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Approach Learning Thai by First Understanding its Diversity

Approach Learning Thai by Understanding its Diversity

Understand the diversity in the Thai language…

I’ve always been a big believer that there is hardly ever a “best way” to do anything. Simply put, humanity has never progressed by following strict rules or being dogmatic in approaches to learning. When we limit our experiences by claiming that one method stands out above others, we deny our inherent nature to be experimental.

More and more people choose to submit to a more orthodox and nearly dogmatic view on how things should be done. I often see this in the Thai language learning community. Both learners and native speakers of Thai often will say that there is a “best way” to convey a certain feeling or pronounce a word as if the multitude of human emotions that we experience individually can be shoved into a static microcosm of ideas that can be used generally to express ourselves. We get caught up in the concept that language usage is right or wrong instead of being a tool to communicate. We create what I consider to be useless standards on our level of language acquisition. I call it useless because every standard presented can not always be met by a native speaker.

Foreigners constantly talk about having a Thai accent as if all Thais speak the same way. They talk about correct pronunciation as if there is only one way to say something and like all Thais speak formally all day. We set the standard of Thai language to emulate a government propagated language. Thailand is very much a multilingual society regardless of what Phibun tried to accomplish with the cultural mandates in the 1930s stating all Thais must only speak Thai. When you say “I speak Thai”, do you know what Thai you are speaking? Are you speaking the Thai that is taught in school? Are you speaking one of the regional dialects? Do you speak a combination?

I find these standards to be pointless because they are trying to make a static average out of something that is inherently fluid. Words like “fluency” and “level of competence” have absolutely no meaning to me. Language tests might give a person a boost to their ego or be good to put on a job resume, but at the end of the day language is a tool to be used. You might speak a language, but have you lived in the culture and integrated? Have you used your skills to create relationships and become invested in a community? Does it help you in your work life?

A few months ago I was visiting my wife’s family in a village outside of Chiang Rai. It was a normal evening in Northern Thailand. My mother-in-law had cooked a feast, my wife’s uncle brought over a bottle of lao-kao that a friend had brewed, and we sat around the table with my in-laws and aunts and uncles. While eating and drinking multiple languages were being spoken. My father-in-law and his brother and sister spoke Yong and the rest of the family answered in Northern Thai. Once in a while, they would switch to Central Thai to address me. At one point, my wife told my mother-in-law to speak to me in the Chiang Mai dialect instead of the Chiang Rai dialect because it’s easier for me to understand. We were all speaking different languages and dialects and understanding each other (though I did have to constantly ask my wife’s uncle to translate what he said in Yong). They broke every “grammar rule” that people are taught not to say and their pronunciation differed from person to person. The usage of language was the least important aspect of the night. The real meaning came as a result of our communication. My wife’s aunt and uncle recalled vivid stories from their youth where they encountered spirits and saw a person possessed by a spirit. They reminisced on how they used to have to travel almost 24 hours by taking a bus to Lampang and hopping on a train to Chiang Mai when today the whole trip takes 3 hours. We all connected with each other and shared our stories.

If there is so much diversity in one family’s conversation, how is it possible to try to create a standard for a whole country of people? When a Thai friend from Bangkok visited my wife’s village with us last year, everybody was making fun of him for his funny Bangkok accent and for not being able to understand Northern Thai well. We create our standards based on our own personal standing. I personally find the concept of “not knowing everything” to be exciting and invigorating. I have never had a goal to become “fluent”. My goal for speaking Thai has been to connect and interact with people. I want to experience a different way of life and learn their stories. Instead of trying to create a standard of competency that has to do with useless hurdles, why not judge your language skills on what it helps you accomplish? How has your studies of Thai language enhanced your life? What relationships have you built as a result? Anybody can learn a language, it’s what you do with your knowledge that counts.

Next time somebody tells you there is a best way to say something, take it as “this is my favorite way to say something” and move on. Do what works for you and keep on interacting with more people. The beauty of the Thai language and culture is in its diversity.

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Alex Martin

Alex has lived in Thailand since 2005. A folklore and food enthusiast, you can generally find him in a Northern Thai village listening to stories and eating everything.

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4 Comments

  1. I think that is a very good attitude. The first goal of language learning should be to able to interact. It’s often more useful to go wider than deeper. I mean, it’s more useful to get used to different pronunciations and dialects than it is to be an expert in perfect pronunciation and use of Bangkok Thai. Being exposed to very few dialects my understanding of people of different provinces is not that good, which sometimes makes it difficult to communicate with certain people. This is something I would like to improve.

  2. “…useless standards on our level of language acquisition.”
    Those “standard” might be useless to you but can be usefull to others.
    Actually the “standards” are used in the worlds of education and employment to set education goals and to let employors more and less how far a learner is with his skills.
    The European Language Reference Framework, recently adopted in Thailand, rates separatelty 5 skills: reading and writing, listening, oral production and communication.
    For you communication is the most important, as it is for me too.
    But in some cases other skills might be more important: a translator can do without oral production for instance…
    In order to be exhaustive, the problem is that, often, the student’s rating for the 5 above mentionned skills is condensed in a single rating, lets say “B1” that is not at all accurate as a learner might have a level A2 in some skills and C1 in some other skills but could be rated as B1 as a result of a middle way…

  3. “The beauty of the Thai language and culture is in its diversity.” – That is actually true for all languages… no language is monolithic and conforms to one single standard all the time! The fact that it is an issue at all to acknowledge that in the case of Thai is due to linguistic nationalism which tries to elevate one particular variety above other varieties. It’s part of a broader nationalist agenda which has little tolerance for diversity. It’s also not unique to Thailand – France and China come to mind who push a similar nationalist agenda when it comes to linguistic diversity. Where you and I see beauty, others see a threat.

  4. I think you’d probably be hard pushed to find a country which didn’t have a dominant variety of the national language. Britain, for example, lacks the formal mechanisms which other countries have but MRP/SSBE is still overwhelmingly the marker of power and class and it’s pretty much exclusively the variety which learners encounter, at least until they get to a very advanced level, though I don’t think the latter is of any great consequence. The situation in Thailand isn’t quite parallel to this but I think most learners of Thai, wherever they live, would perhaps be best off starting out with Standard Thai before branching out into other varieties.

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