Burmese language instructor Michelle Winn fixed her gaze on her students and explained in Burmese where she was from. She was met with blank stares.
Switching to English, she repeated herself, and the class looked relieved. Thursday night was the first of five classes in a course offered by Trine University, Fort Wayne, to teach first responders conversational Burmese.
“This is not the first time we have tried to offer this, but it is the first time we found a time that seemed to work for students,” said Mersiha Alic, director of community education programs for Trine.
The class is designed for first responders — firefighters, paramedics and EMTs — who frequently come into contact with members of the growing Burmese community, which numbers roughly 4,000 in Allen County. The five-session class includes one devoted to EMS terms and one to fire terms.
“Classroom activities include language lessons, direct dialogue, group learning by pairing off oral drills and role-playing scenarios demonstrated by native speakers,” states the course description.
On Thursday night the class was covering the basics — cultural tips, phonetic pronunciation and the alphabet.
Winn showed the students how to ask for a person's Social Security card, driver's license and identification card. Burmese is a tonal language, meaning a word can have several very different meanings depending on how it is pronounced. There are short and long sounds, and putting different weights on them changes a word's meaning.
Of the four students in the current class, three work at the CVS pharmacy on South Anthony Boulevard. The store has a lot of Burmese customers, said one of the employees. The other class member works at Animal Control, where employees also find themselves struggling with the language barrier.
The class costs $99 for five weeks and meets 6-9 p.m. Thursdays at the Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana.