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On 13 March 2020, CHL hosted the workshop Myanmar studies without Burmese? On how and why language still matters for area studies. Later the same day, the ANU announced that all future public events would be cancelled.
The intervening weeks have highlighted with unexpected poignancy the importance of the questions explored in what became the School’s last face-to-face event for the foreseeable future. If you want to study a culture, why speak and read the local language? How does knowledge of another language help you to understand another society and its commonalities with your own? What is the relationship between communication and connection?
For the event, Dr Yuri Takahashi—lecturer and convener of ANU’s Burmese program—brought together Myanmar specialists from Japan and ANU including Professor Kei Nemoto, a specialist on modern Myanmar history at Sophia University in Tokyo; Ayako Saito from Sophia University; Sayuri Inoue from Osaka University; and Nick Cheesman and Jane Ferguson from ANU.
In his opening address to the workshop, Professor Nemoto emphasised that a decline in the interest in and study of the Burmese language may challenge academics’ abilities to identify the most important values of Myanmar people and their culture.
Dr Takahashi similarly sees language as a gateway to connecting with a culture and its community. According to her, speaking and reading the local language is “a very different experience from communication through an interpreter or reading a translation.”
Burmese is considered a ‘less commonly taught language’; as such, contemporary Myanmar studies largely relies on English translations. Dr Takahashi hopes that the CHL Burmese program will help to foster future researchers who can communicate more deeply with Burmese speakers. The opportunity to engage more meaningfully with other cultures extends beyond research on Myanmar people to the speakers of the other less commonly taught languages that the School specialises in.
“When we understand the spoken and written language,” Dr Takahashi continues, “we can get much clearer [ideas] about what people in a different culture are saying. We can also compare… the differences between [our values] and theirs and often discover common values, too”.
By enhancing our ability to communicate with others, learning new languages similarly enhances our ability to connect with others.
Beyond facilitating a deeper connection with the culture and community of Myanmar, Dr Takahashi enjoys the community-building that results from her role as a lecturer in an evolving field. As a less commonly taught language, translations of Burmese words are still being developed while others change with the changing society of Myanmar. “I often get ideas for better translation through discussion with my students,” she says. “I love this feeling of community in a classroom!”
In a way, the Myanmar studies without Burmese workshop was a fitting way to farewell (for the time being) our standard face-to-face events at the School. The workshop embodied both the values at the heart of CHL and those we as a global society will need to tap into over the coming weeks and months: the curiosity and empathy connect more deeply with the people and the world around us; the exploration of the tools that will help to build these connections; and the practice of nurturing these connections into a strong, resilient and diverse community.
Now, while we are both physically distant and uncertain—perhaps even scared—about what the future holds, it is critical to connect with the community around us. Community will give people the support they need to weather this crisis; it will make us stronger, closer and more compassionate when we come out the other side.
Going forward, the team at CHL are considering possibilities for adapting the way we communicate and engage with you: our readers, our students, our academics—our community. We will continue to share the stories in our community, doing our utmost to ensure our content is helpful and uplifting. There might be interviews or fairy tales, career panels or poetry, podcasts or recipes. So stay tuned.
As always, if you have any questions or want to share your story, please reach out—we’re here for you.