The Dark Side of Learning Thai: Why they don’t want you to.

After putting in a lot of effort to learn the Thai language, it can be frustrating when you get
the impression that Thai people don’t actually want you to speak it. When I first noticed this,
I tried to pass it off, and thought perhaps it was just my perception. But I’ve heard others say
the same thing. I’ve also had an employer who expressly forbade us from speaking Thai in
the workplace – even outside of the classroom – and made it clear that they did not want to
employ foreign teachers who spoke Thai. Of course, it’s not always like that, and Thais are
well known for their readiness to flatter the foreign visitor who speaks a few words of Thai.
But there are times when you feel they’d rather just stick you in the category of dumbass
farang who doesn’t have the mental capacity to speak their language.
I’ve had a few people ask me why this is, and I’ve come up with a number of possibilities
that may or may not be at the heart of this problem.

1. Language is power

Being able to speak a language that others can’t gives you power over them. It puts you in a
position of superiority. It allows you to trick people and say things about them that they don’t
know you’re saying. So when some Thai people discover that you speak Thai, they feel as
though they have lost that power, and they have to watch what they say around you.

2. Inferiority complex

Deeply rooted in the minds of Thai people is the feeling that white westerners are somehow
better than they are. They see our glitzy culture from afar, and it seems so appealing, so
affluent. They realize that until westerners discovered Thailand, the country was still
benighted, and the majority of people were pitifully poor. We brought with us technological
advancements and an outwardly more civilized system of society, which Rama V – one of the
most popular kings – began to introduce during his reign. Nowadays, Thai people model their
society on ours: their music is more westernized, their dress style has lost its eastern flavor,
they have modern shopping malls, and everyone wants to speak English. The point I’m trying
to get at here, is that when we come along and learn Thai, seemingly quite easily, perhaps in
a year or two, the inferiority complex comes back to haunt them, making them feel that once
again we have somehow outsmarted them.

3. You’re listening to Thai, but you just don’t hear it

It’s one thing to speak Thai, but do you really understand the deep meanings behind the
words, phrases, idioms, etc? The truth is, most of us don’t. It would be hard to have such a
deep understanding of the language if you didn’t grow up with it. This is another reason why
I think Thai people don’t want us to speak Thai. To them, their language is more than just
words. It’s the way they think, the way they interact, the way they view the world around
them. So for a foreigner to come along and learn their language at surface level, it’s almost
like we’re doing an injustice to the sanctity of their language. I’m sure most Thais don’t think
like that, but it’s worth considering when asking why Thai people don’t want you to speak
their language.

4. You’re an alien, you’re a legal alien, you’re a farang in Thailand . . . .

Foreigners often hold a privileged position in society in that they are exempt from certain
cultural obligations or expectations. No one minds too much if a farang doesn’t wai people in
Thailand because everyone understands that this is not his or her culture. But Thai people are
expected to wai their elders and superiors, otherwise they would seem rude, and risk losing
respect. As a foreigner learns Thai, it puts Thai people in an awkward position: do we treat
you as a Thai or a foreigner. Although it may be clear from the way you speak and act that
you know a lot about Thai language and culture, on the surface you still look like a westerner.
As a foreigner, you are accepted as a guest, but as you become more like the Thais, you
become subject to their scrutiny. Thais, when they are well acquainted, often talk to each
other in a very direct manner, making jokes about each other, and everyone has a good time.
As a foreigner – even though you may speak good Thai – the Thais may be reluctant to treat
you this way.
If you’ve been searching for an answer as to why Thai people don’t want you to speak their
language, I hope this blog post has been helpful for you. After racking my brains, these four
possible reasons were all I could come up with. If you have any of your own theories on
why Thais don’t want you to speak Thai, please share them here, or leave a link to your own
relevant blog post. 

Horse Pooh and Elephants Ears: Thai Delicacies

For those of you who have never travelled toThailand, your only experience of Thai food probably comes from the local Thai restaurant. While this food is good, and does represent Thai food in some respects, it’s hardly the type of food you will see Thais eating on a daily basis. In fact, there are many more weird and wonderful dishes to be found once you arrive in the country.

Perhaps some of the strangest foods come from the northeast ofThailand– commonly known as Isaan – where the locals eat everything from raw meat to buffalo skin, humming birds to buzzing insects. I have only ever stayed in Mukdahan province, near to the Thai-Lao border, and so when I talk of Isaan food, I can only vouch for the food that comes from this region.

Most of the food in this region is so different from what the average westerner is used to, that I am sure many people would turn their noses up at it. A typical meal consists of some spicy paste – usually mixed with fermented fish that have been rotting in a plastic jar for 6 months – sticky rice, and anything from geng no mai (bamboo soup), to goi deep (raw minced meat). Although I have tried some of these foods, when I stay in Isaan I can only bare so much of it, and usually head of to the nearest market town to find something a little more “conventional.”

However, I personally think, that on the whole, Isaan food is some of the tastiest and most unique food you’re going to find in Thailand. While staying there over these last few weeks I discovered an altogether new and quite palatable delicacy: horse pooh. Okay, not actual horse pooh.  This is the name of an Isaan sweet which resembles little balls of horse pooh. The Thais call it Khee Ma which literally means horse pooh. The sweets are made from rice and coconut, and have stodgy consistency. They make a great after-meal snack, or an alternative to coffee and cake. However, be careful if you ask for this; if you use the wrong tone, the Thais may think you’re asking for dog pooh! Check out my blog post: Five Great Ways to Learn Thai, to avoid mistakes like this.

Another Isaan sweet is Hu Chang, a large crispy pancake-like sweet which resembles an elephant’s ear. Hu Chang is made from rice, and tastes something like rice crispy buns. Most Thai sweets are made from organic ingredients and come fresh from the frying pan, meaning that you don’t have to worry about eating too many of them! If you’re staying in Isaan, and don’t think you can stomach frog soup, or rhino beetles with sticky rice, try out these healthy and natural snacks as an alternative.


Bangkok Floods: Ground Zero

The floods that have swept across Thailand this year are said to be the worst in over 50 years. When I first heard talk of them, I didn’t pay too much attention. Floods are a frequent occurrence in Thailand during the annual rainy season from June to October. I imagined they’d soon be over, and listed them as unimportant on my mental checklist. Besides, that kind of thing always seems to happen to someone else. But as the floods continued moving southwards, devastating the homes and lives of those who stood in the way, I began to take notice. Still, I didn’t believe they’d affect me.

I have worked as a TEFL teacher these last few years, enjoying the dream that so many people are making into a reality nowadays. The school year starts in May here, with a 2-3 week break in October signaling the end of the first semester. As the holidays approached this year, it became clear that many people’s holiday plans were going to be disrupted by the floods already wreaking havoc in Ayutthaya and other northern provinces.

Initially, our school had planned to take around 100 students on a camp to Kao Yai, a popular getaway just north of Bangkok. But as it became inevitable that the floods would reach Bangkok, the camp date was pushed back until the end of October. Everybody hoped that the floods would have receded by then, and we could all go on camp as planned. In fact, they got worse, and the camp has now been postponed until December. But not only has the camp been disrupted, now the second semester has been pushed back by two weeks, meaning that  precious teaching time is going to be lost.

I also have a family. My wife tends to worry a lot more than me, and so when she suggested leaving Bangkok to escape the effect of the floods, I didn’t take her too seriously. But as the flood situation worsened, I decided that I should support her, at least for the sake of our 15-month-old son. We are now in the northeast of Thailand, staying in her mum’s village and waiting for the floods to pass so that we may return to some sense of normality. All buses returning to Bangkok have been cancelled, and so even if I wanted to return, I couldn’t do it right now. Our money is quickly diminishing, and I’m now waiting on my school to pay me so that we can buy milk for our son.

But we’re not the only ones who are feeling the bite of this flood episode. In fact, we have been rather lucky. Many people have lost their homes, their cars, and other valuable possessions. Years of hard work washed away in a few moments. Our house, as of the time of this writing, has not yet been affected by the flood waters. The last I heard from my friend in Bangkok, the water on the street where we live is beginning to rise, literally rising up through the inefficient drainage system. Perhaps our spell of luck is coming to an end. The only thing in our favour right now is that we don’t have much to lose. We rent the house, and all our furniture and valuables have been moved to the upper floor. Many people in Bangkok will be dipping into those hard-earned life savings to keep their heads above the water – literally and figuratively – in these coming months.

And yet, I can’t help sensing a note of bitter irony in some of these flood stories. Affluent Thais like to build high walls around their houses, creating a physical barrier between themselves and the gritty reality of life for the majority of Thailand’s poor inhabitants. Those walls may have protected them against robbers and thieves, but they were useless against the inexorable onslaught of nature. It’s at times like these that we remember what is really important in life: food and water, safety and comfort for our families. I feel lucky that I have only had my plans disrupted, and I pray for the families of those who have lost loved ones. Let’s hope an end to these raging floods is in sight.


Five Great Ways to Learn Thai

Learning to speak Thai is becoming an increasingly popular choice as more and more people
head out to seek adventure and romance in this “Land of Smiles.” At first, the language can
seem daunting – perhaps impossible – to learn. But as you spend more time in Thailand,
you begin to realise that Thai is a language like any other. As you pick up basic words and
phrases, you may develop a desire to take it further, while others just feel satisfied to be able
to order a meal or give directions to a taxi driver. But after the initial learning curve, it’s
common to get stuck on a plane for a while. That’s when those who are really serious about
learning the language begin considering their options for taking it to the next level. Here are
five ways to improve your Thai.

1. Get a Thai girlfriend or boyfriend.

This is by far the most enjoyable way to learn Thai, and allows you to experience Thai
language and culture from an insider’s point of view. Most of the foreign Thai speakers I
know have Thai partners. Having regular close contact with a Thai person will help you to
develop an ear for the tones without expending a lot of brain power trying to decide whether
a word is rising or falling. Although Thai language books have tone marks to denote the
correct tone that should be used, Thai is much like music in that it can seem lifeless and
robotic if you don’t hear it from the source. And besides, what does a rising tone sound like?
Okay, it should rise; but how? It’s one thing to guess how the rising tones should sound, and
another to hear how Thai people use them in everyday language. That’s why having a Thai
partner or friend is a great first step in learning to speak Thai.

2. Invest in quality language books.

Thai language is not exactly on the list of the most popular languages to learn, and therefore,
the quality of books available ranges from excellent to poor and badly done. One series I
have found to be particularly helpful is the Benjawan Poomsan Becker three-book set, which
starts from beginner and moves through to advanced. The books come with audio, which is
essential if you want to speak Thai accurately. The book is well written, has a clear layout,
and is relevant to the types of things you will need to use on a daily basis.

3. Use the many free resources available on the internet.

When I first started learning Thai I came across a website called learningthai.com. Although
I never really used the website to learn much in the way of speaking Thai, it has a useful
section on the Thai alphabet where you can click on each of the letters and hear a recording
of them by a Thai person, thus giving you the correct tone, accent etc. If you want to make
your time in Thailand less stressful, learn to read Thai and you’ll never have to worry if
you’re getting on the wrong bus again!
Another great way of course is to use YouTube. The AUA Language School has free samples
of their lessons on YouTube. The samples start at beginner level, and continue through to
advanced. The videos are essentially the same as what you would get if you paid to enrol,
the only difference being that you miss out on the live action and the opportunity to interact
with the teachers. AUA teaches by complete immersion in the language with no translations
or technical explanations. In a typical lesson, the teacher(s) act out a role play and strike
up a conversation using language relevant to the level you are studying. By repetition they
aim to make it obvious to you what certain words mean. This is similar to the way children
learn when they’re kids. Remember, there is no translation for kids, they have to learn from
scratch, and I believe that adults can do that, too! It just takes an open mind, and letting go of
the fear of being wrong.

4. Watch Thai TV or listen to Thai radio.

This method is probably the hardest out of the methods I’ve listed so far. Although I’ve
lived in Thailand for almost three years, I still struggle to make much sense of what’s being
said on the radio or TV. Part of the reason for this is that the type of language being used on
these media is a lot more advanced than say, a language course tailored to meet the needs
of beginner students. Still, it’s a good way to test your ear, and you will see improvements
as you practice. When I say TV, I suggest watching the news, unless you enjoy soaps with
terrible acting and annoying sound effects. Personally, I cannot watch Thai soaps without
wanting to kill myself. Once you can understand the radio and TV, I’d say you’re pretty
much fluent. Good luck. I haven’t done it yet.

5. Music and Karaoke.

If you like listening to music, then using this method to practice Thai can be a great way to
brush up on your language skills while expanding your knowledge of Thailand’s latest pop
stars. The good thing about music is that it uses short snappy refrains that are easy to pick
up and remember such as: chan rak teu (I love you); kid tueng (I miss you); and other such
things. If you’re able to read a bit of Thai, then watching the karaoke videos can be a great
way to reinforce your language skills. By hearing the words, and seeing them written down
below, you can confirm one against the other to make sure that you did hear what you think
you heard. If you don’t mind being a bit silly, the children’s karaoke songs are even better for
a beginner as the language used is much simpler. Within a short time you may find yourself
singing a simple nursery rhyme in Thai; I’d say that’s an achievement!
Of course, there are many other ways to learn Thai; these are just the ones I have found
useful. If you would like to share some of your Thai language experiences, leave a message
below or a link to your own blog post. Happy learning and good luck!

Do You Play Face?

Thai people are well known for being economic with their words. Wherever they can omit a syllable and still retain the obvious meaning, they’ll lose no time in chopping it up to save lip work. And so I should have seen it coming . . . but I didn’t, and I couldn’t help sighing inside when I heard “Facebook” being called “Face.” At first, I wasn’t sure that I’d heard correctly: the conversation was in Thai. But then I heard it again – this time from my wife: “I play Face.” Ha! The cheesiness never ceases to amaze me! Face?! Honestly, how cheesy is that? But the best part of it is that Thai people use the verb “play” when referring to Facebook. Native English speakers would probably say: “Do you have Facebook?” or “Do you have a Facebook account?” But the fun-loving Thais say: “Do you play Facebook?” I think from now on I may be hearing the abbreviated version of this line: “Do you play Face?”

Other words that Thais abbreviate:

7-Eleven = Sewen

Computer = Com

Tesco Lotus = Lotat

The Miracle Grand Hotel = Milaceun


Skytrain Encounters – Multilingual Musings

Sitting on the Skytrain at 12:30 p.m. today, after attending some pressing business in downtown Bangkok (ahem), I was struck by the profusion of languages being spoken around me. Directly opposite me sat three tourists speaking French. On the seat next to me, a man who appeared to be of Turkish or Eastern European descent was talking to a blonde-haired woman in a language that I could not place, though it sounded to be European. To my left, a Thai woman was in conversation on her mobile phone, most of which I could understand (poor guy, I guess he just wasn’t “performing”, but to dump him like that!). And not too far away to my right, two men were communicating with each other by sign language. Another man, further down the carriage, was talking animatedly to his friend in English.

All in all, I realized that five different languages were being spoken around me and those were just the ones I could hear (or see in the case of the sign language). It’s fascinating to think of all the ways people can communicate. Languages are not only spoken, they are the way we tell the world how we’re feeling. Sometimes they’re verbal; sometimes they’re non-verbal: body language, written language, Braille, and codes; to name a few. Art and music are both abstract – and some would say universal – forms of language: we can communicate our innermost feelings through a beautiful painting or piece of music in ways that words would fail to convey.

It also taught me how much Thai has become part of my life these last few years. To think that this strange*, tonal language now means more to me than French – a language spoken only a few hundred miles away from where I was born, with words that have seeped into our own language (boutique, blonde, chaise longue etc.). It made me proud of my achievements, and yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if I know who I am anymore. The Buddhists teach that there is no you. But we grasp at an image of ourselves, often unwilling to let go of even the bad things.

In retrospect, it was one of those rocky precipices on the journey of self discovery where we are able to look out across the landscape of life and view our surroundings and progress with absolute clarity: I saw that there is no me, and that I am free to shape my destiny however I choose to. As Nina Simone once sang: “If I die and my soul be lost, aint nobody’s fault but mine.” Change can often be uncomfortable, but in the long run, those who experience more diversity develop a greater appreciation of life than those who never open their mind to new things.

The automated female voice of the Skytrain announced over the tannoy: Satanee dtor bpai Anusawari Chai Samoraphum, then followed in precise, mechanical English: Next station, Victory Monument. I woke up from my musings, which suddenly seemed like so much meaningless conjecture, and I was back in the dense, foggy jungle of life. Keep the mind sharp, so that you may cut through the vines, creepers and poison ivy that block the path to happiness!

 

*Strange in the sense that it is strange to me. Of course Thai is no stranger than English.


The Frustration of Learning to Speak Thai – Be Careful What You Say

Learning to speak Thai can be a difficult task for Westerners who are not accustomed to tonal languages. But there is one obstacle that will get in the way of your learning that is not mentioned in any language books: Thais do not want you to speak Thai. Okay, this may seem rather severe, in fact, it is. The truth is, some Thais will be very flattering when it comes to speaking Thai: pood Thai keng (you speak good Thai), pood Thai chaat (you speak Thai clearly). But there is –despite this – a bit of a taboo regarding Westerners speaking Thai. It does not extend to Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Malaysians or any other inhabitants of Asia; only white-skinned Westerners. If you are white, you simply cannot speak Thai, it’s beyond you; you are too sophisticated for this base language.

If you teach English in a school, you will more than likely be forbidden from speaking Thai. This can be a frustration when you have gone to great lengths to learn the language, impressed yourself with remembering tones, only to have it thrown right back in your face: DO NOT SPEAK THAI. This rule does not extend to Chinese teachers, who clearly have the grace to speak this tonal language; only the dumb farang should be forbidden from speaking Thai. I believe there are several reasons for this:

Firstly, Thais believe that English is the most important language in the world right now; quite rightly so, it is the international language of business. But the Thai parents have no concept of balance: it’s all or nothing with them. If there was a spectrum showing how enthusiastic a parent was about his or her child’s education, Thai parents would be at the far end of obsessive. I once tried to explain to a Thai father, who couldn’t understand why his seven-year-old daughter didn’t speak English as well as his fourteen-year-old son, that you need a balance: don’t push your child too hard, but don’t be completely blasé about their education, either. You need a middle ground, I tried telling him, where you care about their progress, but accept their shortcomings. I don’t know if he really heeded me, and besides, let’s face it; most seven-year-old girls are more interested in Barbie and playing with their friends than learning a foreign language.

Secondly, the Thais have gotten onto the band wagon of total immersion, and believe it’s absolutely necessary that the teacher should speak English at all times if their children are to learn the language. To some extent, they’re right. But once again, Thais show themselves to have a culture of extremes: there’s no middle ground; no Thai, not one word, not even outside the classroom, not even in the school grounds. Speaking Thai in a lesson can often be necessary to get a word across, and although there are sometimes Thai helpers in many English classrooms, even they sometimes don’t know the translations, though this is rare. The prevailing thought is that, if we speak Thai, they will not make any effort to speak English to us and just resort to Thai. There is some sense in this second point.

The third reason why farangs speaking Thai is taboo is that foreigners have a historically bad reputation for being able to speak it. It seems that until recently, relatively few farangs could speak Thai. It’s only now that a more progressive generation of visitors are flocking to the country that people are really eager to learn Thai. It seems to be more popular among the younger generation, though no doubt, there are older farangs who speak perfect Thai. Conversely, there are older farangs who have lived in Thailand for ten/twenty years and claim to speak not a word of this exotic lingo. Because of this reputation, Thais often make the assumption that you can’t speak Thai before you even open your mouth, which can be highly frustrating when you understand what they’re saying: farang pood pasa Thai mai dai (the foreigner can’t speak Thai), I’ve been known to walk away from shops that have given me that treatment.

If you’re applying for a job as an English teacher in Thailand, just beware that your proud claim to speaking Thai might actually be an impediment to you getting the job. Sometimes, they prefer to confirm their stereotypes and meet the big, dumb, white farang, who can’t speak Thai, and is easy to gossip about right in front of his face. They don’t always like you to be smart enough to understand them. The Thais want us in their country, but only on their conditions: remain dumb, white, and farang, then leave after you’ve taught my little angel to Speak English!