A trusted native speaker is essential….
You may have noticed by now that learning Thai takes real effort and discipline. No two ways about it. Expect to put in long hours tweaking your pronunciation, expanding your vocabulary, solidifying your grasp on the grammar.
One of the best — and most necessary — language resources you have is a trusted native speaker. Someone who will put up with your questions. It could be a spouse, a friend, or that Thai language teacher you pay good money to.
Ideally, this person will be introspective and inquisitive about his or her own language. In practice, this means that you’ll get answers besides “that’s just how we say it” (though sometimes that’s a legitimate answer, too). And when they don’t know the answer, they’ll be interested in figuring it out for you.
That’s the ideal situation. But you’ve also got to be comfortable asking complete strangers, while being appropriately critical about the advice you receive.
Asking for help with the language is like asking for directions. Sometimes there’s one clear way to go. Just as often, there are varying opinions on the best route to take.
It’s happened to me many times in Thailand where a stranger has given me incorrect directions. Not just “I think it’s somewhere up there on the left” when it was actually on the right; I’m talking specific, detailed, wrong directions.
This kind of experience can be bewildering, even infuriating, but it helps if you put yourself in their cultural shoes. It’s not mean-spiritedness, or the natives having a laugh at your expense. Rather, in a face-driven culture, fulfilling the request is as important as being legitimately helpful. Very often Thais will smile and say what they think you want to hear, which means that it can be hard getting genuine criticism out of them.
Here’s a phrase to know:
ต้องพูดว่าอย่างไร /tawng phuut waa yang-ngai/ “How should I say it?”
Everyone has those experiences where they are able to make themselves understood, but only with much repetition and gesticulating. Some of us do it every day. (“I said ‘can you turn down the radio’, not ‘I’d like two baked potatoes’!”) For Thai learners, once you’ve made yourself understood, this is a perfect time to ask your unwitting victim how you should have said it in the first place.
On the flip side of this language coin, you’ll also find that as a second language learner, Thais hold you to a higher standard than they hold themselves. I don’t think there’s anything peculiar about this; it’s probably true for most languages. For example, in my native accent, I tend to pronounce the word “sandwich” as “samwich” — but I don’t think they should teach Thai schoolchildren to say it that way.
Expect to be corrected for things that native speakers would get away with. For example, the Thai word อย่างไร /yaang-rai/ is regularly reduced to ยังไง /yang-ngai/, and even just ไง /ngai/. So the (very informal) phrase เป็นไงมั่ง /pen ngai mang/ “How are you?” is short for เป็นอย่างไรบ้าง /pen yaang-rai baang/.
This won’t stop the schoolmarm types from insisting you speak like Thailand’s answer to Walter Cronkite, though. In these situations, accept the criticism politely. The real lesson to be learned here is in knowing around whom you can let the rules slide, and around whom you should speak more like a textbook.
To give another example, some time or another you’ll meet some well-meaning person who tells you that you don’t use the polite particles ครับ /khrap/ or คะ /kha/ enough. And then a couple days later, after you’ve been careful to use the polite particles every other word or so, someone else will tell you that you’re overusing them.
So who is right? Well, both are. Thai society is highly stratified, so you need to be a bit of a linguistic chameleon. Age, education, social standing, and profession are all factors you’ve got to consider when choosing which parts of the language you should and shouldn’t use with someone.
This is where your trusted native speaker becomes essential. Ask them for the dirt on what works best for which situation, so you don’t end up talking to a five-year-old like he’s an abbot, or an aristocrat like she’s a peasant.
It takes a long time to learn all the ways in which “polite Thai,” “street Thai” and other varieties differ, but there are lots of resources at your disposal. The new series “Thai Language Thai Culture” by Hugh Leong, for one, is not to be missed. Especially this installment, which delves into the different levels of the language in good detail.
I said it wasn’t easy. Now get to work, and โชคดี!