Tongue-Twisted in Thailand

My father was born and raised in Peru, so you would probably make the incorrect assumption that I can speak some Spanish. I tried, I really did. No matter how many classes I took during middle and high school it just wouldn’t stick. I became discouraged and gave up after the tenth grade. Speaking another language was just not in the cards for me.

By the time I went to teach English in Thailand, I had already been telling myself for six years that English was going to be the only language I would ever be able to communicate with. I had already determined that the foreign language part of my brain was not very active. Before coming to Thailand I learned that Thai has five different tones which means that one word can be said five different ways and each way means something completely different. For someone who couldn’t even learn Spanish and is more than slightly tone deaf, I didn’t see speaking Thai as a skill I would develop any time soon.

So there I was in Khon Kaen, Thailand not speaking a word of Thai other than hello. Khon Kaen is not commonly visited by foreigners, so moving there not knowing anything about Thai was like a Thai person going to Omaha without speaking a word of English. My first few days of work were spent with a Thai teacher making me repeat words over and over again until my tongue felt like it was going to fall out. My face, tongue, and teeth were never in the correct position and therefore consistently produced the wrong sound according to my teacher.

I was afraid to eat alone at restaurants because I might ask for my food to be spicy and accidentally say no duck instead, which would result in me eating a dish that makes me cry and sweat my all of my water weight out, but be duck free. I have a low tolerance for spicy food, so this seemed like a disastrous scenario. Eating in the Issan region of Thailand was dangerous. They frequently say that if it isn’t spicy then it’s not delicious. By frequently I mean about ten times a meal while they are blotting their eyes and foreheads with tiny pink napkins. You can often measure how delicious a meal was by the size of the pile of pink tissues next to their plate. My solution during my first few meals alone was to go to the 7-11 where the food was not spicy and no Thai language skills were necessary.

About two weeks into my stay in Thailand I attended a yoga class with a fellow American friend who had lived in Thailand for three years. The class started in the evening before dinner and was fine except for the fact that it was all in Thai. I had been doing yoga for five years already, so I was able to figure out what was going on, but what I couldn’t understand was why the instructor kept talking about rice. Rice (khow) was one of the few vocabulary words I’d managed to absorb at that point and it seemed to me that the instructor said it in every other sentence. I know rice is important in Asian culture, but how the hell does it relate to yoga??

I walked out of the class very hungry and immediately asked my friend why the teacher was so obsessed with food. It turns out that my tone-deaf ears couldn’t pick up the fact that she was using two different tones, neither of which was the right tone for rice. She was actually telling us to inhale and or do something with our knees every time she said it.

The tones are what make Thai difficult to learn. Without them it would actually be an easy language to master since you don’t have to worry about conjugating verbs which was one of the things that made Spanish so difficult for me to grasp. By the time I had properly conjugated the verb I wanted to use, the listener would have already given up on me. One of the most annoying parts about learning Thai though, is that no matter how many times you say the word you want to use, if you don’t say it in the right tone nobody is going to help you out and guess what you are trying to communicate. They will just smile or ignore you.

It used to almost anger me that I was trying so hard and nobody would make even a little bit of effort to think about the context of the conversation and the word that was coming out of my mouth. They would just say they didn’t understand. When somebody tries to speak English I go out of my way to guess what they are trying to say, but nobody would take the effort to do the same with me. I finally came to realize that people who speak tonal languages don’t think about words in the same way that I do. When I hear a word I hear the word and the tone separately. I remember that khow can be used for rice, knee, and inhale and that each have a different tone. A native Thai speaker thinks of each of these words completely separate from each other. So when I would forget the tone that goes with the word I wanted to say and I would naively say the word in five different tones, it just sounded like five different random words to the listener. I suppose if I was having a conversation with a beginner in English and they started listing off five random words in the middle of a sentence I would think they were nuts as well.

While living in Khon Kaen, one of the Thai teachers continuously compared me to her five year old child. She said that I didn’t eat spicy food, I got swarmed by mosquitoes, and my Thai verbal skills were on par or worse than her kid. This comparison bugged me for a while since I was really trying to learn and fit in. Then I started to accept that Thai people are very honest and aren’t overly polite about feelings like we are. I figured this out when one of the teachers singled out the fat kid in class and made him stand up and proceeded to joke about how big he was. A few months later when my very good Thai friend said I looked fat that day, I was a bit appalled but understood that it wasn’t said in a malicious way. In her eyes she was just being observant.

I’ve been practicing and learning Thai for about nine months now and although I feel comfortable with the basics of the language, I still make many mistakes and have to work around my limited vocabulary. When my friend asked where I was going the other day, I nonchalantly said to get a massage. Somehow I managed to screw it up enough that I ended up saying to go get high which confused her and shocked her mother who was standing close by. I had no idea what I’d said and I’m happy they corrected me even though it was embarrassing. Now I have a new vocabulary word. Just yesterday I thought I was saying that a toddler was scared (glooa) and instead the word banana (glooai) kept coming out of my mouth. Nobody corrected me, but the folks around me must have thought I was a very confused farang (foreigner).

I’ve successfully proven myself wrong. I am fully capable of learning another language. My brain wasn’t the problem when I was trying to learn Spanish; the problem was the setting. Some people are textbook and classroom savvy when it comes to learning a language, but immersion is the best way for me. I’m not fluent, but I’m happy just being able to communicate. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll learn Spanish.

If you are traveling to Thailand, here are a few basic phrases that you might need.

Hello: Sawadee ka/kraap*

Thank you: Khap koon ka/kraap*

How much is this?: Tao rai ka/kraap*?

Where is the bathroom?: Hong naam tee nai ka/kraap*?

*Ka and kraap are said at the end of a sentence to be polite. If you are a female you say ka at the end of your sentences and if you are male you say kraap.

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