The Thais have a word for it ...

Tackling the Thai language is a must, if one is to make any headway at all in terms of integration within Thai society and genuine acceptance by its people. Even if a fair number of Thais are themselves willing and varyingly able to express themselves in English, an effort really has to be made. There are obvious benefits to be gained from blending in, at least a little. Achieving an ability to hold a conversation beyond a thirty second threshold, before running out of things to say, can be useful too. Wouldn't it be great to be able to chat about rather more complex and profound issues other than along the lines of, say, "a pineapple juice with ice please. How are you today? I'm fine, thanks"... or similar? (stretching to alternative flavours of fruit juice mainly).

It is definitely an advantage - and sometimes, fun - to know what people are discussing behind your back, having wrongly assumed that you are a monoglot Anglophone. I am nowhere even remotely close to that stage yet here in Thailand, but I do remember some very amusing moments as an expat in France where - after two decades in the country - I could listen in on any conversation with ease. With the entente not always so cordiale between the English and French, it proved pretty interesting at times!

Failure to speak adequate Thai means, obviously, that you spend a considerable amount of time speaking in English to Thais. No major problem results in terms of written English, as there is usually plenty of time to double-check for typos and pidgin English lapses, before irrevocably consigning your thoughts to posterity. However, for those of us who rarely see or converse with another farang, this can have unforeseen and unwitting consequences in conversation, and not just with Thais - even on the rare occasion you bump into a compatriot. Dispensing with articles and pronouns (who needs 'em) can become habitual. Tenses? Waste of time! "What time go supermarket?" - "Where put wallet?" - "Cost how much ticket?" - "Food not like" - etc ... However, given that my lengthy time in France had already led to the unintentional introduction of linguistic oddities into my spoken English such as "What day are we?" or "What time have you got?" "Want to go out for a glass?" (all direct translations of the French), the resultant mangled mix of Frenchisms and Thai-isms would - should I ever take another trip to England - inevitably result in my being taken for an alien of unknown origin. My last short visit to the UK was way back in 2000. On that occasion before I even opened my mouth, the shop assistant had me down as a foreigner, given the unnecessary amount of time I spent warily examining the £2 coin from all angles before accepting my change. Today, in no time at all fellow Brits would be considerately enunciating every syllable, and raising their voices to ensure I understand.

But possibly the most important reason for making a real effort to learn Thai was made crystal clear to me earlier today. Most expats are aware that a failure to get to grips with the tonal aspects of the language can lead to misunderstandings; in my case I was well overdue for a first major clanger. This morning saw a small group of us - one farang, three Thais girls - breakfasting in a coffee shop. For once I had actually cottoned on to the subject of the conversation. It concerned the tremendous rainfall and resultant flooding of the past week or so in the north and north-east of the country. Anxious to impress, I chipped in with my knowledge of yesterday's torrential run-offs from Thailand's highest peak, Doi Inthanon, and how this was currently affecting areas around Chiang Mai. I turned to one girl who I knew lived in Samoeng, and which was prone to flooding. "You water much Doi Samoeng", I proudly announced in approximate Thai. There was a stunned silence, followed by big smiles. Once they had worked out what I was attempting to say, my partner explained that Sa '-moeng' is not pronounced like Sa-'moyi', and telling a girl that 'her jungle of pubic hair is sopping wet' is not the done thing in polite company, and should her boyfriend/husband happen to be nearby, he might not be quite so understanding.

I subsided into embarrassed silence, while the girls giggled their way through the remainder of their breakfasts.

The Thais have a word for it: KWAI !

Kwai ("stupid")

1 comment:

JJ said...

Ooops. Still, as you say, at least you speak enough to get into trouble! Mine is fairly atrocious, though I try. Husband's is coming on. He's continues to learn.