time I am a rare resource for this “English-media” institution: a native speaker of English and a trained linguist; teaching English will be an important task for me. Still the language most spoken here is Burmese, and among foreign students Thai seems to rival both English and Burmese as the language of choice.
Pali is, of course, the most traditional language of Buddhism. The wide-spread belief among Theravadins is that it is the language of the Buddha. I think modern scholarship casts some doubt on that claim, though the Buddha most likely spoke a language, or maybe several languages something like Pali. The early Buddhist scriptures say nothing about this. However, after being preserved orally for many generations, the early Buddhist scriptures were first put into written form in Pali.
Pali is closely related to Sanskrit. I think of it as Sanskrit with the r’s, e.g., Skr “Dharma” is Pali “Dhamma,” “Karma” is “Kamma” and so on. Pali and Sanskrit are, along with Greek and Latin classical languages in the huge Indo-European family of languages, which also includes modern English. So like Latin, Pali has lots of declensions and conjugations along with many irregularities. The family resemblance to English is slight.
Pali is to Theravadins as Latin is, or used to be, to Catholics. Almost all chanting in the Theravadin tradition is in Pali and children in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand begin learn Pali in school. Most bhikkhus are quite proficient. This is another area in which I am playing catch-up.
The academy naturally attracts students who want to learn English. I’ve asked some monks why they would like to learn English and hear two answers: First, it opens up a much larger world to some bhikkus who have grown up in relative isolation. Second, many would like to teach Buddhism abroad. I like this last answer, because I think there is certainly a great need for competent teachers of Buddhism in America, where anyone who has read a few books and has public speaking ability is ready to hang a shingle. English language is the most important skill to acquire for a Burmese monk to teach in America, though I think classes in American culture and American comparative religion would be important as well. I could see some of the young monks thriving in America.
I am trying to arrange an advanced class on English pronunciation. I think this is where I can be most effective, starting with articulatory phonetics and a comparison of the English and Burmese sound systems, then zeroing in on the problem areas, such as syllable-final consonants, consonant clusters and intonation patterns. I just learned that there is a language lab here that has never been used. I’m trying to get the keys to get into it to see what might be helpful. We may have to make our own recordings; I can get two other American voices in Yangon, male and female.
My plan before coming to Myanmar was not to put much energy into learning Burmese, so that I could focus on Pali. I am a dabbler when it comes to language. I’ve studied probably fifteen different languages at one time or another, sometimes for just a week, including three American Indian languages and an African language. The only language besides English that I ever learned really well is German, and that is has now been rusting for about 20 years. I can see Burmese sitting on top of the pile.
However, I will probably be here a whole year (my visa just got approved, finally, for a full year), I will probably have a affiliation with the Burmese Buddhist community in the States when I return, and there is a lot of incentive to learn Burmese while here. A lot of staff and kids know no English, and people are curious about me wherever I go. Most of the monks here are supposed to know English, but are uncomfortable actually having to use it, and are therefore a bit afraid of me. Besides it is impolite to be in a country and not at least try to speak the language.
I’ve spent about 4 hours going over the sound system/pronunciation of Burmese with two different monks, one from Upper Myanmar (where we are here), and the other from Lower Myanmar, the two major dialect areas. I’ve got a good handle on how the sounds work, which will help me in teaching English. Burmese is easy to start using because almost everything in a Burmese sentence is optional. So, there are no declensions are conjugations (required parts of words in languages like Pali, and to a lesser extent English). You don’t even need pronouns for “I” and “you” if they can be inferred. If you enjoyed a meal, just say “sa: gaun: de” (eat good past-or-present). No matter what you put together it seems to be perfectly understandable Burmese. When you do want to use a pronoun it gets a bit complicated, however. For instance, your choice of pronoun depends on if you, the speaker, are a man or a woman. Also, very relevant for me, if you are a monk or speaking to a monk a different set of pronouns is used for “I” and “you.”
So, this excursion seems to be almost as much about language as it is about Buddhism, which is fun for me.