Moving to Thailand: Learning the Language

May 6, 2011 No Comments by afamilyinmotion
Learning to read and write Thai

Learning to read and write Thai

Thai For Beginners

We are moving to a foreign country where there are foreign customs, foreign foods and, of course, a foreign language. Practically speaking, to integrate into the culture and to engage in business and establish friendships, our family needs to learn the language of Thailand. I have always prided myself on the ability to pick up languages. I speak Spanish somewhat fluently (it’s amazing how much practice I got in the restaurant) and used to speak Portuguese almost fluently (it’s amazing how little practice I get).

As far as Latin based languages go, I’m pretty good. I can grasp the basic formulas, structures, and rhythms, and if I don’t know the word I’m looking for, I can usually make an educated guess. This goes for Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. I’m not saying I can actually speak all of these languages coherently, but again, I understand the formula for the roots of these languages, and feel like I have a good starting point to make sense of what people are saying.

Kicking And Screaming…In Thai

And then comes Thai. I have absolutely no knowledge to draw from with this language–it’s completely foreign to me. I’m at level zero with Thai, and I hate to start from zero. I also hate to have a disadvantage from my husband and my daughter. My husband, while he claims to not speak Thai well, is actually quite competent (his modesty is maddening sometimes!) He has begun teaching himself the Thai alphabet, no small feat in my opinion. Most people learning Thai tend to ignore the alphabet completely, preferring to learn the words phonetically. This results in cobbling together a nonexistent, unreliable transliteration of words that is completely useless if trying to actually read anything in Thai.

Thai | A Family In Motion

Means "Thai" In Thai

So learning the alphabet is a very sensible, practical and admirable thing to do. However, while incredibly beautiful to look at, the Thai letters don’t look like letters at all. They look like someone’s sadistic art project that got turned into an alphabet. There are curls and beaks, points and waves, letters that look like little hats, musical notes or chickens; consonants and vowels sit on top of and below each other; the words run constantly together with no breaks or spaces; the direction of the words changes depending on the mood of the writer, sometimes the text flowing from left to right, and on a whim changing from right to left. Okay, surely you say I’m exaggerating just a little, but I’m not–not at all! Can’t you see why learning Thai would be intimidating to me?

Thai Is Tonal

And I haven’t even mentioned the tonal aspect of the language. Because there are various tones in Thai, and because it is incredibly difficult for an adult with no prior experience in distinguishing between a high and low tone or a rising or falling tone, I inevitably end up saying “dog” instead of “mother” or “egg” instead of “who”. While my foibles usually evoke a titter from my daughter, they could also easily place someone in hot water if he/she accidentally calls his/her mother-in-law a dog.

Speaking of my daughter, I am convinced that, just like making friends, she will breeze through the art of mastering the Thai language. My husband mentioned previously that our daughter has been exposed to Thai from the day she was born. My mother-in-law is incredibly disciplined in speaking only Thai with her, and I am already amazed at my daughter’s comprehension of the language, which will only get better once in Thailand. I expect her to be translating fluently for me by week three. That doesn’t mean that I’ll make no effort to learn the language, relying solely on my husband and daughter to do the work for me. I may bitch and moan about it now, but I really do love a challenge. That’s part of the reason for moving to Thailand in the first place: to place ourselves outside of our comfort zone and learn something new. Also, I can’t be having my husband and daughter conspiring against me in a language I don’t understand.

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