I’d like to eat your father’s beard.

I am pretty sure that caught your attention.

Nasty right? Especially given the crazy beard craze that’s been rife the last few years. Thank you Joaquin Phoenix…NOT. Truth be told, you do manage to get away with most anything, like models on a runway sporting absurd clothes, us mere mortals should not follow suite.

Hear this hipster boys? Make friends with Gillette and I promise it will pay off big time. No matter what they say, as they flutter their lashes over a can of piss –oops I mean Pabst Blue Ribbon– no woman wants to get jiggy jiggy with someone harboring small creatures and last month’s lunch in their facial hair. Scruff, yes. Castaway, no.


Wow, I am seriously digressing.

I was on the road in Bangkok today and I saw a motorbike riding along with around 60 or so multi-pastel colored cotton candy packages. In this town, I am used to seeing motorbikes and tuk-tuks carrying way more than seems scientifically possible. Usually it’s some combination of crates of chickens and giant plastic bags of various  green vegetables that will remain un-named, since I am far from familiar with local produce.

via http://fiestafarms.ca/

This was a nice change of scenery and it got me thinking.

In English we call this melted and spun sugar: cotton candy. Sort of makes sense except few people use cotton balls since the advent of the cotton pad.  In Thai, it is called silk thread. That really makes sense – it is after all threads of sugar spun around like a silk cocoon. The French call it father’s beard. Really? That’s the best we could come up with? Blech. Maybe that’s why as a kid at the summer village fair, I always opted for the gaufre creme chantilly [waffle with fresh whipped cream] and gave daddy’s beard a miss.

So tell me please: what’s cotton candy in your language?

From My Thai Ashes, A Spanish Phoenix Rises.

Yes, I am prone to exaggerations. My Thai is hardly a mound of ashes, though it did come remarkably close to one in the last couple of months. With our future in Bangkok an uncertain one, and a host of other worries on our plates, I’ve been a very naughty language student.

Utterly unmotivated, I should have put my classes on hold and gifted them if we ended up leaving Bangkok. But hindsight is all too often useless. Instead, I attended here and there, wasting precious hours and retaining absolutely nothing, nor really maintaining what I had. Shame on me.

I’ll omit the self-berating monologue that has been on repeat play in my brain. It just isn’t productive. And when I can shut it up for a time, this has been an extremely valuable lesson in why one should heed Horace’s advice: Carpe Diem, imbedded into my generation’s brain by the inestimable Robin Williams.

You see dear reader, once I knew we were staying here and I had no more bahts to pay for classes when my package ran out, I realized how much I’d wasted. I’ve since really put some effort into getting my Thai back on track. What surprised me the most wasn’t just the renewed and strengthened desire to speak Thai; it was the realization of all the missed opportunities I’ve had over the last fifteen years to perfect my Spanish. (Read: speak in anything other than the present tense).

I worked for a Spanish-speaking employer for nearly five years along with his sister and his Spanish wife. Over the course of my employment there, I had two Spanish colleagues and most of our clientele was from Latin America and Spain. My mother and eldest brother are both fluent in Spanish. My godfather is from Argentina, and I’ve been together with my Mexican husband for nearly ten years. Seven of those were spent in NYC, often in predominantly Latin neighborhoods. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the US, as was widely evident in my double-period Spanish class where most of the students already spoke Spanish at home.

It bears repeating. My husband is Mexican. Seriously. I live with a fluent Spanish speaker. Say it with me slowly: S-H-A-M-E. Go on, you can do the forefinger rub. I deserve it.

I can give you a million and one reasons why I haven’t improved past advanced beginner, and some of them are actually as pretty good. But the truth is, I have no excuse.

When I picture myself in my dreams, as the person I’d like to be,  I am always able to navigate flawlessly through Spanish conversations. I’ve held off reading a host of wonderful Spanish writers in the knowledge that someday I will read them in their original form. I see my children, who are half-Mexican, telling their Abuelita about their week in Spanish on weekly calls. And I see myself calling her to catch up and tell her all about her grand-daughters lives and get sneaky ‘home-cooked’ mexican recipes to surprise my husband.

None of this will happen, if I don’t get off my ‘nachas’ and do this. I owe it to myself, I owe it to my extended family and, most of all, I owe it to my daughters.

All rights reserved by Tessek. Via Flickr

Am I smarter than a [Thai] fifth grader?

The short answer is no.

I’ve been studying the Thai alphabet for the last 4 weeks. Thai has a lot of letters.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:


  • There are 44 consonants
  • Only 42 are now in use. I still haven’t understood what happened to the other two, and given all the things I am trying to assimilate, I am just having to let go of this one.
  • The consonants are broken down into 3 groups: Middle Class, High Class and Low Class.
  • Some consonants have totally different sounds at the start and end of words—if you can figure out where they end since there is no spacing between words.


  • I think there are 32 of them.
  • The first point isn’t exactly true. There are 28 vowel forms (no don’t ask me what that actually means as I can’t tell you) and 4 tone marks.
  • I only know 24 at the moment, and of those, 12 are short and 12 are long.

The difference between short and long:

goal by Alan Rossiter via Flickr

Unlike English vowels,  short and long in Thai don’t refer to types of sounds but the actual length of time you say a vowel. An  example would be a British football sports commentator shouting:


vs. a Latin presenter shouting:


In English, irrespective of the length, the word has the same meaning. Not so with Thai.

And since I’ve decided to  harp on this topic, in my quest to figure out how many vowels Thai has, I came across a great response on a language chat board:

 I think you’re comparing apples and oranges. In English there are 5 vowel characters ( a e i o u and sometimes y) (“AAaa!! Some people say there are 5 vowel characters in English and others say 6 … etc.” :-) But anyway, there’s a lot more vowel sounds than just those 5 (or 6) because you can combine them to form words like “ceiling” which might as well be spelled “ceeling” or “sealing” or so don’t kid yourself kids.

NOT ONLY THAT, but the sound of the vowel very much depends on the consonants in the word too. Getting scared? You will be: a in “hat” is hardly the same as a in “later”. There are dozens and dozens more.

At least in Thai when you see a vowel (or vowel combination) YOU KNOW what it’s gonna sound like. :-) 28 vowels really means 28 sounds. No hidden charges, no small print.


Cheers Chanchao wherever you are. This is a brilliant point and it is one of the reasons learning to write Thai actually helps beginners master the pronunciation.

If you are scratching your head at this point, you will understand why I decided to take an extended break from my lessons when our future in Thailand was temporarily up in the air.

Now that we are definitely staying—Yay—I need to get back to the books, and sounding out basic letter combinations like a first-grader. The road ahead is long and steep but I’ve invested in some good orthopedics and crampons.

Seeds in Soil: What You Should Consider Before Choosing a Language.

Lately, the benefits of bilingualism seem to be cropping up everywhere from mainstream news to a host of new blogs and websites. For many of us from multi-cultural backgrounds, the choice to raise our kids with two or more languages usually comes from a desire to have them be able to communicate with family as well as developing a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage. The IQ, creativity, resume et al advantages are just icing on the cake. But for those parents who aren’t bilingual themselves but want to reap the benefits of bilingualism for their children, the key question is what language should they choose?

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my attempt to raise my girls trilingual, it’s the undeniable importance of hearing the language spoken around them and by that I am referring to actual people, not multi-media.

I was once told by a friend, who is renowned for his thorough research, that children learn much of their language from watching others speak together rather than the actual exchanges between parent and child. I’ve never taken the time to verify this academically but I will say that in practice, I’ve definitely found it to be true in our household.

We use the OPOL approach: I speak French to my daughters, my husband speaks Spanish to them and they hear English spoken between us. We were living in NYC for the first 2+ years of P’s life. When she was 15 months old, my husband became the sole carer for her. This lasted until we moved to Singapore about a year later. She heard Spanish from him day in and day out and yet when the time came to speak, English was her choice of language.

Of course there are a number of factors that affected this and for a long time I ascribed English’s dominance to these various reasons. Our move to Singapore where English is the official language of education and business only reinforced it. However, our recent move to Bangkok has led me re-consider the influences on her lingual development. For example: She now barely sees her father due to his grueling work schedule and for much of the last 18 months, he has spoken more English to her than Spanish. We had a couple over for one afternoon who spoke Spanish to my husband and a mix of French and Spanish to their son and by the time they left the house, P was attempting to answer her father in Spanish and much more willing to speak French to me.

Now living in Thailand, the girls hear Thai all the time. The Thais are notoriously behind their South East Asian counterparts when it comes to speaking English, which translates into more environmental Thai and a genuine effort on my part to learn and use conversational Thai. In addition, our wonderful Burmese Helper (Interesting to note that all the people I meet from Myanmar refer to themselves as Burmese) speaks fluent Thai and very little English. P, who up until recently didn’t really show much of an interest in her other languages other than necessity, has now suddenly become extremely aware of Thai and often says she would like to speak more Thai. She also has a renewed interest in Spanish helped by her super-Papa who has climbed back unto the OPOL wagon.

I know I should be overjoyed, and to a certain extent I am since, coupled with this new-found desire, she seems to be demonstrating a genuine interest in languages overall and how they can each be useful in their own way. But I can’t help but feel sad at times that we aren’t somewhere we can immerse her in Spanish more readily.

As we are settling into our life in Bangkok, we have started to try to find a Latin community in which to embed ourselves. This has proven to be quite a challenge. At the same time, I was sent a fun info-graphic on the state of bilingualism in the United States and it really drove home both the opportunity I missed in perfecting my own Spanish while I lived there, as well as giving up a rich Latin community for my girls.

In the same week I received the info-graphic, I was sent an article on 10 reasons why every child should learn to speak Spanish. Now I feel I should mention some caveats here since this is clearly a US-centered article and many of the reasons listed are general benefits of bilingualism vs. benefits specifically associated with Spanish. Also worth note is that Spanish is not the official language of the United Nations but one of six, the other five being Arabic, Chinese (presumably Mandarin), English, French and Russian. That said, the article, coupled with the info-graphic makes a strong case for choosing Spanish as your child’s second language in the US. More importantly, it is a reminder to look at the resources around you such as immersion programs and the cultural makeup of your community before making this kind of choice. Maybe Mandarin and Hindi are the languages of the future global economic super powers but if you don’t have ample support available, another tongue may be a better choice.

If you are going to plant the seed, you may as well try to have the best soil, light and water conditions available for growth! And now I must return to stalking innocent Spanish speakers on the streets of Bangkok.