How My Tones Are Interfering with Thai Tones.

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:

“That’s hot.”

vs. Paris Hilton complimenting her current sidekick in a new sexy dress:

“That’s hot.”

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.

At a Loss for Words: My Foreign Language Meltdown

I am probably spoiled, being brought up bilingual and exposed to many languages and cultures. Perhaps I just haven’t been adventurous enough in my travels, but I don’t ever recall finding myself in a situation where I could neither derive any inkling of meaning from the exchange nor express in any terms or gesticulations what I needed to say—that is until now.

A few days after arriving at our new home in Bangkok, I set off for the hospital with a hefty fever, bronchitis and my two kids in tow since one of them was also sick. We had an easy and quick taxi ride there, despite the dreaded traffic, and shelled out just over 50 Baht (US $1.65).

An hour or so later, wowed by the incredible efficiency of our visit and the modernity of the hospital, and carrying two stylish bags of meds for my eldest and myself, we took a taxi back home. I check if the driver knows the main artery we live right beside, since I am utterly incapable of giving detailed directions. Geez I can’t even introduce myself yet.  The driver vigorously shakes her head, yes, she knows, and off we go. I am not too worried as I have the address written both in roman and Thai characters as a backup.

Fast forward twenty minutes with no recognizable landmarks, and she makes the first call for directions…

This post was written for In Culture Parent. To continue reading please click here!

Old Dog, New Tricks? My Journey Learning a Tonal Language Just Shy of 40.

It’s official. Our family unit is relocating to Bangkok. The idea may have been floated around for quite some time, but the journey from ephemeral scenario, to signed contract and booked shippers took no more than a fortnight.

There is much that can and will be written about this new adventure but right now I am trying to get my head around the idea of learning Thai. Having spent about 17 months in Asia for Starters -read Singapore- where everyone speaks English or some form of it, it is easy to forget that once upon a time, living in another country meant learning a language or having your country colonize it so you could speak yours. (The latter a clear favorite with us Europeans). Thanks to that fact, when traveling around South East Asia, it is generally easy enough to get by with English or French. So why is Thailand different?

Don’t let this land of a thousand smiles fool you, the Thai people are FIERCE. Thailand is the only South East Asian country that was not colonized; that should tell you something. Don’t imagine that everyone you meet will speak some English. They won’t. And for the time being, even those who do are utterly incomprehensible to me and most people I know who have traveled there. And I have a very good ear for languages and deciphering what people are trying to say.

Even if it may be possible to survive by always printing the address in Thai for a cab driver or pointing to what I want to eat to get by, that’s really not the experience I want. I may be moving into an expat enclave for starters, but I don’t want my life there to be entirely sheltered from the real life taking place in the streets around me.

My father, who once owned a travel agency, told an American couple who wanted him to book them a trip through Europe staying only at American hotels that served American food that they might as well save their money and stay at home or find another agent. I couldn’t agree more. Our choice to live in Asia was never about pretending I am at home with better weather and cheaper help.

What I know about the Thai language so far:

  • It is tonal with low tones, high tones, mid-range, rising and falling.
  • There are no conjugations. (HOURAH)
  • There is no standard romanization. Actually this isn’t entirely true. A standard guide was created primarily for Academia but no one uses it at all. What does this mean? You really need to learn how to read Thai.
  • They do not put spaces in between words. This is something I am really going to have to get my head around.

So here goes my little experiment to see whether you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks!

ps. I am back from my online hiatus!