Steve and Jemjahn go to Thailand, 2003
Unlike Gordon, who speaks fluent Thai, probably reads it, too, I can do little more than ask directions. Mee hohng nam mai? may not be exquisite Thai, but it gets me to a bathroom.
When I married Jem over 30 years ago, my knowledge of Thai wasn’t bad. Which was good, as her knowledge of English was zero.
The first purchase I made after getting off the bus from the airport was a book to learn the language. I wanted to improve my interaction with the Thai people. Especially the more attractive half. Who’d have guessed all those millions would later be reduced to only one. (Ah, but what a one.)
The Thai language is very hard for a westerner to learn, or maybe just a westerner without a musical ear, like me. That’s important in Thai as, and I quote from the very first sentence of The Fundamentals of the Thai Language, 5th Edition: “The Thai language is a ‘Tonal Language’ which means that a word may have two or more distinct and quite unrelated meanings depending on the tone in which it is pronounced.”
Give me a break.
Then there’s the alphabet. I’d known it once, 30 years ago. Then I stopped speaking Thai when I realized my Thai was improving while Jem’s English wasn’t.
The alphabet can be a hurdle for the foreigner. It’s not the familiar alphabet used in English, Spanish, French, etc. Many of the letters look the same to a new learner. They don’t have the precise geometry of Roman letters, but flow with curves that make it hard to distinguish between letters.
And there are so many of them. In the book noted above, the inside cover has a list of consonants (40), vowels (15) and combined consonants and vowels (8 more).
To add to the challenge, some of symbols are silent.
But worst of all:
Here's what a Thai newspaper looks like: http://www.bangkokbiznews.com/
It’s unfortunate the Thai people never had a King Sejong. In 1446, this Korean ruler recognized the limitations of the Chinese ideographic characters and directed his scholars to develop an alphabet. They did, an alphabet of just 25 letters, not based on any existing one. I wonder if the marvelous talents of the Korean people don’t owe something to their simple alphabet, allowing the harnessing of brainpower to more than learning how to read.
Where was I? Oh, right, my Thai wasn’t very good.
For a few months before the trip I’d put a few hours a week into refreshing my vocabulary, hoping that no matter how badly I’d mangle the tones, the context would get the meaning across. More or less it worked, but if I could do the trip over, I’d have hit the books an hour a night six months out. It couldn’t have helped me enjoy the trip more – that goal was met – but I believe I’d have raised the respect level for Americans among the Thais I met and spoke with.
Or maybe not. Maybe there are enough Gordons running around Thailand already, and there’s little I could have done to raise or diminish our reputation, such as it is.
next: Flight Back Home