No Hablo Thai

2 Jun

Lately, several people have made comments to me along the lines of, “Oh, you must have learned so much Thai!” Since summer vacation is rapidly approaching, and I will be seeing many of these people soon, let me clear a few things up; namely, I do not speak Thai. There are two reasons for this; first, plenty of people speak smatterings of English, especially in tourist areas, and most signs are written in both English and Thai, so we haven’t been forced into a situation where Thai was mandatory, second, Thai is kinda tricky. Here’s what I have learned about the Thai language.

Like many of the languages in Asia, including Burmese, Vietnamese, and Mandarin, Thai is a tonal language. Thai has 5 tones: low, mid, high, rising, and falling. Basically this means that the same syllable can be said 5 different ways, and mean 5 different things depending on the tone. Kaao for example can mean rice, white, news, fishy, or be a meaningless noise just by changing the tone. The Lonely Planet guide seems to think that the high tone presents the biggest challenge for non-Thai speakers; I disagree. The rising and falling tones seem more challenging; the rising tone is like you’re asking a question, and the falling tone is like you’re calling your kids in from the backyard. My main problem has been that when I feel hesitant about speaking, I phrase everything like a question, thereby pushing my voice into the rising tone and completely changing the word I am trying to say.

That all being said, I have developed passable taxi Thai, as well as a few other words and phrases. Taxi Thai = turn left, turn right, go straight, u-turn under the bridge, stop here (although I must be using the wrong tone with that phrase since the taxis sometimes don’t stop). Numbers in Thai make a lot of sense to me, and I can successfully count from 1 to 999, albeit poorly – I have no idea how to say zero or 1,000. My favorite interactions have been with the moto driver who picks me up in the mornings. He speaks not a word of English, but somehow we have managed to have many a convo. To communicate with him, I have learned to say tomorrow, next week, Monday, Friday, and no school. A few weeks ago, I needed to say Wednesday, a word with too many syllables that does not exist in my vocabulary. I ended up saying tomorrow tomorrow (it was Monday) and gesturing with my hands. He responded with, “One day, two day, no school” and I nodded enthusiastically. Success! The final category of Thai vocabulary I have developed involves food. I can say my favorite dishes (som tum, tum yum goong, yummm) along with spiciness directions (mit neung prik – with one chili) and basic foods: white rice, plain water, etc.

Orestes and I plan to take Thai lessons next year. I would like to be able to hold a basic conversation in which dramatic hand gestures are not necessary. I have no plans whatsoever to learn to read Thai. My brain is simply not up to learning a new writing system, particularly one that involves 44 consonants and 28 potential vowel sounds. It has been interesting being in a country where I am functionally illiterate, despite the English signs. For now, I take mild comfort in the fact that English is as hard for Thai speakers to learn as Thai is for English speakers to learn, as demonstrated by these mistranslated signs. Enjoy.

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Read number 2 closely. I like the skeptical tone used when speaking about the Karen Hill Tribes, and I’m pretty sure one doesn’t often see the words fascinating and Rhododendron together.

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Oh, chicken flossy pizza. I have yet to try this delicacy, although I have had flossy pork. It’s a weird and inappropriate cross between a tumbleweed, cotton candy, dried pork jerky, and  saffron threads. No me gusta.

much room

This one makes me smile.

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One Response to “No Hablo Thai”

  1. Elaine McCormick August 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    Whenever I need a chuckle I return to your blogs and before I know it I am doubled over in laughter. Keep them coming. Love Ya!

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