Feldgruppe
Myanmar: Burmese for Dummies

Christine Rufener is a psychologist working with MSF in Myanmar. Here she gives her key Burmese phrases that will have you (almost) speaking like a local.

Burmese is not the easiest of languages for foreigners to pick up. 

It uses its own alphabet with a few extra letters tossed in (seven!), so most of us international staff have struggled to pick up more than the basics. 

An MSF clinic in Myanmar, with signs showing the curling letters of the Burmese alphabet

The signs at this MSF TB clinic shows the curling letters of the Burmese alphabet. Photo: Aye Pyae Sone/MSF

Food words are among the first we all try to learn, since you’re otherwise relegated to eating only food that you can point at or imitate (re: resorting to flapping my arms like a chicken in the first few weeks). 

In terms of work, however, I’ve had to branch out my Burmese to be more effective, earn the trust of my national coworkers, and make work more fun. 

Below are the 10(ish) words/phrases that have gotten me the most mileage as Mental Health Officer in Myanmar so far. 

Hello & thank you

This is from your standard Life Overseas 101 manual: Learn how to greet people and say thank you.  It’s just plain basic etiquette to put this (minimal) effort in. 

Good, very good. (Also useful: I like it.) 

Most of what I do is training/teaching, and being able to positively reinforce people is key in encouraging the staff to actively participate and recognise their comprehension.

Also works for describing food, giving compliments, and responding to various questions, whether or not you actually understood them.  

Bonus:  a 'thumbs-up' sign for emphasis is safe to use. 

I’m full!                                                                

People in Myanmar really love to eat.

Often. 

So learning to say “when” to the man shoveling rice onto your plate is crucial. 

What else?                                         

Perhaps because of shyness or nerves, the counsellors I’ve worked with tend to believe there is only one correct answer to a question and will stop answering it once they think a single, satisfactory response has been offered. 

As such, this phrase is good for encouraging brainstorming and flexible thinking.

Tell me.                                               

See above.

Have empathy.                                 

Empathy is really the most important and valuable skill for any healthcare provider.  

And for all of those who value human relationships. 

It can’t be emphasised enough.

Photo of Christine with her colleagues in Myanmar

Christine takes a selfie with her colleagues in Myanmar. Photo: Christine Rufener / MSF

Pee-pee.                                             

Self-explanatory. 

I don’t know.                                     

Used so, so much. Largely because there is simply a lot I don’t know. 

Also helpful for modeling that it’s okay not to know the answer, or how to do something, or what to say.

My Myanmar co-workers are very eager to please and have told me that they feel uncomfortable saying “I don’t know” because they always want to have the correct answer.

Teaching them that it’s not only okay, but actually a really smart thing to say, has been a focus throughout my mission.

I love you.

In Myanmar, people use the word “love” very sparingly, relative to back home (granted, I’ve been told by non-American international staff that we Americans tend to overuse the word love—along with “awesome,” “perfect,” and superlatives in general—but that’s another story.) 

Also, in the Burmese language, one would never say “love” about anything other than a person or living creature. 

So a great way to keep things light, to spread positivity, and to make my Myanmar co-workers and friends smile almost every single time.       

Mosquito bite on butt                

Because sometimes you just gotta scratch.  And hope it’s not dengue.