Learning Burmese gains popularity in Singapore

Since opening its doors to welcome global travelers and businesses a few years ago, Myanmar has experienced significant growth in its economy, thanks to a meteoric rise in business and tourism activities. And as interest in the country has grown, the demand for Burmese language classes has also risen sharply.

Guus Goorts, founder of Singapore-based language school directory website yago.sg, puts it this way: “When we built the site in 2010, Burmese was entirely off the radar. While we included many pretty obscure languages in our database, we never thought of Burmese at the time. No one even asked about it,” he said. “Now we see that most major language schools in Singapore have started providing classes. Burmese language is on its way to become as mainstream as other regional languages such as Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian in Singapore.”

Dr. Lemmy Teo, director of The Language Academy says those who have expressed interest in learning Burmese do so for many reasons.

“There seem to be a variety of motivations like tourism, business and cultural interest,” he said. “So far, we’ve seen a significant increase in demand, and we plan to continue to offer Burmese language classes”

Shaun Cheng opened the doors to learnburmese.com.sg in October 2014 after learning firsthand how hard it was to find Burmese language classes.

“My partner is Burmese, and I wanted to learn Burmese so I could understand more about her culture,” he said. “It was very difficult to find a teacher, and when I finally found one, we decided to work together to form language instruction groups in Singapore with just a few students per class so it’s easier to learn and interact.

So far, Cheng says he’s seen plenty of interest from a wide range of people.

“Some have business dealings in Myanmar or plans to do business there, while others plan to travel to the country, have a Burmese partner, or have a spiritual interest in the culture,” he said. “For me, running these language classes isn’t really a business, I really run it as a a way to bring like-minded individuals together.”

For Businesses, a New Playing Field

One of the driving factors in learning Burmese: Business expansion. For many international corporations, Myanmar represents a powerful new opportunity to expand their presence on a global scale. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. describes Myanmar as “an underdeveloped economy with many advantages, in the heart of the world’s fastest-growing region,” and says the country is poised to grow its economy “from $45 billion in 2010 to more than $200 billion in 2030—creating upward of 10 million non-agricultural jobs in the process.”

In 2013, Myanmar hosted more than 900 companies at the the World Economic Forum’s Asia Summit, including major world players like Mitsubishi, General Electric and Coca-Cola, which has plans to invest at least $200 million in the country by 2018.

Understanding and speaking Burmese will be vital to anyone hoping to work in the country, and because learning opportunities have been limited, those who enroll in classes now will be ahead of the curve, so they may expect a far wider range of employment opportunities in the developing economy.

Welcome, World!


Businesses aren’t the only ones flocking to Myanmar. Tourism has also increased sharply, from an average of 300,000 visitors per year in 2011 to an anticipated 5 million by 2015 and 7 million by 2020.

Kyaw Lin Oo, Singapore-based Burmese founder of Scapetour.com, says the growth in tourism is already having a major impact.

“We’ve done very little marketing for our online bus ticket booking service in Myanmar, but we’ve see a growing number of foreign travelers using our service,” he said. “The predicted increase in Myanmar tourism means a huge jump for tourism-related services to cater the rapid growing demand.”

Tour operators as well as those who plan to travel to the country understand that knowing the language is the key to the richest experiences, enabling them to unlock sites and experiences that otherwise would go unexplored by those who are unable to communicate in depth with the Burmese-speaking population.

More learning options

The Language Academy and Cheng’s www.learnburmese.com.sg aren’t the only places that are expanding their offerings to include Burmese. Christopher Chaw, marketing executive at Spring College International (www.spring.edu.sg), says the school has added Burmese to its regular offerings.

“We did start a few classes of Burmese both at Jurong East and Bishan campuses, and the response has been good,” he notes. “Previously, we only offered Burmese classes on an as-needed, one-on-one basis because of low demand, but now the demand has risen sufficiently for us to offer regular classes.”

Leon Ling, director of Lingo (www.lingo.edu.sg), agrees.

“We’ve noticed an increased interest in learning Burmese among our students, and we’ve received requests about classes in the language,” he said. “As a result, we’re opening Burmese language classes.”

Learning Burmese is becoming increasingly popular for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is this: Understanding a culture from its own perspective depends on knowing the language that supports its native population. Enrolling in Burmese classes is one more way to experience a richer, more culturally diverse life, and an ideal way for Singapore residents to connect in meaningful ways with their geographic neighbors.

About Guus Goorts

Guus has traveled widely and has lived in The Netherlands, Ghana, Belgium and Singapore. In descending order of fluency, he speaks Dutch, English, Mandarin, German and some rudiments of Spanish, French and Italian. Guus lives in Singapore with his wife and two young children. He settled in Singapore in early 2006 from his native country The Netherlands. After working in a job for corporate training, he founded Yago Languages, Singapore's guide to language learning.