Ask anyone about learning Mandarin – because apart from some business men, some lonely men and the odd highly motivated expat, who actually learns Thai- and they will say something along the lines of “Too hard; it’s a tonal language!” and “You have to start them young”. This latter idea is definitely embraced in certain US circles (erhum Park Slope) where hearing about families who’ve enrolled toddlers in Mandarin classes or imported a Mandarin-speaking nanny is de rigueur. For the rest of us who aren’t up to mapping out our 3 year old’s trajectory towards being the next ruler of the universe, learning a tonal language was written off long ago along with professional ice skater and rock solid abs.
As a language lover inflicting a number of languages on my kids and with plans to stay indefinitely in Thailand, I felt it was only fair to embark on this journey and prove people wrong. It was about three days into my intensive Thai lasses when I realized that English is also a tonal language. If you disagree me, consider the ‘upspeak‘ trend. That may be an extreme example but you get my point. Even before the advent of the nextgen valley girl, we’ve always had tones. We may not use them to ascribe a specific definition to a word but we do use them to convey feeling, tone and even meaning.
Just imagine someone whose just touched the top of a car sitting in the Arizona desert for a few hours:
vs. Paris Hilton complimenting her current sidekick in a new sexy dress:
Toddlers possibly use our most common heard tone about a 100 times a day. You don’t believe me? Ask any parents who’ve been driven crazy by the constant barrage of “Why” Questions.
“Why do we flush?”
“Why do I have to go to bed?”
“Why is your stomach so mushy?”
In many cases, we use a rising tone to indicate we are asking a question. And this is where I am hitting a wall. You see Thai has 5 Tones: Normal, Low, High, Falling & Rising. It turns out I simply cannot end a statement with a word that has a rising tone mark. Rising Tone = Question. This is categorically ingrained into my brain. It would be like telling me a red light meant walk and a green light stop. No can do.
But this is the least of my problems. I’ve just figured out something else much more disturbing. I had been happily plodding along thinking that if I managed to acquire a decent amount of vocabulary and not freeze, petrified, the moment I need to use the words, then maybe my tones wouldn’t be quite right but it wouldn’t matter so much as people could figure out what I meant through context.
Surely no one was going to think I wanted to buy a tiger in a clothing shop. Context says so much. How else would we figure out when someone is talking about two, too and to? Or differentiate between the bark of a tree and the bark of a dog? Homophones and Homographs are distinguished entirely by context when spoken as well as when written for the former. Any sales assistant would know upon hearing “I want to buy a tiger” while standing in front of a rack of blouses, that what I was really trying to say is I want to buy a blouse.
Not so. Their brain isn’t trained to read context that way. They’ve never had to. Tones do that work for them. It isn’t even considered. At first I morphed into the indignant farang (white foreigner): “Come on people, do I really look like I’d be buying a tiger? Not an inch of khaki or superfluous pockets in site.”
What I failed to grasp is that it doesn’t register in their consciousness. How can you look for something you don’t even know exists? Ok this isn’t entirely true. There may be one or two words that are defined by context but given the inordinate amount of homophones in Thai, relying on context would never have been a viable option.
I’ll leave you with a little anecdote. Every morning my teacher and I have a conversation where she asks me questions to help review all the previous lessons’ vocabulary. One of her favorite question series is to ask me how far or close my house is to the school, my house is to the shopping center, to my daughter’s school, etc.
Here is The house is far & The house is near phonetically without the tone marks:
Baan klay & Baan klay.
and no, there is no typo.