At age sixty-one, I’m learning a new language. Why? l live in northern Thailand. The culture here is generally gracious and playful, and it would be fun to be able to participate more in what’s happening around me. Speaking Thai is a good way to do that.
But studying Thai means learning to sing a very long song.
That’s because Thai is tonal. It is sung-spoken. So, in addition to memorizing words, I must also learn a word’s tone on “a scale” in order to sing-speak and be understood.
The scale has five tones: high, low, rising, falling, and middle. For example, “kau” pronounced with a short rising tone means “he” but said with a longer falling tone means “rice”. The syllable “maa” can be pronounced five different ways and mean five different things--I think. Even with my limited Thai, I could give you a lot more examples. If you’re confused, mai bpen lai (no worries)—so am I.
As you can imagine, tones lend themselves to a lot of word play that Thais enjoy, and also make for sophisticated poetry and literature. But tones can be baffling to those learning the language. The more I study, the more confused I am. For the past ten weeks, throughout the rainy season, I have been studying for a total of one hundred twenty hours (not counting homework). Singing, confused, in the rain.
My teacher, Ahjaan Noi, keeps saying, “ Thai ngai! (Thai is easy!)”
But Thai is not easy. When I visited America, my native country, this past summer, many people asked casually if I’d learned to speak Thai, “Asian” and/or Taiwanese, yet? For the record: there is no language called Asian, just as there is no tongue called European. German, French, Hungarian, Polish and a host of other languages are spoken in Europe. Asia is home to Mandarin, Malay, Khmer, Hindi, English and myriad other tongues. (There is no language called Taiwanese. I don’t live in Taiwan so there’s no practical point in learning the languages spoken there right now. But I digress.)
|Thailand is in Southeast Asia; Taiwan is an island off eastern China|
The bottom line is that I haven’t learned to speak Thai, yet. In fact, despite good effort, I’m not even functional. Fortunately, Thais are pretty tolerant and recognize that Thai and English aren’t the easiest languages to learn. Hence, a lot of Thais don’t speak English and don’t expect foreigners to speak Thai.
While there are no verb tenses in Thai, the language has an alphabet with 46 letters, frequent non-phonetic spelling, and I repeat, TONES. English has an alphabet with fewer letters and no tones, but tons of weird spelling and a lot of verb tenses. In my opinion, the languages are equally difficult and I’m grateful that I don't have to learn English as second language. In late adulthood, the synapses that enabled ease in picking up language have hardened like clogged arteries. No doubt learning Thai would have been easier when I was four and my synapses functioned.
I suspect that the Americans who asked if I could speak Thai yet, have never seriously tried to learn another language. If they had, they wouldn’t engage in magical thinking about fluency. Living in a country where a language is commonly spoken doesn’t enable a person to pick it up via osmosis. I wish it did. No doubt, so does everyone who is trying to learn another tongue.
The good news is that this past Thursday, I took an exam and advanced into Thai Level 3 at Payap University. (Payap offers a total of eight levels of Intensive Thai.) In Level 3, I’ll be learning to read and write.