New Colombo Plan scholar Catia Rizio on learning Burmese in Yangon

25th February 2019

Catia Rizio “fell into learning Burmese” after participating in study tours to Thailand and Myanmar offered by The Australian National University (ANU) College of Asia and the Pacific. The New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholar is currently on exchange at the University of Yangon, where she is on the fast-track to fluency and exploring her interests in human rights and social issues.

For many people, the narrative of opportunity and prosperity associated with the Asian Century is associated with the futuristic cityscapes of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo.

However, Southeast Asia is gaining increasing attention from ANU students ready to deepen Australia’s engagement with a region in transition – and language skills an essential component. Established in 2016, the Burmese program at ANU has attracted a small yet devoted cohort united by their deep interest in Myanmar.

“I found that I really enjoyed reading about Myanmar and decided to try learning the language,” says Catia, who is in the final year of her Bachelor of Asian Studies/Music double degree. “When I started learning Burmese I was surprised to discover how the grammar is quite similar to Japanese.”

Burmese, the national language of Myanmar, has around 52 million speakers worldwide. It has three main tones and stands out among Southeast Asian languages for its distinct, rounded script.

Catia, who is the President of the ANU Southeast Asian Society, was one of nine ANU students selected for the Federal Government’s NCP scholarships in 2018. Her main goals at the University of Yangon are simple.

“This year I am really focusing on improving my Burmese language skills and making the most of every opportunity whilst I am in Myanmar,” she says.

Life in Yangon presents a unique window into Myanmar’s bigger political and economic transition. Amid its development into a modern Asian city, tourism is booming from those who want to experience it “before it is too late”.

One of Catia’s newfound hobbies is exploring the city’s many teahouses. On a recent visit to a teahouse with her Burmese language tutor, she savoured an authentic “taste” of Myanmar culture by trying 10 different varieties of lapat ye (sweetened milk tea).

“Staff at the tea house were a bit confused by what we were doing. The teas vary in terms of sweetness, bitterness and how much condensed milk is added. It was lots of fun and I was able to discover which ones I preferred,” she said.

Witnessing these rapid, widespread changes offers Catia a unique perspective at a formative period in the country’s history.

“Even in the short amount of time I have been learning about the country, so much has happened. It is wonderful to learn about this old culture and see the transformations it is making today. There is something for everyone in focusing on Myanmar as the country is changing so rapidly. This really allows you to take advantage of so many opportunities,” she says.

Determined to make the most of her NCP experience, Catia is balancing her studies with an internship at the Yangon Film School (YFS). Established in 2005, Myanmar’s only film school provides Catia with an authentic platform for interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Many [YFS] films are documentaries that focus on human rights or social issues in Myanmar. I am working on a specific project called the Travelling Cinema. We will be bringing documentaries that the students have made to rural parts of Myanmar and collaborating with local youth there to undertake participatory filmmaking,” she says.

Like other tonal languages, Burmese can present a steep learning curve for newcomers. The secret to overcoming early challenges is persistence, according to Catia.

“Unlike most other university courses, with languages it never ends,” she says. “Even though you might have finished that assignment or test, languages always need practice. You have to follow up every day!”

ANU is the only Australian university to offer Burmese as a full minor (four courses). Burmese will be taught online in 2019, with plans to make it available to students worldwide via Open Universities Australia in 2020.

Inspired by Catia’s story? ANU College of Asia and the Pacific offers an unrivalled variety of languages and in-country study programs. Learn more here.

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