John Okell, a much-admired British scholar and instructor of the Burmese language, died on Monday at the age of 86. A simple inquiry by Okell about language lessons at the British Foreign Office in 1959 sparked a love affair with Burmese and Myanmar that would last for more than half a century. After a spell living in Myanmar in the 1960s, Okell taught Burmese to diplomats at the prestigious SOAS University of London, while frequently visiting the country. He later became a sought-after teacher among foreigners studying Burmese in Thailand. Okell was particularly admired by his students for his passionate, humorous approach to instruction and his limitless fascination with the intricacies of the Burmese language. To mark his passing, we revisit this profile of the teacher published by The Irrawaddy in June 2015.
His pupils describe him as “brilliant” and “incredible,” and when you listen to him speak the Myanmar language with the ease and fluency of a local, it’s easy to see why.
John Okell has taught the Myanmar tongue for more than five decades. Now 80, the British lecturer’s passion for the language has not diminished and the classes he runs twice a year—in Chiang Mai, Thailand and in Yangon—are highly sought after by prospective students.
His long association with the language began fortuitously in 1959 when he inquired about courses through the British foreign office.
“They were looking for someone to be taught Burmese,” Okell recalled. “I applied to the program as I was interested in languages and they chose me and trained me.”
After one and a half years of study at SOAS, University of London with teacher Hla Pe and phonetic lecturer Keith Sprigg, he was sent to Myanmar to practice his blossoming language skills.
He stayed in the country for one year from 1960, including a month-long stay in a village in Amarapura in central Myanmar where he learned more about the intricacies of the language and the local culture.
“I was lucky that Saya Hla Pe was very kind and introduced me to a lot of friends,” Okell said.
He returned to teach Myanmar at the SOAS and to foreign diplomats, while also making frequent trips to the country at least every five years.
Following his retirement at 65, Mr. Okell was invited by foreigners working on Myanmar issues in Thailand to provide them with language training—a role he still performs passionately today.
Former student Marisa Charles, a senior program manager at the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, took classes under Okell in 2008, 2009 and 2011 in Chiang Mai.
“He is a true teacher at heart,” she said of Okell. “He always has an interesting or funny quip or story to help us understand the history from which the language emerged, and the playful way that Myanmar people creatively use their language today.”
Gabrielle Galanek, another former student and now a communications consultant in Bangkok, spoke of Okell’s love of the language.
“His passion was infectious. He spoke so eloquently about the details of the language and how fascinating the structure was, the tones,” she said.
In 2009, Okell was invited to teach three-week intensive classes in Yangon, but he was initially reluctant. “I felt ashamed as they have got plenty of Burmese around them, [while] I was offered to go and teach.”
But his pupils say they are grateful to have him, as are other lecturers in the language.
“When you study with John, the last thing you want to do is disappoint him, so in that way he’s one of the most inspiring and motivating teachers I’ve ever met,” said Kirt Mausert, senior program trainer for the Institute for Political and Civic Engagement based at the American Center.
Mausert was first introduced to the renowned language teacher in a bookstore on Yangon’s Bogyoke Aung San Road where he found a copy of Okell’s “First Steps in Burmese.”
“John is by far the most patient and understanding teacher of any subject I’ve ever seen. His passion for teaching Burmese inspires all of his students,” said Mausert, who is now Okell’s course coordinator in Yangon.
According to Ma Yamin Shwe Sin Htaik, a Myanmar language lecturer at Chiang Mai University, Okell is “the best teacher” among foreigners teaching the language. He knows the language deeply, she said, and although he speaks in very polite Myanmar, he is not old fashioned and keeps up to date with new words whenever he can.
“He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the language that is unparalleled,” Mausert said.
“Although, since he is also a paragon of humility, I expect he would be the first to claim that his knowledge of the language is far from perfect.”
Aside from the educational language books and scholarly articles he has written, Okell has no interest in penning an autobiography, despite the fascinating life of teaching and learning he has led. “It is not very interesting” to write about oneself, he said.
Although he lives for most of each year in England, he is well-connected with the Myanmar community and is knowledgeable about current Myanmar affairs.
Asked his opinion on recent developments in the country, he remarked: “I think the most striking change has been free speech. At one time, people were nervous about what they said.”
“Other changes you have are a different economic situation, better income, more choice of goods and services. [But] most people I know are saying all of them [the reforms] are the same as before,” he said.
Another difference he has noticed is that these days on the streets of Yangon, people will speak to him in Myanmar whereas when he first arrived in the then-capital, more than 50 years ago, Yangon residents invariably addressed him in English.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.