Learning Thai

I think 90% of learning a new language is desire. If you want it enough, you will find a way to learn. When I arrived in Khun Yuam 3 weeks ago today, my desire increased exponentially.

I was nervous about living in a community with few, if any, English speakers. I needn’t have worried. There are several locals who speak excellent English, and lots more who don’t but want to chat anyway. 🙂 I have not been short of friends and acquaintances to talk to!

Knowing a little Thai and more importantly, trying to learn, has made a huge difference. Though I still know hardly anything compared to what I want to know, I know enough to get by. I can even talk a little more with Nuan who understands my thick accent and speaks slowly for me, especially after a glass or two of whisky!

In theory I planned to learn both Thai and Karen, but in reality I have virtually given up on Karen. There are four ethnicities; Karen, Luwah, Thai and Chan, living together here, as well as central Thai and a local Thai dialect. In total, five languages. I decided early on that I would rather concentrate my energy on learning Central Thai as everybody speaks this one. I have learnt a few words in Karen but it is nothing more than the basics and usually new words go in one ear and out the other.

My Thai vocabulary, on the other hand, is growing every day. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to be able to understand and communicate a little more each day. I never go anywhere without my notepad, which is currently one of my most precious possessions; filled with notes and words in Thai. It has quickly become a running joke that I am forever scribbling in it. I don’t mind being teased for it though because I know it is working.

The grammar is easy which is helpful. But unlike English or other European languages, Thai has five tones. These are difficult for me as a beginner and the meaning of many words change depending on the way they are said. I have made many mistakes in this respect along the way.

“Suay”, which means beautiful if said with a rising tone, can also mean you are wishing bad luck on someone if said with a low tone. I struggled with this one a lot, being corrected each time I said it. I don’t know how many I accidentally wished bad luck upon. Thankfully it seems I have cracked it the last few days as nobody is correcting me now. That, or they have given up!

When I first arrived in Mae La Luang, I was introduced to all of the teachers. I dutifully repeated their names as they were said in an attempt to remember them. After I repeated one lady’s name, everybody burst into laughter and I was left wondering what on earth I had said. Not speaking any Thai at this point meant I couldn’t understand their explanation until one of them turned around and mimed an explosion from their bum. I can only imagine that I accidentally said something along the lines of “diarrhoea” instead of her name. Luckily I haven’t made that particular mistake again.

Last weekend, my friend Woody visited me, which was lovely. He came round to Nuan’s on an evening (he was staying at the school) to drink whisky in the garden. There was a lot of confusion about whether he was my friend or boyfriend and I kept trying to explain that he was just my friend. I was repeating over and over that he was my “pooan” which I thought meant friend. Nuan found this hilarious and said that we would, in that case, get no sleep(!) I was puzzled and said again, “No, no, Pooan – friend”. She understood “friend” better than she understood “pooan”. It wasn’t until afterwards that I found out that Pooah is a slang word for husband and friend is in fact “peurn”. No wonder there was a lot of laughter and some confusion!

I should have left it there, but no, I continued. Perhaps it was the beer. Whatever I said, I was trying to explain that we had been friends for a long time. Instead, somehow, and I still have no idea how I did this, I managed to imply that Woody had a boyfriend and was in fact a “Khathoey”. This was, of course, met with more roars of laughter and I was once more wondering what I had said. Nuan looked at me, looked at Woody, then back to me and pointed to Woody with his beard and said with a puzzled look on her face “Ladyboy?!” Oooops – Sorry Woody!

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