In my attempt to avoid being the ignorant teacher and tourist, I decided I should learn to speak Thai. Knowing I only had three months before departure, I gave myself a realistic goal – be able to hold a basic conversation.
I ordered a Thai language kit from Pimsleur in the form of an audio CD. I hoped it would keep me entertained as I drove around in circles on a combine, tirelessly watching the wheat filter into my header. However, two weeks of 12-hour days disappeared faster than the U.S.P.S. could deliver. I thought I was moving slow at a pace of 5 mph, but I guess the term “snail mail” is synonymous with the postal service for a reason.
At least I still had several road trips to make between harvest and my departure, turning my car into the perfect classroom.
The first was a drive to Portland, where I popped in disk number one and turned up the volume. I think my jaw hit the steering wheel as I listened to a man and woman hold an entirely foreign conversation. When they finished, a narrator informed me I would be able to speak and understand the conversation I had just heard after a quick 30-minute tutorial.
“Yeah, right,” I mumbled with a laugh. This is going to be impossible.
The male Thai speaker returned. He broke down every word, syllable-by-syllable, and told me to repeat each sound. This isn’t so bad, I thought. But then the woman’s voice sounded again. She said an identical translation…using the “female” words. So men and women speak differently. Great.
From Portland, I drove to Bend, the quaint little city where I lived for the past two years. Despite having moved my belongings into my parents’ house a month earlier, I felt like I was on my way back home. Appropriately, I was practicing the words, “Sawatdee Kaa,” meaning both hello and goodbye, followed by the female formality.
When I’m in the car, I speak perfect Thai. But when I get out, it’s as if I leave the unfamiliar words and phrases inside and lock the doors. I cannot seem to remember without the narrator telling me what to say and how to say it. Thai is a tonal language, therefore it’s vital to create the correct sounds at the appropriate places, and each word often has multiple tones. Unfortunately, I’m tone deaf.
I’m now on the airplane, trying to listen to yet another Thai lesson, but I highly doubt the readers surrounding me want to hear my terrible reproduction of a Thai conversation. It looks like I’ll be arriving in Thailand with only three new words (assuming I don’t completely butcher them), but I’m not admitting a failed goal just yet. I’ve only extended the deadline.
I find comfort in the fact that I’m in the same confused state as the students I’ll be teaching. I remind myself I’m not getting paid to learn Thai; my job is to teach English to Thai children, and adjusting deadlines is just one of the many teaching privileges.
Learning to Speak Thai, or Not