Friday Five

Five Things I’ve Learned About Language– My own and the many languages of Thailand

Reflects Culture
When I learned Thai, I usually was taught the positive and negative of a word, beautiful/ugly, delicious/not delicious, good/bad, you get the picture. Afterwards, my adjaan would give us a cultural lesson about when it’s appropriate to use the negative words. Guess what, it’s not often. I’ve completely forgotten what ugly is because I’ve rarely heard it. People would say something is a little beautiful (or just say you’re looking fatter). I don’t think I’ve ever said something isn’t very tasty because it might hurt the cook’s feelings. And no, you can’t get away with saying ‘no, raw fish and crickets is not my cup of tea.’ You should say it’s a little delicious and eat it anyway even if it makes you nauseous.

Just Because Someone Doesn’t Speak English
Does not make them stupid. It’s amazing to me how most people here can speak at least two languages, at least basic conversation. I give them shit for now speaking perfect Central Thai, but most of my students can talk to me in it. So at under thirteen, they are already bilingual and working on a third language. Compared to the United States and the lack of emphasis on language learning in early education, I think that’s pretty amazing.

Work It Out
After teaching English, specifically phonics, most of my students, especially when it’s adults, need to blow a few raspberries to give their mouths a break from attempting English letters. Thai comes from the diaphragm, English comes from the lips and tongue. This is especially hilarious when we go over th, l, and r sounds. This is where accents come from, when people are too lazy to literally go through the motions required of them to make the native sounding letters. I’m terribly guilty of this in Thai as well.

Uh is a Real Word
Isaan, in my experience, is even more of a ‘sound effect’ language then Central Thai. And that’s saying something. All sorts of things I thought were just a person’s reaction or own addition are actually words to give more meaning to what they just said. The one I hear most often is when someone ones to say how delicious something is, they could just say, saap laai, but adding on a weird duh on the end is emphasizing it to you. For the first month, I thought my host mom just liked making a duh sound. Until I heard everyone else saying it. My favorite ‘sound word’ is for pumpkin, bak-uu, with uu being very strong, from the diaphragm again.

How vs. What
English relies very much on how you say something whereas Thai you would add little tidbit words on the end or make some kind of sound to soften or strengthen what you say. There are polite endings for men and women as well the word na to doubly soften what you’re saying. Jeff and I like to joke that you could say to someone ‘you are a fucking idiot’ but as long as you add on a na ka or krap to the end, it would completely acceptable. It’s really hard to explain this to my students because so often they sound like robots given that they don’t know what inflection to put in a sentence or where to stress parts of syllables. And sarcasm, forget it. An entire layer of my humor is completely lost on these people. I think my ability to catch it have been put on the endangered species list as well.


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