Learn Thai???? ‘Why bother?’ This is an incredibly fertile territory.
The ‘why bother’ syndrome must be one of the biggest plagues of the modern world, manifesting as it does in a range of contexts but today we could think about how it infests the zone of language learning. This is an unfortunate handicap if ever there was one.
I went to Bangkok Phuket International Hospital a few months ago with a friend who was unwell. Waiting and waiting as you do in hospitals I met a lovely French man, about my age who has lived here 13 yrs. He speaks French only and this position was firmly held.
We had a ready-made lively connection. With amenability on both sides, we chatted like long time friends within such a short time. Towards the end of our warming chat I said, innocently: “do you speak Thai now?” I expected that after 13 yrs here he would say: “yes but i haven’t mastered the reading yet.” However, Oh….. this unleashed such a turbulent stream of unanticipated flotsam that radically altered the conviviality between us. I immediately thought of my question as a mistake.
I was agape as he downloaded a torrent of: “No, no way. Never, why should I? Far too difficult. Impossible. No one can do it. I never need to; people can speak to ME in French.” It lasted probably 6 minutes without drawing breath. There was No opening for reply. As I said, I was agape in the fullest sense of the word.
In one fell swoop it seemed like the galvanization and prototype of so much of what i hear. Clearly much had accumulated for him around this issue. Angels would fear to tread. I tried to restore our connection to the earlier state of harmony but….irretrievable it was. I had unwittingly touched a raw nerve.
Another, having lived here 7 yrs asserted that he was genetically incapable. He spoke vigorously, to intricate lengths, to educate me with respect to the legitimacy of this genetic explanation. His Thai partner smiled in a way I thought brittle, barely forbearing.
Some people say outright they are too lazy.
A tax lawyer, who by his own description lives “globally”, told me with brazen certainty that he expected all people to speak English. He couldn’t see any point whatsoever to learning Thai. It was all far too time consuming and a waste from his point of view. It was a live and moving sample of linguistic imperialism at its worst.
Sometimes I meet people at the language school who live in Thailand and are bringing their Thai girlfriends to learn English or German. (These are two of the three foreign languages that they teach at Patong Language School.) Perhaps stupidly, but with a considered view to equal learning in relationships I have said a few times: “Well if she is learning ______, why don’t you learn some Thai?
They say: “It is too hard.” “Don’t have time.” Etc.
I say: It is so great, and fun, and they make it so manageable.
Whenever I don’t keep things to the same level or to a certain consonance, there is most often defensive recoil. You can almost feel a secret tail ‘rattle’. At the same time the Thai girl, standing beside ‘her man’ can barely conceal a wry grin of appreciation at my suggestion. Her life would be easier and probably seem fairer. Perhaps there is recognition of an invisible battle on her hands. Elegance, perhaps required to sustain the relationship probably wouldn’t alter the terrain.
I tell people. “I am studying Thai.” I am having my ‘sea change’. I am here on an education visa and studying Thai.”
Simple. Life- altering. Many people authentically engage spontaneously. The oft’ repeated keyword of the chorus heard is: DIFFICULT. Everyone says it’s DIFFICULT.
I believe that if we think something is DIFFICULT, then it will be DIFFICULT. The seeds are all sowed to make it all difficult and it inevitably leads to a whole range of unpleasant associations. Who would want that, then??? No one would ever want to study Thai then.
On another facet of this interesting little jewel of human study, I am daily in the company of refugees. They all, the men anyway, navigate their lives in Thai. Necessity, the mother of invention. They all help one another. I have so often thought, well if they can do it, I can do it. My now ‘adopted’ son has learned Thai by immersion. With a minimal secondary school education, no money for resources or lessons at school he and everyone I work with have learned Thai with none of my fancy extras. At the age of 20 he was immersed in the deep end in Bangkok, no family, just work to make some money and survive and send it back home. No one ever said to him: “poot Thai keng.” The tonic I spoke about in the last blog was missing for him. We laugh as people encourage me and I note to him that people never gave him that encouragement. ‘Different skin’, he observes. I am the only person in our refugee club who learns with dictionaries, flash cards, CD’s, language books, grammar reference books, posters with vowels and consonants on the fridge and my Blessed Teacher Aon. I can do my ablutions and try and memorize all the consonants at the same time. I unashamedly hunt out all these accoutrements as though the learning would in fact be impossible without them. Daily I am in the company of refugees who live the acquisition of Thai, necessarily so, with no intermediary and no fancy help.
We are all people who try. We open up and we try. Three cheers for people who still try!!!
That is a key ingredient. Maybe it is a key ingredient in life. Not to be too closed or too cynical or too fearful to try.
That is the key…the magic open sesame. It opens doors to smiles, laughs, mysteries, new worlds, new understandings, new bridges to friendships, sweet embarrassments too are inevitable………where there is more of an equal footing between us and many more things become possible inside and out and in between us all.
Thai people must be so patient, with goodwill, when they listen to me. Maybe it is the legacy of thousands of years of influence of Buddha.
I fumble. I think why am I even trying to do this. I don’t have a clue really what I am doing and often I hardly know the person with whom I am attempting to communicate. But I try. I totally forget tones, forget grammar rules, forget word order I just stumble forward like a baby learning to walk hoping against hope i will be understood.
There is this moment that happens when I find my version of the words, get them coming out of my mouth having no confidence whatsoever that I am ‘right’, the person still looks like they are waiting in anticipation associated with my obvious eagerness to connect with them…..and when they get me, when they get what I meant there is this spontaneous moment of joy between us. I say incredulously: “Do you understand me? Do you understand my Thai?”
When they say. “Chai”….to wit, yesssss……zowie….. my determination to improve my Thai gets renewed fivefold..”
It is one of the most amazing multi-dimensional jig-saw puzzles I have ever encountered, loaded with many rewards.
And, to add a final note of paradox, I shared my writing with my good friend Yan. (Visit Yan’s Noodle Coffee bar in the Paradise Complex for the BEST Issan chicken salad ever.) He said he liked what I wrote but that I left one thing out.
‘Oh, what is that?’ I asked in trepidation.
‘It is actually difficult’,
“Yes, of course it is.”
There are so many other ways to think about it , so many compensating factors that it never seems that way. I want to continue to be taken with figuring things out and experimenting with being understood. I prefer to remember the thrill that came with getting something right ; watching myself each week get better and better.