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Learning Thai And Talking The Talk

If they call French the language of love they should call Thai the language of simplicity. Not because it’s easy to learn, because, believe me, it isn’t, but because they don’t waste words or include a litany of bothersome little connecting bits or complicated tenses. The downside is, not wasting words also means the same word can mean several different things. To differentiate, they’ve added five different tones that, applied correctly, make the same word mean five totally different things. For example, the word Khao, with different inflections, means, him/her/his/hers, knee, ‘to enter’, or mountain. Not to be confused with Khaao, with a drawn out ‘aaaaa’, which means rice, news or white.

As you may have guessed, after two years in Thailand, I’ve finally started taking Thai lessons. My husband began practically the day we arrived and his Thai is coming along so well that I thought I’d better catch up.He’s had the same teacher almost from the start so I’ve decided to become her student as well. She spends the morning with him three days a week and the afternoon, twice a week, with me, at least until I catch up (if I ever do). I have a friend who has decided to join me since group lessons are so much more fun. Kuhn Yu Yu, my teacher, will even come to my home so there really are no excuses! Rain or shine, she pulls up on her motorbike, all smiles ready to Talk Thai (her tagline is Speak Thai 2 Me).

I’ve only been at it for about a month, one week of which I took off to do the ever popular Thailand de-tox (but we’ll save that for another time), but I’ve already seen the difference it can make to speak to the locals in their language… or attempt to anyways. You may have heard that the Thai’s have many different smiles, and the smile that takes over their face when you show you’re trying to learn the language, is broad, bright and genuine. Most will laugh their heads off but stop to help you ‘fine tune’ your tone or pick a better word, once they decipher what it is you’re trying to get across.

It makes for some humorous gaffs though. The word Maa, depending on your tone, can mean ‘to come’, horse or dog. Certainly not to be confused with Maw, which, with a rising tone, means doctor. My teacher almost fell off her chair laughing one day as I tried to explain that I had to go to my tooth doctor because my tooth was unhappy (I couldn’t think of the word for hurt but unhappy works for so many things in Thai). She laughed so hard the tears were rolling down her face and finally asked me how I thought my dog could do anything about it. I folded my arms in mock indignation and said I didn’t have a dog! Which is something like, ‘mee mai maa’ … and that sent me into fits of giggles. It’s amazing we get any work done.

Like learning any new language, it’ll take time, patience and practice but it’s one of the elements all the experts suggest helps ease the assimilation into a new culture. If you approach it like a puzzle, the pieces start to fall into place as you start to pick out words in conversations between locals, that is if they’re speaking slowly enough. Since Thailand is such a big country, there are regions where people seem to speak a little more slowly and clearly and others where slang has taken over and you rarely catch more than a fleeting impression of a word you might recognize. One of the wonderful things about Yu Yu is that she always takes a little time out of our two-hour sessions to talk about Thai culture and what makes it special and often compares the typical Thai from Grung Thep (Bangkok) and those from the rice fields of Ee Saan (the Northeast).

So, after three weeks I can introduce myself; tell someone what I do (Chan bpen nak- khian – I am a writer) and that I work at home (thee baan); order a meal in almost a full sentence rather than just the name of the food; tell them what I like and dislike (with limited vocabulary); and ask a couple of simple questions as long as it is a ‘what’ question or one that only requires a yes or no answer.

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Pretty good for a start I’d say.

by Anne O’Connell.

A published author and freelance writer, Anne O’Connell, has been an expat since 1993 when she and her husband escaped the cold of Toronto, Canada and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They enjoyed the sun and sand for 14 years, while she worked in the PR field, and then decided it was time for a new adventure. Heading for even more sun and sand, they moved to Dubai in late 2007 and then on to Thailand in 2011.

Anne has been working as a freelance copywriter and communications consultant since 2007, specializing in marketing, corporate communications, public relations, social media and website content. She and her husband have a passion for travel and that adventurous spirit has taken them all over the world. Anne grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and has a bachelor of public relations from Mount St. Vincent University. You can visit her website at www.anne-oconnell.com or her blog at www.anne-writingjustbecause.blogspot.com.

Read Anne's other Expat Focus articles here or click the button below to view her own blog…

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