Who Sells Chicken’s Eggs? The Highs and Lows of Learning ThaiPosted: June 3, 2011
Learning to speak a new language is a great way to broaden your horizons and expand your perception of the world around you. It is said that learning new languages improves intelligence, and in an increasingly globalized world, multilinguists have a marked advantage over their monolingual counterparts. Of course, some languages are harder to learn than others – Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean being among the hardest for English speakers – and the far eastern languages have proven tricky for westerners en masse. Thai is a tonal language, much like Chinese, and has five tones which denote the meaning of words. With around 26 million native speakers in the world, it’s not the most widely-used language. But as tourists, teachers and expats continue to flock to the Land of Smiles, learning Thai is becoming an increasingly popular choice.
When you first arrive in Thailand you will be bombarded with new information: signposts demand your attention in an ornate and complicated-looking script that means nothing to you; people ask you questions that you don’t know how to answer; the taxi driver wants to know where you’re going; you don’t even know how to order food. The list goes on. At first, this can all seem quite bewildering. But eventually, like a raging storm must abate, the madness and confusion eventually give way to the clarity of understanding; albeit slowly. Many people arrive armed with phrase books, only to find that the book was about as much use as chocolate fireguard – and they’re not very useful. You try speaking that “golden” phrase you learnt from the book: Khun suuay mak na krub – you thought you told her she was beautiful, but you just politely told her she’s unlucky. Oh the tones, the wretched tones. After a couple of weeks you’ve thrown your phrase book in the trash and decided to just listen!
The Easy Stuff
You’ve now been in Thailand for a couple of months and you’ve impressed yourself – and the locals – with your new vocabulary. You know how to ask the price of things, ask your friend where he/she is going and ask them if they’re hungry – Thai people love that question. Everything seems to be made up of short syllabic sentences: Gin kow mai (Do you want to eat?), Bai nai (Where are you going?). You feel, in your own humble opinion, that you have mastered the language. You send emails to friends: “Thai is easy. I’m already speaking it.” And then . . . the bomb drops. Someone reels off a long complicated sentence in the vernacular and you have no idea what they said.
The Hard Stuff
Thai language, like all other languages, has evolved organically over a period of time, adopting words from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer and Chinese along the way. Thai is a member of the Tai group of the Tai-Kadai language family, which was brought from the Shan states in southern China around 1,000 years ago. These different influences can be heard in the sounds of the language. Long ceremonial names are often derived from Sanskrit and Pali – such as the full ceremonial name for Bangkok – and road names like Viphawadee have a distinctly Indian flavour to them. Other words, like bai and mai, have similarities with the syllabic nature of Chinese and other oriental languages.
But foreigners are not the only ones who have a hard time understanding the language in Thailand. Various dialects are spoken throughout the length and breadth of the country. A Thai speaker of Bangkok – for example – may not understand the Thai spoken by an inhabitant of northeast Thailand, where the people speak numerous dialects, including a language similar to Laotian. So once you get over the initial hurdles of just speaking a few words, you will suddenly find that learning to speak Thai in all its wonderful multiplicity is a life-long task.
Foreigners who speak Thai were once a rarity. Even now, there are not many who can speak, read and write the language. When you try your first phrase on Thai people, they will invariably be enthusiastic about your ability to speak their language. Just being able to ask how much something costs will result in Thai people making a big fuss over you and saying: “Oeey! Farang pood pasa Thai keng leaw! (Oh wow! This long-nosed farang can speak Thai like a specialised pro!).” And of course, it goes to your head. You might feel like a superstar . . . for a while.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. — Nelson Mandela
But as your ability to speak Thai continues to improve, you may find that this Thai-style bemusement will occasionally work the other way: they will assume you can’t speak Thai. An example is getting on a bus and the ticket collector asks someone sat near to you if they can speak English: because that dumb foreigner sure as hell aint gonna speak Thai! It can be annoying when you realise they’re making that assumption, especially when you’ve dedicated a lot of time to learning their language. Still, it’s also a good way to learn more about Thai culture, to just let it pass and not take it seriously.
Thais love to tease foreign learners with tonal riddles which make use of the same (or similar-sounding) words that are differentiated by their tones. When I first came to Thailand, a friend asked me: Krai-kai-kai-gai (Who sells chicken’s eggs / ใคร ขาย ไข่ ไก่), which, when spoken quickly, sounds like: Kai kai kai kai, and comes out in a monotone when repeated by most foreigners. It took me about a year and a half before I could confidently say that, and I still have to think carefully to get the tones right. Another one – though I learnt this from a book – is: Mai mai mai mai (Does new wood burn?), the answer to which is: Mai mai mai mai (No, new wood does not burn). Of course, written in Thai script, each mai would look different (ไม้ ใหม่ ไหม้ ไหม? ไม้ ใหม่ ไม่ ไหม้) , which is why learning to read Thai is greatly beneficial to improving spoken Thai.
Reading and Writing
Thai language is made up of 44 consonants, which are divided up into three tone classes: low, middle and high. How on earth have Thai people created an extra 18 consonants? They haven’t. They just have various different letters to denote the same sound. In fact, when you strip back all the extra letters, Thai actually has only 21 consonant sounds. The vowels are where things get a little more difficult. Not only are there 44 consonants to remember but there are 32 vowels as well – many of which are sounds not used in English. Vowels can be grouped together or wrapped around consonants in a counter-intuitive fashion to create new sounds, and there are both short and long versions of most vowels. Once you start learning to read Thai, you will be amazed to find that all those signposts are no longer so indecipherable. Within a short time, you may find you can read the destination on a bus or the name of a district in Bangkok.
There are some good books and websites to help you learn Thai. The ones I found useful are Thai for Beginners by Benjawan Poomsan Becker, and Learning Thai.com. Learning Thai.com has fully interactive pages where you can listen to the sounds of the consonants and vowels being spoken by a Thai person. There are also other useful resources such as recordings of stories with an accompanying text, and links to other blogs and websites. Thai for Beginners comes with a C.D. which allows you to listen to the vocabulary and conversations in the book and is one of the most thorough and error-free Thai language books I’ve come across.
Thai language is a wonderfully melodic and musical language that does not readily lend itself to the academic approach. Like a small child – who repeats what the people around him/her say – learn to speak Thai by repetition and listening. Too much analysis only blocks the path to clear, spoken Thai, and while you may have a huge vocabulary (of words you’ll probably never need) it’s useless if you can’t string a simple sentence together. Allow yourself to become a child again, forget what’s right and wrong, and just listen!
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. — Shunryu Suzuki