Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

It's All Thai 2 Me 2

As Ron Burgundy would idiotically say, When in Rome... and there is nothing I would like more than to speak Thai. Yet it daunts and flummoxes me and I am not alone. Two of last session's volunteers are still in the area and though they completed a year here, neither has a remotely solid grasp of spoken Thai. We studied it daily during orientation with a wonderful Thai teacher, yet other than a few phrases of greeting and the basic English vocabulary I have taught my students (like days of the week and colors), I feel nowhere after two months. The two languages could not be further apart structurally, stylistically, or tonally. That conundrum cuts both ways of course. My students have just as much trouble trying to figure out what the hell is going on with English foibles and trying to shape their lips and jaws around our final consonants. Look for a moment at the Thai song lyrics I copied below. They are written in Thai script and phonetically transcribed underneath.
taa ok dayt dtong dtaeng naa mai
ter bok gaem chan man seet bpai
seua paa naa pom doo laew mai o oh
ja kuang ter dtong bplian hai mot chut saek
gor ok reu saai dieow

A Thai, of course, would not be able to read the transcription.There is no official single way to render the Thai sounds into our alphabet. In Thai it is not simply the phonetic sound of the word that matters, but the five possible tonal and length interpretations of that sound. So for instance, that last word of the first line is "mai". I would transcribe the Thai sentence for : New wood doesn't burn does it?  as: maai mai mai mai mai. Depending on the transliteration system there would be little marks to tell if the tone was high, low, mid, or rising, or falling. You will also notice in looking at the written Thai that there are no spaces between words, and no such things as either capitalization or any kind of punctuation marks. To train my students to put spaces between words, I have them measure with a pinkie, because otherwise they sometimes put in several inches. I know what my Rockland students are thinking: Hooray! no more comma splices! In some ways they are right, Thai is much simpler than English. Verbs remain the same no matter in what person you speak and there is no difference between the spelling of singular and plural nouns. So when I teach Thai students this, that, these, and those, suddenly the word they learned for crayon becomes crayons, yet the single glue  remains the plural glue.  This is a pencil,  but  This is tape.  Sometimes I don't even bother to tell them the exceptions because it will just be one more complex rule and if they say, This is a tape.  by god they will be understood. Having been on the other side of that, where it is all in the how of the saying, sometimes I just don't want to know, and other times we go back and forth, saying over and over what sounds to me like the same word, Mai? No, Mai! Mai? No, Mai! For instance the word for near is glai. The word for far is...glai. The word for beautiful is suaay and so is the word, ironically, for bad luck. There are so many ramifications to our linguistic differences they dawn daily anew on me.
        The manner in which we convey emotion is deeply rooted in how we drag out or shorten a word, or how we play with the rising or falling of it. Consider someone saying: Well my, my, my. One can imagine them positing irony, or sarcasm, or love. or a range of other emotions. But there is only one way to say Mai, Mai, Mai in Thai. Shift it and you risk saying something completely different. TO be sure, those five Mai's, in are written in Thai with readily apparent different sets of characters; aThai reader would have no challenge in seeing five different Mai's even though there is not a space between them.
        It is a talkative culture, and sometimes when I sit in my classroom and listen to all the voices flooding in from every direction (remember almost all buildings are concrete so sound really travels- and all windows are always open because of the heat), I feel like I am spinning in some kind of buzzing vortex of vowels. Maybe one way you can get a feel for it is by listening carefully to Ning recite a story of three people and an apple tree. The first time I heard it, minus the props (you gotta love the kid holding up the tree) I actually thought she was reciting multiplication tables it was so machine-like. Words carry a different load here. Ning is rehearsing for a competition and you get to hear a wonderfully funny short bit from Boom, the kindergarten teacher. From here you can see that how a Thai speaker can be very animated and emphatic.


I just found out the other day that Boom spent her junior year in Orlando Florida. Imagining this tiny spark plug in that sea of Florida Americanness, with its football players and cheerleaders and their vernacular, gives me a glimpse of how she must have felt- a stranger in a strange land indeed. Grok.

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