Leap before you look. It seemed like the right thing to do. Why be driven slowly mental by working at a bank and jump out the window when I could jump into an adventure in Thailand? So I took the leap, envisioning a countrywide motorcycle trip to taste the best food from the Thai Aunties I might meet along the road. There was only one problem. I couldn’t understand their patient explanations of the amazing food they created. So I decided to enroll in Thai language classes.
Since I didn’t know anyone in Chiang Mai, I thought my self-imposed exile would lend itself to a more concentrated and effective pursuit of the Thai language. The city hosted a respected language school called the American University Alumni School or AUA. The AUA school taught the Standard Thai dialect as spoken by broadcasters and cultured people. I sought to become cultured, too. Or at least be able to listen to a conversation and understand who did what to whom and when and why and where—small but important details that so far had eluded me.
As I am cursed with the briefest of attention spans (like that of a mosquito in a nudist colony), I requested a stern teacher who would force me to learn the basics. I signed up for private lessons with a tutor at the AUA school and was assigned to the Iron Lady of the teaching staff. My strict tutor, Professor Malee, had over thirty years of experience teaching Thai from the same classical textbook. Her teaching method was totally Thai: an unrelenting tough but fair attitude softened in the elaborate kindness and civility that is Thai social intercourse. Professor Malee had been married for three decades to an American State Department expat, so we could communicate easily in English.
How Hard Can Learning the Thai Language Be?
Learn a language? No problem, or so I thought. I bluffed my way through four years of high school French. I could speak well, but thought the emphasis the teacher put on those bothersome written accent marks was excessive (and my average grades reflected my nonchalance). However, I could speak French well enough to be politely received when I traveled in France, as long as there was no written quiz after dinner and wine. I was dedicated to learning to speak, read and write the Thai language. It was a haunting melody that I could hum, often off key, but not quite sing aloud, not yet at least.
Unlike my faking my way through French, there was no room for bluffing in Thai. The Thai written language doesn’t follow the English alphabet. It is a unique system of symbols that look like loops, lines and squiggles that must be mastered. In comparison, French, Italian and Spanish (the “dining menu” languages as I think of them) at least share a somewhat similar alphabet with English. The fact that the Thai language was written in continuous script, with no space between the words (as is the case in English) was seen only as a barrier for the weak to hurdle.
The Thai written language has forty-four consonants, thirty-two different vowel signs, two vowel lengths (short and long), plus tone marks that indicate the definition of the word.
Moreover, as a native Thai speaker will cheerfully explain to you as you announce your linguistic trek up the Everest of languages, the Thai language’s five tones (rising, high, falling, mid and low) can change the meaning of the word you speak, sometimes with an unintended result. One slip of the tongue using the wrong tone and you might have changed your speech from compliment to insult.
For example, if you tell your sweetheart she looks sooay with a rising tone or “beautiful” in Thai, you may receive a kiss on the cheek; a slight change to the mid tone makes the word sound like “unlucky” in which case your cheek might get a slap.
Perhaps You Misheard me, Auntie, I Didn't Mean To Say Give Me a Penis
The potential for comedy and insult due to the mispronunciation of a word abounded. I discovered this during a trip to the fresh food market. I wanted to buy wonton wrappers so I could make the Chiang Mai hotel staff a tummy treat, this time deep- fried wonton-wrapped shrimp marinated in fish sauce and red chilli curry paste. In the flush of nervousness that accompanied my attempt to speak an unfamiliar word, I mistakenly asked for “penises”—much to the delight of the salty proprietor. Compounding my role as comic for a day, a flustered mispronunciation of “bananas” came out as another euphemism for, well, “penises” with my mistake being relayed down the line of vendors to further compound my shame. As the laughter subsided, I got what I needed and was well remembered by the vendors during subsequent trips. I resolved to study harder.
I had previously tried to learn Thai by falling asleep listening to language recordings and by leafing through phrasebooks. I thought I had made real progress. Wrong. Trying to learn a language from listening to recordings is like taking your rifle to the shooting range and firing at paper targets; studying with a teacher is like having the targets shoot back. Duck for cover?I’m being asked a simple question and only recognize my name!
A, B, C, It’s Easy as … Well, It’s Not That Easy
My tutor was gentle in her difficult task of trying to teach me the basics of the language. Gentle when she suggested that when I had finally memorized the Thai alphabet, we could move past the first page in the Thai textbook where I had been stuck for three weeks.
The genial tutor tried to comfort me by noting that two of the forty-four consonants were not commonly used. Further, two of the vowels are obsolete (they only occurred in poems), so I wouldn’t see them in cookbooks. A feeling of relief swept over me, having learned that mastering the language was down to a manageable, decade-long struggle.
My friend who has lived in Thailand for decades happily oblivious to the local language (his Thai wife is fluent in English) asked why I bothered to learn. I couldn’t stand being illiterate. The big bookstores had dozens and dozens of appealing cookbooks in Thai showing artfully presented dishes. If I wanted to know how to combine the ingredients to reproduce these beauties, I had to learn to read. If I wanted to ask for a recipe from a chef, I had better be able to understand the response.
After concentrated months of study I could read, a little, slowly. If given a newspaper, an unabridged dictionary and a month’s time, I might possibly be able to tell you what happened on Page One. The good news was most Thai recipes involved a common set of ingredients, so I could decipher a basic cookbook, slowly. The Thai chefs at my hotel near the language school helped me out when I got stuck. The more I studied and tried to speak, the more confidence I gained. I didn’t ask for penises by mistake at the market for over a month.
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