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Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk: Part 2

Thais Learning Thai Kaewmala from Thai Talk

Thais Learning Thai…

This is part 2 of 2 absolutely fabulous posts. If you landed here first, you might want to head over to Part 1: Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk.

Part 2: Kaewmala from Thai Talk…

As a native Thai speaker learning Thai, how do you go about it?

Probably in a similar way some native English speakers learn more about English and English-speaking culture, I guess. Since I already speak, read and write Thai at a reasonably high level and not being a linguist, I am not terribly interested in basic Thai grammar (though it doesn’t mean I know much about it). I am more interested in what’s behind the words and meanings. Like cracking the codes of the Thai psyche in Thai language. Deconstructing Thai culture through language, if you will. Remember I want to know my “Thai cousin” better. I look for clues about my Thai cousin’s thoughts and feelings in her language. That’s why I have been digging into Thai idioms. You can get glimpses of a culture’s psyche inside its words and expressions. Look deep and long enough you might find its heart somewhere.

I also read more Thai-language books – on language, culture, history, politics, sociology – to learn more about how good writers use Thai – and their thoughts, of course. Here are a couple of such books in my library.

Thais Learning Thai Books

From left to right: “Thai Idioms” by Ministry of Education; “Thai Language: Finding the Answers”
by Ministry of Education; “Language and Literature in Siam” by Suchit Wongthes, Arts & Culture.

Thais Learning Thai Books

From left to right: “Prince Damrong: Constructing Identity of ‘Muang Thai’ and ‘Class’ of the Siamese”, by Saichol Sattayanurak, Arts & Culture; “The Face of Thai Feudalism” by Jitr Phoomisak” (1 of 100 must read Thai books); “‘Thai Nation’ in Perspectives of Progressive Intellectuals” by Sopha Chanamool, Arts & Culture.

Thais Learning Thai Books

From left to right: “Thai Women from the Past” by Thepchu Thapthong, “Sex in History”
by Ekarong Bhanupongse, “Issues [by a] Golden Flower” by Kham Phaka (pseudonym).

Then I write what I’ve learned. I wrote my first book that came out of my learning Thai through words. A couple of years ago I started collecting Thai words having anything to do with sex, love, Thais Learning Thai Booksromance, in order to understand Thai sexuality. So the product was “Sex Talk: In Search of Love and Romance.” I probably started of writing that book for myself but I am glad that it ended up being something I can also share with others.

For me language and culture are symbiotic. You can’t learn one without knowing the other. I’ve learned from my learning English that the more I read in English, non-fiction and novels, the more I understand both the English language and the English-speaking way of thinking. And my English usage improves with more advanced reading – it still has quite a distance to go, but I enjoy the journey and the expectations that I can always get better at it. I apply this to my learning Thai. I read and ponder and write. My blog is another place where I share my thoughts and the products of my learning, my analysis of idioms, etc.

Who is the main target audience for your blog Thai Woman Talks?

Anyone interested in Thai language, culture, politics, sexuality, or cross-cultural relationship involving a Thai partner, or in hearing what a Thai woman has to say on these issues. Notice I use the singular term, “woman talks”, because it’s just one woman. I don’t claim to be a representative of Thai women, though I believe my views on these issues are shared by at least some of other Thai women.

You read mostly Thai sources, but you write and share your learning in English. Why?

It’s a little odd, isn’t it? Well, here’s the thing. Since I graduated from university at the age of 20 I have never had to use Thai language seriously again. All my studies and work have been done in English ever since to the point where writing in Thai doesn’t come naturally to me anymore. It takes me at least twice as long to construct sentences in Thai than in English. So, I try to rectify that, but writing in English for me is still much faster and more natural (in other words, I’m still lazy). Besides, I imagine explaining Thai using English probably gives a different perspective from using Thai.

Where/who do you go to for inspiration?

For the blog I pick it up here and there: interesting current events, a book or article I just read, words stumbled upon, etc. I often have a rendezvous with inspirations in the bathroom. My husband is also supportive in what I do.

There are many books on Thailand written for the western market. Which ones do you trust, and why?

Such books I have read tend to be scholarly. For what it’s worth, my most favorite among good academic writers is Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison who wrote Siam Mapped, one of the best history books on Thailand. Political and social analyses by Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit are usually accessible and insightful. They are the authors of Jungle Book and many books on Thaksin. For books aimed at popular audience, I prefer those by professional authors familiar with Thai language and culture. Christopher G. Moore, author of Heart Talk and the culturally intelligent Vincent Calvino detective series, is on the top of my list in this category. I find books written by many amateur foreign authors not extremely discerning. Not that I have anything against working girls or their besotted farangs, but stories based love affairs gone wrong with Thai bargirls lose their novelty rather quickly. Hopefully Thailand-based novels will diversify over time.

What advice on Thai culture would you give to new arrivals to the country?

Thai culture is unique – like all other cultures. ;) Needless to say, there’s much more to Thai culture than in the TAT ads or what’s said on the Internet. Like anywhere else, there are good and bad people, and both pretty and ugly sides of the culture. Newly arriving foreigners often get exaggerated treatments, i.e., extremely well or extremely poorly – so, please don’t take your experience in the first days, weeks or months as the indication of what life is really like in Thailand. Be open-minded but don’t be a pushover. Be curious. Be cautious but not too suspicious.

What advice would you give to those learning the Thai language?

I’m not a language expert and don’t have experience learning Thai as a foreign language. I suspect the way I learned Thai in school wasn’t the most practical. Many successful foreign learners have given much better tips than I ever could on your site already. My experience in learning English may be more helpful. (See answer to the last question.)

Is a book on Thailand and the Thai culture in the planning stages?

Yes. I’m always scheming to write something or other but whether or not I’ll accomplish it is quite another thing. (Laugh) I have planned to write the second book on sexuality in the Thai “Sex Talk” series. This one will really deserve at least an R rating. But it seems I might get sidetracked and write another book on Thai idioms instead. We’ll see. I expect to take fewer work projects next year and have more time for writing books, but consultancy work usually finds its way to me somehow.

You learned English in school. What language learning methods worked well for you?

I was lucky to have had very good English teachers since grade 7 who gave me a strong foundation in grammar, reading and writing. I didn’t really set out with any particular strategies to learn English. I just did what I wanted to do. There were a few things I did that in retrospect probably helped. I was not too shy to speak or too lazy to open a dictionary while reading, and when writing a thesaurus was always nearby. I read English-language papers and magazines and, when I could, novels for pleasure.

Early on I felt that it was important to have correct pronunciation, so I listened to English-language radio programs and tapes, and developed an annoying habit of reading and singing out loud. Whitney Houston was my friend – but the enemy of people around me. Greatest Love of All was probably Greatest Pain in the Ear for my poor friends and neighbors. And watching copious amounts of TV in the States likely did a lot to improve my colloquial English.

Why do you use a pseudonym?

I also write in my professional work. There are many publications with my real name on them and I simply don’t want to mix the two, especially given my sometimes strong social and political views.

Thanks for the interview, Cat. ☺

And thank you for taking the time, Kaewmala :-)

Sex Talk, Thai Woman Talks, Thai Talk, Thai Idioms and Lanna talk…

Kaewmala (pseudonym) is the author of Sex Talk: In Search of Love and Romance (Bangkok: HLP, 2009).

Blog: Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics & Love

Twitter: @Thai_Talk (on Thai language, culture & politics);
@thai_idioms (Thai idiom a day);
@lanna_talk (Northern Thai vocabulary)

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Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk: Part 1

Thais Learning Thai Kaewmala from Thai Talk

Thais Learning Thai…

When I took Stu Jay Raj’s Cracking Thai Fundamentals workshop, also attending were a whole lot of guys and one Thai gal. The Thai lass was born in Thailand, adopted away by Australians, and then raised without knowledge of her birth language. She came into Stu’s class at full western volume, and exited with a Thai whisper.

In A Thai Learning Thai, Lani Cox explains how she grew up in America half Thai half Chinese, but with no knowledge of the Thai language. After trying out Thailand, and then bouncing away to South America for a short stint, she’s now back for more (and you’ll be able to see just how much in a coming post).

Which now brings us to Kaewmala from Thai Woman Talks. As a native Thai-speaker from Northern Thailand, Kaewmala provides us with another twist to an emerging trend.

Part 1: Kaewmala from Thai Talk…

Kaewmala, please tell us a little about your background.

I came from a remote village closer to Burma than Bangkok. Never had a TV for the first 12 years of my life. No need to pity me. I made up for lost time later. Plus I had radio and books to keep me entertained, and dirt and an assortment of interesting domesticated animals. I might have had a higher IQ had my parents not given in to my begging for a TV when I was twelve. But I managed to get into a selective high school and later university in Chiang Mai.

After university I worked with Lao, Hmong, Khmer and Vietnamese refugees helping them prepare for resettlement in the US – as much as a 20-year-old “teacher” who had never been to America could. I pretended to know how things worked in America for two years (for the benefit of my students) before I got a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the US where I discovered TV for real. ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s shows I’ve seen them all (thanks to reruns). … So I watched a lot of American TV in all my 10 years there and became an Internet addict also in the last five years. It’s a wonder I managed to get three graduate degrees and work for some years without getting fired. After I got my doctorate I came back to Thailand – several years ago.

I am a consultant. (Somehow that sounds like a declaration in an AA meeting.) I know consultants are only marginally less evil than lawyers so I must declare my work is not evil at all. I get to help the poor and vulnerable like child laborers, human trafficking victims, poor migrants and jobless people.

Do you find straddling the different cultures in your life difficult?

In my household I speak English with my husband (unfortunately for his Thai learning), Kham Muang or Northern Thai language with my mother, central Thai with my Burmese housekeeper (who speaks 4 languages fluently and some English).

No, straddling different cultures hasn’t been all that difficult. In some ways I think it’s been natural to me. I grew up eating sticky rice and speaking Kham Muang at home and learned standard Thai in school. I’ve had a lot of exposure to people from various cultures. In my childhood the next door neighbors was a Lue family (they spoke different language) and I played with the kids. While studying I was also in cultural exchange programs with Asian and Western youth. My first job was with Southeast Asian refugees. Ten years in the States. Many years of working internationally. I tend to see more positives than negatives when it comes to cultural diversity. Being around people from different cultures makes life more interesting.

Looking at my own cultural-linguistic identities, Northern Thai language is my childhood love. English is the love of my adulthood, indispensable in my intellectual and professional life. Thai language is like a big cousin whom I went to boarding school with, found intriguing, but never really got to know intimately.

What sparked you to venture further into Thai language and culture?

I want to know my Thai cousin better.

You said Thai language is like your “big cousin”. Do you not consider Thai language and culture your own?

No and yes. It’s not cut and dry. Those who grew up in a minority culture would understand. I used to have spirited discussion on this with Thais from the central region, some of whom insisted that Kham Muang and Thai language were the same, and were offended when I said I wasn’t “Khon Thai” but “Khon Muang” – in the Kham Muang sense. Of course, I consider myself Thai. I am a Thai national, a native Thai speaker, i.e. “Khon Thai” – in the central Thai sense. But Northern Thai (Lanna) is my first culture, Kham Muang is my mother tongue, and these are not the same as central Thai culture and language. (Kham Muang is from the same Tai language family but has a different alphabet which looks more like Mon and Burmese alphabets. Thai and Kham Muang vocabularies overlap, but much is distinct from each other. Kham Muang also has more varied tones.) In Kham Muang “Khon Thai” means people who speak central Thai language or come from the central Thai region.

I guess Isan or Thai-Malay-Muslim people may have had similar experience. Because of the way Thai history has been taught and Thai national identity and cultural identity have been tightly packed together, many Thais believe the two are one and the same. Only in the past decade or so more Northern Thais and Isan people became more appreciative of their own culture. Many of my Northern Thai friends write Kham Muang on Facebook using standard Thai alphabet. That shouldn’t be a bad thing. Unlike in romantic love, there’s no such thing as adultery in cultural love, is there?

With your researching and writing about the culture and language of Thailand, have you had personal eye-openers?

Not drastic eye-openers but a long and incremental eye-opening process. I began learning seriously about Thai history and politics during my graduate studies in the States and after I got back I’ve ventured more into language and culture. As a Thai much of what I have learned wasn’t so shocking to me, although some of the learning beyond Thai textbooks surprised and altered my perspective. It’s the little surprises that accumulate over time to form a new picture. In digging deeper into Thai culture and language the experience has been fascinating. I have no background in linguistics so I discover little new things all the time and that’s fun. But sometimes it can feel like peeling onions; lean too close, you might cry. As far as Thai politics and history are concerned it feels rather like eating garlic or chopping up chili peppers; eat too much, your breath stinks. Or if you’re not careful, stick a finger in your eyes, it’ll sting like hell. ☺

Has your reading, writing, twittering and conversations about Thai ways changed how you view Thailand?

Inevitably. Perspectives change – the question is to what degree. For me reading, twittering and talking to people expand the mind, while writing distills the learning and deepens the thoughts. My twitter following list is diverse, including both Thais and foreigners from various backgrounds. I do enjoy learning how different people see things. If you keep an open mind, listen and reflect on others’ ideas, you can’t help seeing things from new perspectives.

With modern technology throwing the conversation wide open, is Thailand teetering on the edge of political change?

Societies are always teetering on the edge of something as they are in perpetual transition. A society that doesn’t teeter is one that is dead. Certainly, digital, nano or quantum technology speeds up today’s teetering exponentially. In this way Thailand’s experience is not unique. The little people everywhere are relishing the new means of self-expression and previously unimaginable connection with the like-minded. Through blog, facebook and twitter the voices of little people can now be heard. It’s hopeful, liberating – and addictive. We the little people love it! But it’s scary for the big people who resist change, at least change that’s not to their benefit. They don’t like unfamiliar, uncontrolled movement or noise.

The current chasm in Thailand is by and large due to the big people unable or unwilling to recognize the fact that they must teeter along and that noise will be the new order of the day. I think if they resolved to teeter along and bore with the noise a bit, they might be able to retain some control. Changes can be chaotic. But Thailand is a society obsessed with political order and long spoiled by near-complete subservience; the big people haven’t yet come to terms with the impending change which is going to be anything but orderly. So they try to block the noise and the force of change, failing to see that the more they block it, the stronger it becomes. So, if the big people continue on the current course of obstruction against the increasingly forceful velocity, Thai society will be littered with broken pieces. And that’s unsettling. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Coming next will be part 2 of Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk.

Sex Talk, Thai Woman Talks, Thai Talk, Thai Idioms and Lanna talk…

Kaewmala (pseudonym) is the author of Sex Talk: In Search of Love and Romance (Bangkok: HLP, 2009).

Blog: Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics & Love

Twitter: @Thai_Talk (on Thai language, culture & politics);
@thai_idioms (Thai idiom a day);
@lanna_talk (Northern Thai vocabulary)

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Lani, a Thai Learning Thai: Part 2

A Thai Learning Thai

This Thai learning Thai…

Learning Spanish seemed counterintuitive to retaining any Thai that I had acquired but that is exactly what I did. When I moved to Ecuador I thought I could keep up with my Thai and learn Spanish too but I couldn’t. There wasn’t enough room in me brain for both languages.

Acclimating to the altitude and culture was enough to contend with, but I was surprised by how much Thai still bounced around in my head. One of my colleagues had her students interview me for her Comparing Cultures class which was flattering and one of my own students showed interest in learning a little Thai which was endearing too.

Thailand might have been on the other side of the globe but it was never too far from me. So it is no surprise that I’m here again and picking my way though the vocabulary discard pile as I try to get back into the Thai language.

When I returned I kept saying Sí and Spanish words came to me quicker than Thai yet at the same time when I tried to recall words I needed to know for a particular task or transaction, the right words magically pop-tarted out of my toaster. And now that I have started taking Thai classes again, Spanish is fading like my memories of Ecuador.

Last year I took Thai 1 and 2 at Payup University but I decided to take a beginner’s class again – this time at AUA. And I’m really glad I did because it’s been a structured refresher’s course for me as well as a lesson in confidence building.

My classmates think I have great Thai because I know more words than they do but as I explained I came back to the basics because I feel like I learned bad Thai. My tones (if any) were wrong and thankfully the teacher I have now is motivated to teach us the correct tones.

I had heard somewhere that when learning a language it can be beneficial to take a break, a long break and even learn another language before coming back to the original language again. And I must say that that person is spot on the doggie.

I feel a little more attuned to the nuances that I missed before like spelling, correct pronunciation and sentence structure (damn classifiers). I try to learn words that I don’t think I’ll ever use because this time around I know that just because I won’t ever use that word doesn’t mean someone else won’t.

Maybe I have short memory but I think I am engaging in more conversations too. I’m not as afraid to try because I know that I need the practice. The good thing about the people I interact with is they know I’m trying so they stick with Thai.

Last year it seemed like there were more people who just wanted to switch over to English. I don’t know. But this year maybe I’m giving off the I’m Serious vibe. Perhaps I’m willing to sweat a little more. As they say in aerobics class, “Let’s do this together.”

Lani Cox
{the missing teacher}

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Lani, a Thai Learning Thai: Part 1

A Thai Learning Thai

This Thai learning Thai…

Unfortunately there was no mystical transference or osmosis of language from mother to womb. So I am an American born woman who is ironically half Thai and half Chinese. Ironically because my ethnic makeup is very Thai, something I learned when I moved here as an adult. There are many Thai-Chinese in bra-tet Thai including the reining King.

So it is the great unanswered question: why did my mother not teach my brother and I Thai? We can look to historic events and circumstances surrounding my birth. The Vietnam War had ended and the good people of the United States on more than one occasion asked my parents, “Are you Vietnamese?” Did this have any bearing on my mother’s decision?

We can look to education or lack thereof. Do educated parents normally, bo-get-tee, teach their children their native language if it differs from where they are raising their children? Consequently, do undereducated parents decide it is best for their children to learn only the dominate culture? While my father was college educated, my mother was not. Her family was too poor to send her to school so she dropped out around the fifth or sixth grade. We don’t really know. Her birth wasn’t even recorded.

She was born in Lamphun situated a little south of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. My father died in a motorbike accident when I was six during a family vacation. I never asked my mom if he tried to teach us Chinese or what he thought about us learning Thai. I will have to ask her the next time I speak to her. It might seem odd to never ask my mom these questions but it is odd to think of them.

If you’ve ever lost a close family member like a parent or a sibling when you were young (or whenever?) you would understand that information about the deceased somehow gets lost until you think to look for it. Information is sometimes offered or shared which then provides more questions you never thought of before. It’s a strange storytelling dance that is full of surprises.

It is not like I didn’t ask my mom to teach me, especially when she was around her Thai friends in Hawaii. “What are they saying? What are you talking about? Teach me”. “I don’t know how”, was her answer. “Well, how do you count?” I learned how to count to ten and it didn’t go any further than that.

Well, I learned how to say you got small balls. Apparently this is a Laos slang saying. Oh, you want to know? It’s tonal you realize and I’m not sure I can convey a tone through print. Ba-hahm-noi (mid, low, high) just think of all the ways a set can sit. Little boys are called this as well, so I’ve learned, although I have never heard anyone say this and I’m not about to be the one who starts.

Of course I have asked my mother: “why didn’t you teach us?” Heck, she’s been asked the question from family and friends and probably strangers although I don’t believe she knows any. My mom seems to know every Thai person on the island of Oahu and it’s a healthy community. Her response to the dreaded question – “they wouldn’t have used it or they wouldn’t need it, when would they use it”, etc.

So now that I’m living in Thailand, what’s my excuse? Right about now – it’s a lack of motivation. I’ve gotten by all my life. And that, my friends, is a hard habit to break.

Lani Cox
{the missing teacher}

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