• Burmese 1B Spring 2020 \ Kenneth Wong

  • Burmese Spring 2018 \ Kenneth Wong

Kenneth Wong, the Burmese language instructor for UC Berkeley and UCLA, speaks about his Burmese roots and how that brought him to teach distance learning Burmese.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)


A Need for Burmese

"As Burmese kids grow up, we are already exposed to [the] Burmese language at our dinner table, when we step out to play with our friends …when we went to Burmese public school, the focus was mainly on how to read, how to write, and how to read literary Burmese." Having grown up in Burma, Kenneth Wong is naturally familiar with Burmese colloquialism, so when American friends asked for language advice before traveling, Wong thought that it would be easier to send videos with basic phrases and questions. He started a Youtube channel with guides like "Asking for permission" and "Yes-No Questions," which eventually racked up thousands of views. He started to wonder, "Maybe there is a need for it [Burmese] among the public."

Shortly after, UC Berkeley put out a call for Burmese instructors and Wong was brought in to take on that task. "This is a chance for me to do something in a pioneering field," he realizes, "Being the first person means that I get to help shape and launch an initiative."

In the classroom, he wanted to focus on teaching colloquial Burmese first. At the intermediate level, the literary style becomes of greater importance, which he describes as more "elegant, grammatically rigid [with] elevated verbs." At that point, students are encouraged to read excerpts from short stories and poems.

The Distance Learning Format

When UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies partnered with UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies to offer the Burmese language at both universities, distance learning became an option. Students at UC Berkeley attend lecture as usual in the classroom, but the UCLA students join via Zoom. "We used to joke that the UCLA student’s head is too big because he is projected on a wall-sized screen."

This course offering is a joint project funded by the two centers working together as a consortium National Resource Center for Southeast Asian Studies under the Title VI grant with the US Department of Education.

Because of the hybrid classroom, Wong has had to make several adjustments. He can no longer freely roam the physical space and tap on different students to interact. Instead, he has relearned "the zone in which he can walk" to ensure that he stays on screen and now writes characters on a tablet rather than the board.

Still, he has always been confident that the class would be successful. "I’ve been learning Japanese through Skype video sessions," he says, "so I knew that I could teach somebody because I could learn it."

When COVID-19 interrupted in-person classes, Wong was pleasantly surprised by the new experiences he could incorporate. For example, he invited a Burmese political refugee who was a student in 1988 to read a poem about the student-led movement to take down the government military regime at that time. Additionally, he brought in Burmese students aged 11-13 from the One Myanmar Community Center to converse with his college-level students. "The kids signed on as a surprise appearance," he smiles, "It was a very fun class for everybody involved."

Connecting Culture and Generations

Wong describes the 1988 uprising as a seminal event that will forever affect his generation. "When we react to political news, that is always in the back of our minds," he shares, "Whenever we hear about military governments using force to stop protests…that immediately makes us realize what it felt like to be on the other end looking at the rifle barrels aimed at you."

Because of that experience, he can see an intergenerational gap between his generation and second-generation Burmese Americans who grew up in the United States, adopting American ways and letting go of their mother tongue. However, he is excited that half of his class are heritage students who are the sons and daughters of Burmese parents.

"When I’m teaching the language, I’m not only teaching grammar and structure, but I’m also teaching them the cultural concept that shapes the language, so they understand why when you speak to an older person in Burmese, you have to use a different kind of pronoun. That’s part of the culture, not part of grammar."

Wong recommends for more people to travel to Burma, if given the opportunity to, and listen to Burmese songs, attend local cultural events, and watch Burmese videos online. "That gives you the cultural texture that is required to actually understand how the language works."



Published Icon

Published: Monday, May 4, 2020