Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Learning to Speak Thai

After feeling more settled in my new country/city/culture I have enrolled in a year-long Thai language course (yikes!).  This instruction is from the Language Institute at Chiang Mai University, only a 10 minute moto ride from home.  It is the same location on the university campus as the pool where I enjoy membership.

Learning Thai is a huge challenge for me realizing that information input into the older brain does not stick as well as it used to.  When study time used to be a cursory once-over, now even with repeated forays into the books, these strange symbols meet my eyes with little or no recognition.  It boils down to learning a "code" because Thai letters are completely foreign.  Also there is a disconnect between being able to recognize a letter and being able to reproduce it in written form.

Consider these differences from English:

1.  There are no plural forms for adjectives and nouns.
2.  There are no verb conjugations in Thai.  Tenses are understood from context or references of time.
3.  There are no articles (a, an, the) which strikes the westerner as "pigeon speak".
4.  There is no verb "to be".  "she is beautiful" comes out "she beautiful", which also sounds pigeon.
5.  The subject of a sentence is often not included, but understood from context.
6.  (The Big One)  Thai is a tonal language.  Even if you pronounce a word correctly, if the tone is not right it is a different word altogether.  There are 5 separate tones that are very difficult for the western ear to distinguish.

Example:   The word "mai" can mean any of the following depending on tone.  1. "new"  2. "no, not"  3. ", right?"  4. "mile"  5. "silk"       Chiang Mai literally means City New (adjective follows the noun)

If you get the tone wrong, you could be saying: "not the city", "Chiang, right?" (which could be referring to Chang beer), "Mile City", or "Silk City".

Westerners often believe that if they get the word correct (ignoring the tone)
 that Thais will figure out what they are talking about, but with this example you can see why they can't.

These are vowels with qualifying marks to make them a "short sound" or a "long sound".  Each one is just one letter!  There are 19 vowels, some with both short and long sounds, and 20 consonants.  The sound markings are even more complicated to learn than the letters themselves.

The good news is that people do learn Thai.  The only question is if I can!

Looking at this post almost a month after posting, I should be able to read this page, but can't.  Reason: the photo is upside down!

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